by Dr Morag Kerr

Published iScot March 2016 Edition

 

 

WHEN Pan Am 103, Maid of the Seas, exploded over Lockerbie and crashed down on the Dumfrieshire market town, resulting in the biggest terrorist atrocity in the UK to date, it sparked a mystery which has been the centre of controversy for more than a quarter of a century.

One thing is known, when the Boeing 747 began its journey from London on 21 December 1988 it was loaded from empty at Heathrow airport. So, inevitably, the suitcase containing the bomb was put on board at Heathrow? However, like almost everything else in this story it wasn’t quite that simple.

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While the bulk of the luggage had indeed been security checked in London, one batch was not. Pan Am 103 had a feeder flight from Frankfurt that connected with the transatlantic flight at Heathrow, and it was carrying about 45 items of luggage that had been screened in Germany.

As pieces of blast-damaged aluminium were brought in from the fields over the Christmas weekend of 1988, it became clear the explosion had been in the container holding this transfer luggage. The reaction of the investigators seems to have been relief. London’s flagship international airport was not responsible for the security breach that had allowed a bomb to destroy an aircraft and kill 270 people. The news was headlined in the Times on Hogmanay. The paper was confused about the change of aircraft at Heathrow, but the message was clear. This was Germany’s responsibility.
And,  There was more. The German police themselves had reason to take the same view. Only two months earlier they had arrested members of a Palestinian terrorist group, the PFLP-GC, who were found with improvised explosive devices designed to attack aircraft in flight. Most of these men had been released without charge, and it was feared they had regrouped and completed their mission.

By the end of the New Year holiday weekend the investigation was on course. The bomb had flown in on the feeder flight and the scene of the crime was Frankfurt.

Remarkably, this mindset remained unchanged as witness statements from Heathrow were collected and a rather different picture began to emerge.

On 31 December the baggage handler who had dealt with the transfer luggage (Amarjit Sidhu) stated that a number of suitcases were already in the container before he added the items from the Frankfurt flight.

On 3rd January the baggage handler who had dealt with the container earlier in the afternoon (John Bedford) confirmed this, and told a remarkable story.

He himself had loaded only a few cases along the back of the container, hinge-down-handle-up, before going for a tea break. On his return he noticed two additional suitcases lying flat in front of these cases. He said the x-ray operator Sulkash Kamboj told him he had loaded them in Bedford’s absence, but in his own statements Kamboj denied any knowledge of this.

On 9th January Bedford told the police that he remembered one of the extra cases being a brown Samsonite hardshell, and the other much the same. It was already obvious the explosion had occurred low down in the front left corner of the container, and by mid-January the forensic scientists were picking pieces of brown hardshell out of various other suitcases and finding larger pieces of the same case severely blast-damaged.

They had identified the bomb suitcase – a brown Samsonite hardshell. The reaction of the investigators to this accumulation of information was extraordinary. They ignored it. While it was occasionally acknowledged that a Heathrow loading hadn’t been entirely ruled out, the investigation was going full steam ahead for Frankfurt.

Nobody, in January 1989 or later, made the slightest effort to figure out if the case Bedford described was legitimate passenger baggage. Nobody attempted to match it to any of the luggage recovered on the ground. It was several months before justification for this approach began to emerge from the forensic scientists at RARDE. They examined the recovered aluminium floor of the container and declared that there must have been another case between it and the bomb suitcase, shielding it, otherwise it would have been more severely damaged.

They concluded the suitcase Bedford had seen on the floor couldn’t have been the one with the bomb in it. All the suitcases on the second layer had come from Frankfurt. This was the case as presented to the Fatal Accident Inquiry in 1990. Bomb suitcase on second layer, Bedford’s case on bottom layer, therefore the mysteriously-appearing brown Samsonite could be discounted.
Sidhu testified he hadn’t moved the cases already in the container when he took over, so that was fine. By this time the police were certain they knew where the bomb had come from.Suitcase_Part6

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Although the computerised baggage records from Frankfurt for the day of the disaster had been deleted, piecing together the scrappy documentation that remained seemed to show an unidentified item being transferred to the feeder flight from KM180 from Malta. The same documents also seemed to show unidentified luggage from Berlin, New Delhi and Warsaw, but the clothes packed with the bomb had been purchased on Malta, so Malta it was.

However,  The evidence from Malta itself proved problematic. Malta airport’s security was good, and none of their records were lost. The paperwork not only showed no evidence of an illegitimate suitcase on KM180, it pretty much proved that no such thing had existed.

Nevertheless, the investigators held to their theory. Eventually, as described in the January issue of iScot, they secured a tentative identification of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi as the purchaser of the clothes in the bomb suitcase from the Maltese shopkeeper, and discovered Megrahi had actually been at the airport at the time KM180 was preparing for take-off. That was enough to secure indictments against him and his associate Lamin Fhimah, and eventually to bring the case to court in 2000.

