Document:Did German bungling lead to Pan Am 103?
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Did German bungling lead to Pan Am 103?
On 21 December 1988, Pan Am 103 disintegrated over Scotland with 270 people aboard. Within days it was confirmed that the disaster had been caused by a bomb. Investigators later revealed that the device had been hidden inside a Toshiba radio-recorder that had been placed inside a rust-coloured Samsonite suitcase. Now, nine months later, a political bomb may be about to explode in West Germany. At issue is whether sloppy police work there contributed to the Pan Am disaster. An investigation by Britain's BBC-TV has turned up evidence that Lockerbie may have been an avoidable tragedy.
A report that will be broadcast tomorrow night on BBC Panorama will describe how the West German authorities — because of inept police work — allowed the Pan Am bombers to slip through their fingers. The facts suggest that if the Germans had done their jobs better, the 270 victims of Pan Am 103 might still be alive. Consider that: West German police had such strong evidence that radical Palestinians were planning a major terrorist operation that in October 1988 they arrested 16 people who were suspected of involvement in the conspiracy. Yet they subsequently released key members of the group — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command — allowing them to regroup and plan future operations. In their October 1988 raids, West German police captured an altitude-sensitive bomb obviously intended to destroy a civilian jetliner. But they failed to find four other bombs made by the same bombmaker — probably including the one that destroyed Pan Am 103. The bombmaker who crafted the deadly Pan Am bomb may actually have been working with Jordanian intelligence — and through them passing information about PFLP-GC operations to western intelligence services, including the West German BND. The Germans not only failed to exploit fully his information, they may have blown his cover. He's now thought to be hiding in Jordan. This chain of blunders prompted some angry mid-level police officers in Germany to circulate a paper describing the affair, a copy of which was obtained by the BBC.
The document is titled: "The biggest police scandal in the history of the Federal Republic." Members of the opposition Social Democratic Party say they may call for an investigation of how the Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats handled the affair. Says a senior British official: "If what had happened in West Germany had occurred in the UK, it would have led to the resignation of the Home Secretary, a senior police official and one of the chiefs of the intelligence services."
The German case raises the broader question of how Western governments should deal with air terrorism. The growing danger to international aviation was highlighted by last week's apparent bomb attack on a French UTA jetliner after it left Chad. The Pan Am case shows that dealing with this problem requires, above all, solid intelligence and police work. The story has its roots in an operation which West German intelligence ran against the PFLP-GC last fall, codenamed Herbslaub, or Operation Autumn Leaves. The operation was well-conceived, but it was undone by a series of mistakes that paved the way for the Lockerbie tragedy. BBC Panorama had access to many of the documents surrounding that operation. The chain of events began in September 1988, when the West German intelligence service, the Bundesnachrictendienst, or BND, received warnings from Israeli intelligence about the movement of Palestinian extremists and explosives into Germany, including a specific warning about the Syrian-backed PFLP-GC. According to a police note, "Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, had noticed Palestinians flying to Dusseldorf." The Israelis believed that the intended target was an Israeli handball team from the town of Ramat Gan which was visiting Europe at the time. Interest quickened in late September when the Israelis identified one of the Palestinians in Germany as Hafez Dalkamoni. He was well-known to the Israelis. In 1969, Dalkamoni had sneaked into Israel and tried to blow up a power station in Galilee; one of his bombs exploded prematurely and he lost a leg. Dalkamoni was captured and spent ten years in an Israeli prison. He was freed in 1979 in a prisoner exchange negotiated by PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril. After his release, Dalkamoni|Dalkamoni]] rose rapidly within the group, becoming a member of its central committee. With Dalkamoni identified as being in West Germany, the German authorities decided to mount a major surveillance effort — Operation Autumn Leaves. It began on 13 October 1988 and involved personnel from the German federal police, known as the Bundeskriminalamt, or BKA; the domestic counterintelligence agency, known as the Bundesamt fuer Verfassungsschutz, or BfV, and the BND. The surveillance was total. Listening devices were placed in houses, calls were intercepted and Dalkamoni's meetings were photographed. Gradually, as a profile of his contacts emerged, the Germans had teams of watchers operating in five German cities.
