Friday, 15 August 2014

Why the Lockerbie bomb was loaded at Heathrow and Megrahi was innocent

It is slightly shocking that Morag Kerr's book, which gives the first ever convincing, evidence-based reconstruction of the Lockerbie bombing, has not been reviewed in a major UK-wide newspaper since coming out in December.

[Edit: I'm honoured that my posts on Lockerbie have been linked to by Robert Black, QC, who has been working to get to the bottom of this case for a long time.  I'm also honoured that Morag Kerr has discussed her thoughts with me in the comments sections of both my posts.]

She completely rebuts the case which was pressed by the Crown and accepted by the Camp Zeist court against the late Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan agent, who served eight years in prison in Scotland after conviction.  She also shows how the crime was really committed: not by Megrahi loading the suitcase with the bomb at Malta, to be transferred at Frankfurt onto the plane to Heathrow that was set to go on to New York City, before detonating over Scotland, but rather by persons unknown spiriting the suitcase onto the plane at Heathrow by placing it in a luggage shed ready to go directly on board Pan Am 103 to New York City.

Here I want to briefly explain why Kerr is right that this was how it was done.  (In the second part of this analysis of the Lockerbie bombing, I perform a Bayesian probability analysis of the evidence used to convict Megrahi.)

The original guilty verdict against Megrahi argued that he must have infiltrated the bomb past security and onto a plane at Luqa airport in Malta in order to feed via Frankfurt and Heathrow onto Pan Am 103 to New York City.  The judges had to accept that the Crown had presented no evidence as to how he might possibly have done this, given the tight security at Luqa:
If therefore the unaccompanied bag was launched from Luqa, the method by which that was done is not established, and the Crown accepted that they could not point to any specific route by which the primary suitcase could have been loaded ... The absence of any explanation of the method by which the primary suitcase might have been placed on board KM180 is a major difficulty for the Crown case, and one which has to be considered along with the rest of the circumstantial evidence in the case. (p. 42)
The judges thought the Crown had assembled a cogent circumstantial case pointing to Megrahi's guilt, but it is remarkable that they convicted him of a crime it was apparently unfeasible to commit.  Kerr's analysis shows the fallacies and misconstruals of evidence in the circumstantial case, but let's focus on Heathrow.

The evidence of how the bomb was in fact loaded at Heathrow, only recently properly explained by Kerr, was known to the judges.  Unfortunately, they dismissed it with fallacious reasoning and so condemned an innocent man to prison.  I will stick to the essentials of the evidence here.

On the day of the bombing, one John Bedford was working in the air-side luggage area at Heathrow.  He prepared some luggage containers like those in the picture for Pan Am 103, filling them with luggage that was sitting in the shed where he was working.


Bedford went for a tea-break during the afternoon, leaving a partially full container to fill when he returned to work.  On his return, he found two suitcases had been loaded into the bottom of the container, both lying flat in front of the row of upright cases he had previously loaded along the back.  The one on the left he later described to police as a “a brown hardshell, the kind Samsonite make.”  That is in fact exactly the kind of suitcase that contained the bomb, and Bedford described it thus before the police even knew such a suitcase contained the bomb (the investigation involved painstaking reconstruction of the bomb-suitcase from scattered, charred wreckage).  The cases had the right security stickers on them.  Bedford says his colleague told him he had x-rayed the cases and loaded them into the container, which said colleague, one Mr Kamboj, denied.  Anyway, the case Kerr identifies as the bomb-case was in the luggage container.  The feeder flight from Frankfurt had not yet arrived.

How might this suitcase, if it were the bomb-case, have evaded Heathrow security?  There had been a break-in the night before so that is a plausible route.