Several of the senior prosecutors at Camp Zeist were also involved with the Fatal Accident Inquiry, and they must surely have envisaged presenting the same case as they had 10 years earlier. However, that didn’t happen.
While the strenuous insistence of the forensic scientists that the bomb suitcase hadn’t been

on the floor of the container remained, it was difficult to see why it mattered, because Sidhu’s evidence that he hadn’t rearranged the luggage already in the container no longer featured.

Sidhu, the man who according to the prosecution had placed the bomb suitcase in the container, wasn’t called as a witness. Instead, a brand-new interpretation of the blast-damaged items was introduced to suggest that one of the cases from Frankfurt had been under the bomb when it exploded, therefore the case Bedford described must have been moved.

In this scenario, brand-new for Zeist, the Bedford Samsonite can no longer be excluded. If it was moved, it could have been replaced on top of the case from Frankfurt. Why was it never followed up in 1989?

The argument boiled down to the defence suggesting that it might have been exactly what happened and the prosecution eager to wave it away as an irrelevance in the face of their Malta theory and the men in the dock having been on Malta on the day in question. No doubt the defence expected their clients to be given the benefit of the copious amounts of doubt, but it was not to be.

The judges declared that since the defence hadn’t proved the bomb was in the case Bedford saw, it could be disregarded, and chose to favour the Frankfurt route despite the missing data from that airport, the multiple unidentified items of transfer luggage, and the complete absence of an unaccompanied suitcase on Malta. Nevertheless, huge questions remained unanswered.

What did Bedford see, if it wasn’t the bomb? Could it have been legitimate passenger baggage? Could it be matched to anything found on the ground? Frustratingly, the information to allow this to be assessed wasn’t presented to the court. To cut a long story short, the information was and is available, and it was finally analysed in 2012-13.

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The key to the Crown’s abandoning of the theory that the luggage already in the container hadn’t been rearranged is the realisation that if the case Bedford saw had been under the bomb suitcase as the original investigation believed, it would inevitably have been blown to bits.

The search across Roxburghshire and beyond was thorough, and pieces of blast-damaged luggage were high priority. Multiple pieces of the bomb suitcase and those surrounding it were recovered. It beggars belief that nothing would have been found of the case that had been under the bomb.

But nothing was. Set against this damning finding, all the prosecution had was the subjective opinions of the forensic scientists that the floor of the container would have shown “pitting and sooting” if the bomb had been in the bottom-level case.

That theory wasn’t tested until last year when an experiment was finally done by an independent forensic institute and, even with the bomb suitcase on the bottom, no pitting or sooting was seen.

The Crown had little alternative but to disregard Sidhu’s statements and offer up the suggestion that the handful of cases already in the container had been rearranged when the Frankfurt luggage was added. This meant the case Bedford saw would not necessarily have been blast-damaged, and could be dismissed.

Detailed analysis tells a different story, however. First, the only blast-damaged brown hardshell of any description was the one that exploded. Second, only one suitcase was recovered showing damage consistent with its having been loaded flat against the bomb suitcase. This case belonged to a Frankfurt passenger, and can be seen to have been on top of the bomb suitcase by where its residue ended up.

Where is the case that should have been under the bomb suitcase, if that was on the second layer? It doesn’t exist. Only six cases were documented as being routed to that container in the shed at Heathrow that afternoon.

All six were recovered, and from the incoming passenger records, the evidence of how the container was packed and the pattern of damage to each case, their positions in the container can be identified. None of them was under the bomb. (Bedford’s second “extra” case was a documented passenger item, apparently repositioned in his absence.)

Three baggage handlers who saw the container before the Frankfurt luggage was added were asked to reconstruct the loading as they remembered it. All needed seven suitcases to make it look right, not six.

There was an extra, undocumented case in that container that afternoon, and it was the one lying to the front left, the one virtually bang on the position of the subsequent explosion, the one John Bedford described as a brown Samsonite hardshell.

Further evidence cements the conclusion that the bomb was in the suitcase on the bottom layer. Although “pitting and sooting” were absent from the container floor itself, they were present on the section of the airframe under the floor, demonstrating that it was not protected by another intervening suitcase.

Examination of the two suitcases behind the explosion, which were loaded upright, shows the most severe damage right down at floor level, not halfway up the sides.

The Lockerbie bombing was a crime that happened at Heathrow airport, at about 4.30pm – not on Malta at nine in the morning. At 4.30 pm on 21st December 1988 Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was verifiably in Tripoli. Where does that leave the Lockerbie investigation, in 2016?

There are two Police Scotland investigations currently open, one operating on the assumption that the bomb was somehow smuggled on to KM180 on Malta and attempting to identify Megrahi’s alleged “accomplices”, the other looking at matters from an entirely different perspective.

The search for a resolution continues.

read on > LOCKERBIE – The Investigation Remains Live

*Dr Morag Kerr is the author of the book ‘Adequately Explained by Stupidity? – Lockerbie, luggage and Lies’