LOCKERBIE bombing case – finding the truth
Over the years since Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed over Lockerbie by a powerful mid-air explosion, killing 270 people, there have been a series of lengthy investigations, tests and court cases. One of the experts involved, Dr. John Wyatt MBE, provides a summary of the explosive tests and their conclusions.
On the evening of 21st December 1988, 31,000 feet above the small Scottish town of Lockerbie, Pan Am Flight 103 (Clipper ‘Maid of the Seas’) on a regular scheduled transatlantic flight bound for New York, was destroyed by a powerful mid-air explosion, killing all 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie.
It was the worst such disaster in Britain and one of the worst in the history of civil aviation.
Subsequent investigation by the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) established that the explosion was caused by a terrorist bomb made of Semtex and placed in the airliner’s forward cargo hold.
After a lengthy investigation, an indictment for murder was issued against Abdelbaset al- Megrahi, Libyan Intelligence Officer and head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA) and Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, LAA Station Manager in Luqa Airport, Malta.
After protracted negotiations and UN sanctions, Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, decided to hand over the two men in April 1999. The trial took place in a neutral country as agreed at Camp Zeist in Holland, in late 2000. On 31 January 2001 Megrahi was found guilty and jailed for life, Fhimah walked free.
After unsuccessful appeals, he applied to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) in September 2003 for his conviction to be reviewed. A huge amount of information, a lot of it new, had to be sifted through.
In June 2007, the SCCRC announced it would refer the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh after it had found that he (Megrahi) ‘may have suffered a miscarriage of justice’. My explosive tests in 2006 formed part of this new information.
The case against Megrahi centred around a number of key issues; clothing from Malta, fragments of a user manual for a Toshiba radio and tiny fragments of printed circuit board (PCB) from a timing mechanism.
The debris from the explosion was spread over 2,000 square miles onto farm land, forests, built-up areas etc. 10,000 pieces of debris were retrieved, labelled and stored. It was evident from the damage to certain items (from their obvious proximity to an explosion) that the bomb was in a particular Samsonite suitcase.
After further investigation it was discovered that most of the clothes came from a shop in Malta and that the bomb had been built into a Toshiba brand radio/cassette player. This type of bomb had recently been recovered during a terrorist incident in West Germany, so the UK’s forensic scientist from the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment (RARDE) visited the Bundeskriminalamt (BICA) laboratories in Wiesbaden in January 1989.
Although the fragments from Lockerbie were not exactly the same, they were very similar and found to be from a ‘sister’ Toshiba radio/cassette player. The German discovery started with a raid on known PFLP-GC (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General ~Command) people in October 1988.
Several people were arrested and guns, grenades and explosives including a bomb hidden inside a Toshiba with an altitude switch were recorded. The German police found four bombs, but had reason to believe there had been five. Was the fifth bomb placed on Pan Am 103? These people had been under surveillance for some time including when they travelled to Malta for meetings.
You would have thought that this was a considerable breakthrough, particularly when added to the USS Vincennes mistakenly shooting down Iranian Air Flight 655, in the Gulf. Iran vowed to avenge the 290 people who died and supposedly tasked the PFLP-GC (one Ahmed Jibril). Then, suddenly, there was an about turn in the investigation and everyone’s attention turned to Libya.
There were supposedly two main reasons for this. Firstly, the Maltese-labelled clothing and the owner of the shop, Paul Gauci, who said he recognised Megrahi from 18 months earlier. However, Gauci changed his story several times and had seen a picture of Megrahi before being interviewed by the Police – he was considered an unreliable witness at the Appeal. It would seem that investigators also ignored the fact that they found clothes from the same shop in the apartment of Abu Talb (member of PFLP-GC).
Secondly and most importantly a small (10 x 9.2 x 1.6 mm) fragment of a PCB was traced to a MEBO MST–13 timer made by a Swiss Company and sold solely to Libya. This was exhibit number PT 356 and was only found in a shirt in 1990. Answers to a number of questions concerning PT 356 proved difficult to tie down in the appeal investigation. When and where was it recovered and by whom was it found? Was it swabbed for explosives or other traces? Where are the continuity records? Other aspects also ‘muddied the waters’.