This would seem a much more plausible way for the bomb to have got on board the plane than the judges' unfeasible Malta method.  Moreover:
It was argued on behalf of the accused that the suitcase described by Mr Bedford could well have been the primary suitcase, particularly as the evidence did not disclose that any fragments of a hard-shell Samsonite-type suitcase had been recovered, apart from those of the primary suitcase itself. (p. 27)
So the judges knew there was no evidence of a second hard-shell Samsonite being present other than the bomb-case, so if Bedford was right about the description of that case, then it was almost certainly the bomb-case.  (Is it not amazing that a man was convicted and sent to prison for over 20 years on the basis of the unmotivated dismissal of such evidence in his favour?)

How then did the judges dismiss the value of the evidence of Bedford and his colleagues?  The verdict argued that, since the site of the bomb-blast was next to one side of the container a little way up, and not against the flat bottom, and the suitcase Bedford saw was lying on the bottom of the container, that case could not have been the one containing the bomb.  That was the most crucial mistake that Kerr detected, of which more shortly.

The judges considered whether the Bedford case might have been moved into the "right" position.  Read what the verdict said on this point:
It was accepted, for the purposes of this argument, that the effect of forensic evidence was that the suitcase [containing the bomb] could not have been directly in contact with the floor of the container. It was submitted that there was evidence that an American Tourister suitcase, which had travelled from Frankfurt, fragments of which had been recovered, had been very intimately involved in the explosion and could have been placed under the suitcase spoken to by Mr Bedford. That would have required rearrangement of the items in the container, but such rearrangement could easily have occurred when the baggage from Frankfurt was being put into the container on the tarmac at Heathrow. It is true that such a rearrangement could have occurred, but if there was such a rearrangement, the suitcase described by Mr Bedford might have been placed at some more remote corner of the container, and while the forensic evidence dealt with all the items recovered which showed direct explosive damage, twenty-five in total, there were many other items of baggage found which were not dealt with in detail in the evidence in the case. (ibid.)
To summarise the argument, the judges said that in order for the Bedford case to be the bomb-case, it would have had to be moved, and that while this may have occurred, it might not have been moved into the "right" position, and it may thus have been among the other scattered suitcases not directly scorched by the blast.  This would presumably require Bedford to have mis-described the case, assuming that it were not known to be among the other pieces of luggage.  It is absurd to imagine that the case as described by Bedford was known to be among the other luggage, and yet such a fact would not be checked and presented by the police and the Crown.  So Bedford must have arbitrarily mis-described the case he saw so as to perfectly fit the actual bomb-case.  Is this a rational conclusion for the judges to draw?  It was also perfectly plausible that the Bedford case had been moved into the "right" place, and does this not produce a reasonable doubt that this was how the crime was committed?

Anyway, Kerr shows that the crucial mistake made by the experts and judges was a different one (Kerr relies on the work of the defence's Northern Irish forensic experts here, but she seems to be the first to realise its importance and to put the whole case together in the convincing way she has done).  The mistake was to think that Bedford's case, even though it were left lying on the bottom layer of cases in the front of the container, could not have contained the bomb that exploded a little way up the side of the container.

The luggage container was of this type:


The bomb-blast was expertly determined to have happened here, raised 10 inches off the bottom in the irregularly shaped part of the container, and towards the front:


As the judges accepted and according to the expert, if the blast occurred there, then Bedford's case, lying flat on the square bottom of the container, could not have contained the bomb.  Rather, they thought the bomb-case must have been placed in one of these two ways:

However, as Kerr shows, they neglected a third possibility:

That is, with the Bedford bag lying indeed on the bottom layer at the front, but not fitting on the square bottom.  Rather, raised onto the irregular, diagonal side, lying on a slight slope, and thus lifting its cross-section into position to contain the bomb-blast.  This fits with the forensic experts saying the bomb-blast was not detonated against the square bottom of the container.

