Operation Bird – some words of caution

Today’s media contains a number of articles about an investigation codenamed Operation Bird, which was carried out by a firm called Forensic Investigative Associates, on behalf of Abdelbaset’s defence team prior to his first appeal. The main articles, by the excellent John Davison, are published by Exaro news, and can he read here and here. There are follow up pieces in the People and Sunday Mail. The subject was originally covered by the Mail on Sunday on 16 August 2009.

The reports of the Operation Bird investigation claim, in essence, that the Lockerbie bombing was planned by a terrorist coalition led by the PFLP-GC and was carried out by Mohamed Abu Talb. Anyone wishing to familiarise themselves with the detail can find a summary in chapter 16 of the SCCRC’s statement reasons, which can be read here. The SCCRC concluded that many of Operations Bird’s central claims were ‘incapable of being regarded as credible and reliable by a reasonable court.’ However, the commission made no serious effort to investigate them.

The Bird investigators – former New York district attorney Jessica de Grazia and former deputy head of Scotland Yard’s Anti-Terrorist Branch Philip Corbett –undoubtedly had a couple good sources within terrorist groups close to the PFLP-GC. The question is, were those sources telling the truth?

Their main claim, that Lockerbie was the work of the PFLP-GC and fellow travellers, including Hezbollah, is very likely true. However, some of their specific claims strike me as unlikely, while others, I believe, are probably invented.

Among the most important of the unlikely claims is that Mohamed Abu Talb travelled to London by on a merchant ship, arriving in the early hours of 21 December 1988 (the day of the bombing), and organised the placing of the bomb on PA103 at Heathrow. The main reason for my scepticism is that on 1 November, less than a week after the Autumn Leaves raids in Germany, Abu Talb was arrested by the Swedish police and questioned about his activities over the previous weeks. Although released the same day, both he and the PFLP-GC must have feared that he was being monitored and therefore could not risk taking a central role in the bombing operation.

Another unlikely claim is that the bomb contained an MST-13 timer that Hezbollah had obtained from the Russian mafia. OK, not so much unlikely as just plain bizarre.

According to the Bird reports, Abu Talb attended two key planning meetings in Malta, the first on 13 March 1988 and the second, crucial one on 20 October 1988. It is not disputed that Abu Talb was in Malta from 19 to 16 October, however, there is good reason to doubt the March trip. The sources alleged that he entered Malta on a stolen Swedish passport in the name of Fred Edwards. When they received this information, Abdelbaset’s defence team instructed Swedish lawyers to investigate the claim. They made inquiries with the Swedish authorities, who said that only four people called Frederic Edwards and one called Freddie Edwards had ever been registered in the country. Three of the five had never held a Swedish passport, the fourth emigrated in 1953 and his passport expired in 1963, and the fifth was only four at the time of Lockerbie, so had a child’s passport. The passport could, of course, have been forged, but it seems most unlikely that either the forgers or Abu Talb would have chosen such a suspiciously incongruous name.

The primary cause of my scepticism is the claim that the crucial meeting in Malta on 20 October was attended by the leader of the PFLP-GC’s German cell, Hafez Dalkamoni. Dalkamoni was closely monitored by the German federal police, the BKA, throughout most of October, however, as the Bird investigators noted, there seems to be a break in the surveillance from the evening of the 19th until 22October. BKA and Scottish police reports record that on 20 and 21 October he called the PFLP-GC’s bomb-maker Marwan Khreesat in Nuess and fellow group member Bassam Radi from unknown locations. Maybe, then, he was in Malta – or maybe not.

Dalkamoni was last observed by the BKA meeting Bassam Radi at 18.10 on 19 October at the railway station in Giessen. Giessen is close to Frankfurt, which is where he would need to be if he was flying to Malta. However, evidence buried in the translated BKA files suggests that he never left Frankfurt.  The files show that when the BKA searched his car they found a ticket dated 20 October 1988 for the Atelier X-Hot Maxi porn cinema in Frankfurt. It had the number 063336 printed on it. They showed the ticket to the cinema staff, who said that the number indicated that it had been issued between 10.30 and 14.00. That would, of course, leave him time to get to Malta, if there was a flight, however, the ABC world airlines timetable, which was a Crown production at trial, shows that the only direct flight on a Thursday (the 20th was a Thursday) departed at 09.00 and the only indirect one at 10.15 (arriving 14.55). A further reason to doubt the Bird account is that Khreesat told the FBI that Dalkamoni arrived back in Neuss on the late morning of 21 October. Khreesat was a German intelligence mole, so was hardly likely to cover up for Dalkamoni.

The Bird investigation’s sources reported that the bomb was flown from Cyprus to Heathrow by two of Abu Talb’s in-laws from the Moughrabi family, possibly the brothers Ahmed and Mohamed. As was revealed at Abdelbaset’s trial, four people called Moughrabi flew from Cyprus to London on 21 December on Cyprus Airlines flight CY1634. Could they have included the brothers? No, because the flight manifest shows that two of them were women and the other two children.

Detail aside, there is another, more important, reason to treat the Bird claims with caution. Terrorist sources are, by their nature very tricky: anyone who is prepared to take up armed struggle for their cause is unlikely to have qualms about telling a few fibs to investigators in order to serve their ideological or personal agendas. (The personal agendas might include self enrichment. One of the Bird reports states that one of the sources, codenamed Ivan, had been paid as an “operative to develop critical intelligence.” The report does not specify who made the payment.)

Why should we trust the claims of the Bird sources any more than we should trust those of Mobdi Goben, Tunayb, Atef Abu Bakr and any other former terrorists who claim to have inside knowledge of the bombing? The answer is that we shouldn’t, especially as their accounts contain numerous factual conflicts.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Bird sources were engaged in a classic disinformation exercise: telling a story that was essentially true, but lacing it with details that were demonstrably false in order to discredit the whole story. It wouldn’t be the first time that investigators had been led into a wilderness of mirrors.



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