On the day that Operation Autumn Leaves began, a middle-aged, slightly portly man arrived from Jordan with his wife. His name was Marwan Khreesat and he went to Nuess, a small town near Dusseldorf, to stay with the same Palestinian family Dalkamoni was living with. The BfV log on the operation soon noted suspicious activities. Dalkamoni and Khreesat went to the Kaufhalle, a busy shopping mall in Neuss, and bought batteries, switches and glue. From the Huma department store they bought mechanical and digital clocks. The reason for these purchases became clearer on 19 October, when the BfV intercepted a Dalkamoni call to Damascus. Dalkamoni spoke to a man called Abed and told him "everything will be ready in a few days." Khreesat (using the name "Safi") then came on the line and said: "I've made some changes to the medication. It's better and stronger than before." On hearing this information, Abed responded: "Things are underway." The BfV began referring to Khreesat as "a known bombmaker." It soon became apparent that a terrorist operation — target unknown — was about to begin. Telephone intercepts revealed that Dalkamoni, Khreesat and other key members of the group were planning to leave Germany. On 23 October, Dalkamoni received a call from a man named "Abu Hassaan" in Damascus. "Things are almost ready," Dalkamoni told him. Khreesat also signalled to a contact in Jordan that he'd soon be returning. A further development worried the German authorities. On 19 October, Dalkamoni phoned a man named "Amer Dajani" in Cyprus. Dajani told him that he now had a visa for Germany and was therefore ready. He would await a message from Dalkamoni. In their own evaluation, German intelligence concluded that "Dajani arriving from Cyprus will take on a major role in the planned attack."
Because an unknown and perhaps untrackable newcomer was joining the operation, the German log records the conclusion that "the course of events is becoming increasingly unclear and as far as the BfV and the BND are concerned, uncontrollable." The Germans therefore decided to take swift action and arrest the entire group. On 26 October 1988, police raided 12 apartments in six German states. They arrested 16 people, all but two of them were Palestinians. In one apartment in Frankfurt, at No. 28 Sandweg, the police uncovered a small arsenal that included an anti-tank gun, mortars, rifle grenades and five kilos of plastic explosive. On the day of the raids, Dalkamoni and Khreesat were in Neuss. They parked their green Ford Taunus car in Hafenstrasse, a side street, and walked to the telephone kiosk outside the Kaufhalle shopping mall. They were being observed by two teams of watchers. Khreesat went into the phone booth and Dalkamoni stood outside. When Khreesat finished his call, they arrested the two. The police found a deadly cargo in the Ford automobile — a Toshiba radio which contained explosives. On closer examination, they discovered that the radio contained a barometric device which was designed to trigger a timer. The barometric device, which would only work at a certain altitude, was clearly intended for use against aircraft.
From various documents they obtained, the police concluded that the intended target was Iberian Flight 888 from Madrid, via Barcelona, to Tel Aviv. The operation was set for 29 October. The police concluded "on the basis of the arrest of Dalkamoni etc, we can presume that at least the central organisation of the group has been destroyed." In jail Dalkamoni, said nothing. But Khreesat was more forthcoming. Although he refused to sign a statement, he spoke in detail about senior figures in the PFLP-GC. Dalkamoni, he said, had told him on the day of the arrest "wait four or five days and you'll be told everything about the target." Two weeks later, on 10 November, Khreesat was released. In the light of the evidence, remarks by the investigating judge, Dr Rinne, were extraordinary. He said that "Khreesat's links with the other accused were limited and on the level of friendship." He concluded that "in order to justify a further order of custody we lack the required suspicion."