Kerr explains:
[Defence experts] didn’t appear to have any serious problem with the idea that the bomb suitcase might have been the one on the bottom of the stack. They noted that the cases aren’t necessarily regularly stacked in the containers, like bricks in a wall; the loading can be a bit haphazard, as the photograph [above] demonstrates. The photograph is of a similar container loaded randomly for a test explosion, shown in a BBC2 Newsnight feature on 6th January 2010. It wasn’t packed with the intention of illustrating this point. ... Whether the left-hand suitcase was flat or partly in the overhang when Bedford saw it was yet another question nobody thought of asking.
Kerr goes on to show that the blast forensics in general was highly questionable, and argues that her scenario fits with the photographic evidence of the wreckage.  She writes:
It is absolutely clear that the blanket assertion in court from AAIB and RARDE investigators that the bomb suitcase could not possibly have been on the bottom layer of the stacked luggage was not well-founded. It was based solely on examination of the container itself, and appears to consist of little more than unsupported opinion.
The forensic scientists from Northern Ireland didn’t regard the condition of the container floor as an insuperable barrier to the bomb suitcase having been on the bottom layer. Other independent forensic experts agree, adding the opinion that Feraday’s estimate of 25 to 28 cm (10 to 11 inches) for the height of the explosion is too high, with the pattern of damage to the horizontal strut suggesting 7 to 9 inches (17.5 to 22.5 cm). Even 25 to 28 cm would only allow for a fairly thin suitcase to have been under the bomb – something significantly thinner than Tricia Coyle’s large case. A height of around 20 cm (8 inches) is a slam-dunk for the bottom layer, and position 3.
 You will have to read the book and judge the forensic complexities for yourself.  For my part, I am convinced that Kerr is the first person to accurately reconstruct the Lockerbie bombing.  It was a crime perpetrated at Heathrow, and an innocent man suffered for it.  It is a textbook case of a miscarriage of justice, featuring leads missed by the police, unfeasible reconstructions of events and incompetent experts, as well as misconstrued, unreliable evidence both material and eye-witness.  The judges constructed a circumstantial case by irrationally explaining away key exculpatory evidence.  Kerr's book is not only a triumph of critical, evidence-based investigation, but also an instructive example of how a miscarriage of justice can occur.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you for your kind words, and for so clearly understanding the case I was attempting to make.

    I worked out that the case Bedford saw must have been the bomb, as a matter of logical necessity, before I saw the photographs of the Carlsson and McKee suitcases (behind the bomb) which were in the Joint Forensic Report. This was on the grounds you describe, that none of the cases known to have been loaded in the interline shed could have been that case, that none of the cases recovered on the ground could be reconciled to that case, and that there was only one "secondary suitcase", that is a case damaged in the way a case loaded flat against the bomb suitcase would have been damaged.

    The first thing that confirmed this conclusion for me was the discovery that the man the judges assumed must have rearranged the luggage, whose evidence they never heard as he was not called to the witness box, had in fact been insistent that he did no such thing.

    The final and absolutely supefying clincher was the panel of suitcase lining material designated PK/139. It is possible to determine exactly where that item was positioned in the container, and the destructive charring seen on one end proves conclusively that the bottom front corner of the upright case in the row at the back, immediately behind the explosion, was not protected by another case lying underneath the bomb suitcase.

    I have tried without success to interest mainstream publications in these findings. Private Eye published a good review, and an even better one appeared in the Big Issue in Ireland. However, the Scottish Big Issue declined to republish it. I was rudely rebuffed by the Herald newspaper, despite their longterm interest in the case.

    Nevertheless, these things can take time, and it's only been eight months!

    Morag Kerr

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    1. Dear Morag. Thank you for your explanations. You must have put a huge amount of work into the book, and it is a great piece of investigation. I learnt of your book from Private Eye. It is really quite a poor show that a book demonstrating that mass-murderers are at large could be so neglected. Quite often the papers pick things up from Private Eye. There must be journalists who have written about Lockerbie before who could be leaned on to read and review the book.

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    2. I think there is an element of Lockerbie fatigue involved. Also, what I discovered is quite different from the run of conspiracy theories that have been going the rounds for a while, and I think the press have difficulty changing gear and getting their heads round something new.