The Swiss Company was run by Edwin Bollier. He claims that he was originally shown a fragment of brown 8-ply circuit board which came from a prototype timer never supplied to Libya. At the trial this fragment became a green 9-ply circuit board, from the MST-13!
In May 2000, Dr Rosemary Wilkinson, a bio-medical expert at Strathclyde University carried out an analysis of this item using a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and found no evidence of it being adjacent to an explosive detonation; absence of pitting, no coating of the specimens with foreign material, no evidence of local melting (solder melts at 183 degrees while Semtex would generate in the region of 2000 degrees) and finally the edges of the fragment show no explosive damage such as tearing, the cut appears to be mechanical.
As a result of my involvement in the early stages of the investigation in 1989 with Professor Paul Wilkinson of Aberdeen University, my appearance as an expert witness at the Supreme Court of Appeal in two high profile terrorist cases and my PhD in explosive engineering, I was asked to carry out an explosive test to assess more accurately the results of a similar explosion that occurred on Pan Am 103 to clear up these anomalies.
There had been nine explosive tests carried out in the USA between 18 April and 25 July 1989. Seven were done at Indianhead near Washington DC and two at Atlantic City under the auspices of the FAA and RARDE. On reading the reports from these tests, there seemed to be little planning or formal post-explosive analysis documentation.
In order to obtain accurate information, one needs to do the same test at least three times to ensure consistency in the results. The next series of tests should only change one significant factor otherwise one doesn’t know which factor has produced a different result. We eventually carried out nineteen tests – from a single radio to a full aircraft container of suitcases. For all but the last test we used an indoor range at Faldingworth so that we could be certain that we had registered all the fragments/materials post explosion.
The first series of tests used a single radio, filled with 400 grams of Semtex – the amount deduced from the US tests derived from the necessary break-up of the plane. I have been involved with explosives for over 50 years and thought that when I went into the arena after the first explosion, I would see small bits of radio scattered over the area. To my astonishment there was nothing, just dust. For subsequent tests, we included a PCB to simulate the timer made out of the same material and painted dayglo yellow so that we could pick out any fragments more easily.
Despite packing the radio into a suitcase with clothes surrounding it and then other packed suitcases surrounding the prime suitcase, the results of the debris were the same – no sign of the PCB. We did vary the charge weight on some tests as a comparison. The only time we got a small piece of debris from the PCB was Test 15 when we used only 150 grams of explosive, but in this case the overpressure and impulse gauges confirmed that this would be insufficient to cause the plane to break up.
Apart from the lack of any fragment of the PCB, it is also known that epoxy resin board (FR4) despite being flame resistant dissolves at about 200 degrees. Some will argue that tests at ground level do not replicate the event at 31,000 ft. Generally, I would agree, but not in the immediacy of the explosion. The time taken from peak pressure to ambient pressure is less than half a millisecond. This would not have made any difference to the PCB fragmentation.
Our conclusions were that it was virtually impossible for a fragment of 10 x 9.2 x 1.6mm to have survived this explosion. This evidence, of course, was not heard by the Appeal as Megrahi was released in 2009 on compassionate grounds before that stage was reached.
I am not sure where the recent development of Abu Agila Masud, also a Libyan Intelligence officer, supposedly confessing in 2012 to the bombing, leaves us, unless he was working for the PFLP-GC. His likely involvement in the Berlin discotheque bombing in 1986 may support this. But if this is the right connection and the bomb was the fifth not retrieved by the Bundeskriminalamt, then the evidence against Megrahi is unsafe to say the least.
It has always been the case that the US relatives of those who died want closure whereas the UK relatives doggedly led by Jim Swire want the truth. Aamer Amrar, the lawyer leading the current Megrahi appeal, criticises the timing of this announcement, alleging it was an attempt to ensure the appeal failed. Like the early release of Megrahi himself, is this another attempt to save the embarrassment of a mistrial?
Dr. John Wyatt MBE
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