Khreesat's release brings us to the most delicate part of the story. Was it an example of West Germany's insistence on punctilious legal evidence in terrorism cases — which allowed someone described in BfV documents as "a known bombmaker" to go free? Or was it something far stranger? Was Khreesat a double agent, working in secret for the "good guys"? And was he released in a way that may have blown his cover? The evidence suggests the latter. Three or four days after Khreesat was arrested, he was allowed to make a telephone call to what one of the policemen present understood to be Jordanian intelligence. The tenor of the conversation was that he should be patient and in a few days matters would be sorted out. Other sources say the same thing: Khreesat had links to Jordanian intelligence, and had been assigned to penetrate the PFLP-GC, using his skills as a bombmaker to gain entree.
It's clear from the record of Khreesat's interrogation, which BBC Panorama has examined, that he cooperated with the West German police before his release. It's our understanding that he's now in hiding in Jordan and may have been interviewed there by the FBI. The crucial question in this tangled affair is how the German authorities acted on the information Khreesat gave them. BBC Panorama has been told by a senior West German intelligence official that by the beginning of November, they had a "strong indication" that Khreesat hadn't made just the one bomb they had seized in the Ford Taunus, "but five." They weren't able to discover a second device until April this year, five months after the Lockerbie tragedy! The German police didn't return to Neuss, where they had arrested Dalkamoni and Khreesat, until 13 April 1989, after they had received a series of anonymous phone calls and prompting from the Scottish police. There, in the basement of a grocery store run by one of Dalkamoni's relatives, they found two radios. They were taken to the BKA headquarters in Mechenheim where they were left unattended on a desk for several days. When the BKA officers became suspicious that the radios might contain bombs they were taken to Weisbaden for examination by police bomb experts. One of the devices exploded, killing one bomb-disposal expert and maiming another. Later a third bomb was discovered in Neuss inside a television monitor. (It was the death of the policeman that prompted some BKA officers to circulate their memo describing the operation as a "police scandal." What hasn't been revealed is that the three bombs found in Neuss all had barometric devices and were intended for use against aircraft. They had been manufactured by Marwan Khreesat and had been overlooked after Operation Autumn Leaves. Moreover, British investigators looking into the Lockerbie crash have told BBC Panorama that the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 was the fifth device and that it, too, was the work of Marwan Khreesat. Germans who have picked up bits and pieces of this story have speculated about what went wrong. One theory holds that Khreesat fooled the German police into accepting him as an agent from a friendly intelligence service while continuing to work for the PFLP-GC. But those close to the Lockerbie investigation have a different explanation. They blame the Khreesat mishap on poor liaison between the German intelligence services and the BKA. The intelligence officials may have been more worried about protecting Khreesat's cover than recovering his bombs. The blunders of Operation Autumn Leaves didn't end with the case of Marwan Khreesat. One of those arrested in the 26 October sweep was a Palestinian by the name of "Ramzi Diab". He'd been staying at the apartment of his language teacher in Querstrasse in Frankfurt. Diab was detained because he'd been observed meeting with Dalkamoni. When questioned by police, Diab claimed: "I don't know Dalkamoni."
The police tried Dalkamoni's other aliases, but he claimed not to know any of them. When they showed him surveillance pictures of his meeting with Dalkamoni in Goetheplatz in Frankfurt, he told them the man in question had approached him at a hamburger stand ten days before, introduced himself as "Abdullah" had asked him to help him with his car business in Germany. Despite this implausible story, "Ramzi Diab" was released the following day and left Germany for Vienna. German police returned in May to the apartment where "Ramzi Diab" had been staying. They told his language teacher, German Hoch that Ramzi was a senior figure in the PFLP-GC and that they had made a mistake in freeing him. Not only had the police failed to notice his passport was false but they'd freed him without taking his fingerprints or photographing him while in custody. So nearly seven months later they scoured the apartment for prints. Not surprisingly none were found. "Ramzi Diab" was not his real name, it turned out. That name had been taken from an Israeli passport stolen in Spain. His real name was Salah Salmon Fiaz Kweiks. He had spent time in an Israeli prison but had been freed in May 1985 in a prisoner exchange — negotiated by none other than Dalkamoni. Investigators now believe that Kweiks was a senior PFLP-GC operative. The German police suspect he may actually have transported the Lockerbie bomb. Scottish police say they would very much like to interview Kweiks. But he has vanished.