      I have a feeling, though I can't prove it and I could be wrong, that what I may be saying is, Maggie Thatcher put pressure on key players in the investigation at an early stage, to ensure that irrespective of who was fingered for the crime or what the modus operandi might have been, on no account was security at Heathrow airport to be blamed.

      I find it difficult to explain what happened in any other way.

      First the Scottish police walk right past Bedford's January 1989 evidence as if he hadn't said anything remotely interesting. Looking at various internal memos it seems that most of the detail in his statements wasn't communicated to the detectives involved. This was compounded by the decision that Manly's evidence from the same month was entirely unimportant and he didn't even need to be re-interviewed.

      Second, we see an absolute procession of so-called experts lining up to declare their absolute confidence that the bomb suitcase wasn't the one on the floor of the container, on very flimsy grounds. This wasn't confined to RARDE personnel but also involved the AAIB. The first expression of that opinion was in an AAIB report dated April 1989. It's clear to me that the purpose of the series of test explosions carried out in the USA was to provide evidence to substantiate that assertion - not to investigate the forensics impartially. It was a pre-determined conclusion before they even started. Well, the explosion obviously was in the bottom suitcase in the stack. Given that fact, how come all these people were so certain it wasn't?

      Third, it was Hayes's job to work out the suitcase jigsaw puzzle I solved in the book. This is what provides the conclusive proof of the bottom-layer explosion. He said he was going to do it, and then as far as we know he didn't. Did he start to do it and was then warned off when it became clear what the solution was going to prove?

      Three quite independent crass errors. Getting even one of these aspects right would have prevented the investigation going off the rails in early 1989. What's the odds of all three errors occurring by accident? At least two quite separate groups of investigators making elementary mistakes (two if you assume that the AAIB inspectors were doing what the RARDE scientists told them to do). Occam's Razor sort of suggests pressure from on high might have been applied in each case.

      I suppose if I announced that this was my "big message" someone might think it was a bigger story. But making claims that go beyond what you can prove isn't a good way to be taken seriously by the police and other authorities. I can prove the bomb went on board at Heathrow. In a way, the rest is up to the criminal justice system, as and when it finally acknowledges that.

      I have found many of the journalists I have spoken to (which isn't many overall) are far more interested in getting me to say who I think did it. The trouble with that is it's not news. I think Khreesat made the bomb and it was planted by one or more members of the PFLP-GC or an agent of theirs. I have no special insight into this, it's merely what comes out of the information already in the public domain once you realise the whole Megrahi-Libya thing was a nonsense. Unfortunately, just saying that I can prove Megrahi was innocent doesn't float anyone's boat. Possibly because it's been said so often before, albeit by people who were holding different cards to mine, and cards that didn't amount to absolute proof.

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  2. No, I wouldn't publicise any suspicions along those lines. You would not want to distract attention from your utterly factual proof.

    I see. This is a really disappointing picture of the British press you are painting. Is there any way to get the attention of the police directly? Can it be brought up by your MP, or some other sympathetic member?

    To discuss some issues that are not in evidence now... regarding Khreesat, I presume you think he would have made a pure-tin copy of a MEBO timer or template that he got his hands on somehow (not necessarily direct from the Libyans). But why would he have timed the explosion to go off over land, if he was such an expert bomb-maker? That Abu Talb maybe bought the clothes in Malta? Possibly that he got a timer-template from Libyan intelligence on Malta - who knows? It seems strange to buy clothes in a foreign country for the purpose of packing them around a bomb; clothes can be bought anywhere.

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    1. We have got the attention of the police. Some details are in Bob Black's blog. This topic is one of the main submissions to the SCCRC in respect of the new application for a third appeal against the conviction. Quite separately, JFM has drawn it to the attention of the police and a small group of officers has been tasked with looking into it. These men seem to me to be intelligent and open-minded, and we are forming a good relationship. Quite how the force as a whole squares this with the ongoing public assertions by the Lord Advocate that he intends to track down Megrahi's Libyan accomplices is fortunately not my problem.

      (My MSP is Christine Grahame. As chairman of the Justice Committee and a JFM signatory she has been generally helpful and sympathetic to the cause. However she has refused to take anything to do with my book, and has indeed been quite rude to me about it. Despite all the shoe-leather I wore out campaigning for her election in 2011. Such is life. My MP is David Mundell, the Last Tory in Scotland, who milks the horror of the Scottish government having released the evil mass-murderer Megrahi for all it's worth. Lockerbie also being in his constituency of course.)

      I don't think Khreesat knew what an MST-13 timer was. I think the IED went off over Lockerbie because that's where the plane was when one of his 30-minute capacitors discharged, having begun to charge 8 minutes after take-off when in-cabin pressure fell to the trigger level.

      Abu Talb fits Gauci's description of the clothes purchaser even less well than Megrahi does, if that's possible. I don't know where his autumn collection of Maltese clothes fits into the picture, but it wasn't him in Mary's House on 23rd November.

      Now you are venturing deeper into the case than I'm comfortable drawing conclusions from. As I said to the police, when you start a dissection, you start from the outside. The Heathrow loading and the misdirection on that point are the outside. Only when that is dealt with will it really be possible to delve deeper and see what the liver looks like.

      Somebody laid a trail of sweeties for the police to follow to Malta. Questions - who did that, and which of the clues actually form part of the sweetie-trail? I can go quite far down that rabbit-hole, but purely on a speculative, brainstorming exercise, you understand.

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    2. Right. "Curiouser and curiouser."

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  3. To say more about the timer. Khreesat's altimeter timers were originally designed as postal bombs. No need to know which plane the parcel would be loaded on to, just address the parcel and wait for the bang soon after take-off. Later this was modified to hoodwink genuine passengers into carrying the devices in their luggage, either as a present to the passenger, or by asking the passenger to do a favour by taking a package in their luggage and posting it at the other end where postage would be cheaper. Again, no need to know which plane the dupe would be catching, or that it would be on time.

    The capacitor time delay was apparently added to fool the pressure chambers which were introduced at airports for screening suspect baggage. If Maier or Kamboj had been suspicious of a radio they saw in a case, that would probably have been the next step. This just dropped the pressure to cabin pressure for a minute or two and if nothing went bang then it was passed. The capacitor would prevent this happening, then quietly reset itself to start again at the real take-off. The capacitor also had the advantage of delaying the explosion until the aircraft had reached cruising altitude, thus making an explosive decompression a real possibility. (Early efforts where the bomb went off while the plane was still relatively low had had limited success.)

    There was no real need to use a device like that for a known flight with a known (and pretty wide) window of time when it would almost certainly be over the Atlantic. A countdown timer would work just fine. For that flight, set it for 11 pm or midnight GMT, and the plane vanishes completely. So if the gang intended to target that particular flight, an MST-13 would have been fine, if they had one. But if they had one, the explosion would have gone off 4 or 5 hours later.

    We know the PFLP-GC wanted to bring down at least one aircraft (probably more - Khreesat was making these bombs wholesale). We know that was the type of bomb Khreesat was using. Probably because that was his method, it was what he did, it was what he knew how to do, and it had worked in the past. That method would guard against a flight delay just as effectively as setting the timer for midnight, and presumably they didn't care if the plane broke up over land. (Maybe they took precautions.)

    An MST-13 would have had one advantage. It would have allowed the suitcase to make one or more preliminary flights before the one to be attacked. Either it could do it simply by setting it for midnight on the 21st, or by setting it to over-ride any activation of a parallel barometric device that occurred before 6 pm GMT. But the bomb was almost certainly introduced into the container directly at Heathrow. (There is an outside possibility of its being routed into Heathrow on a connecting flight from another airport, but there is a huge heap of evidence arguing against this.) There is no role for the MST-13 in this scenario.

    Occam's Razor says PT/35b was a plant. A fabrication. I do not know who fabricated it though, or how it was introduced into the chain of evidence. Remember I asked which clues formed part of the sweetie-trail? That's a candidate.

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