Thirty-Eight Minutes

The Bomb-Timing Clue for London Intro
First posted March 28 2010

Completely re-written Jan. 18 2011

Five Altimeter Bombs
It was a well-placed bomb detonation in the forward hold of PA103 that sealed the fate of 270 people on the evening of December 21, 1988. To be precise, the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) decided it had detonated at 19.02:50 (7:03pm) – almost exactly thirty-eight minutes after it left the ground from London’s Heathrow Airport at 6:25.

This time span, officially decided on by Libyan plotters for unclear reasons, is an uncanny fit with another technology, controlled by another group entirely – Ahmed Jiibril’s PFLP-GC. To recap, Marwan Khreesat is a Jordanian intelligence operative and long-practicing maker of airliner-killing bombs for Jibril (with exact allegiance unclear in a chicken-and-egg sort of way). Khreesat’s bombs were triggered by altitude (air pressure) and hidden inside consumer electronics – usually radio-cassette players. In the fall of 1988 he was called in again by the PFLP-GC on a mission for Iran – avenge the US destruction of Iran Air flight 655 by destroying an American airliner themselves.

Khreesat was hired to make or modify five bombs, and contrary to GID orders (as we've heard them), compelled to make them fully armed. Only one radio-IEDs of the five was intercepted on the arrest of Khreesat and the whole cell on October 26 1988. Three more of these were found later by German authorities and studied, given the numbers below. All seized Khreesat devices, in order of discovery:

1) Toshiba BomBeat 453 radio-cassette
2) Sanyo computer monitor
3) Ultrasound radio
4) Ultrasound radio

The fifth device, which Khreesat says he only soldered two wires on after someone else constructed it, was a different Toshiba radio (not the BomBeat seized nor the Libyan BomBeat SF-16 officially accepted). The someone else who made it was likely "Abu Elias," a relative of Jibril’s and a senior PFLP-GC operative. Khreesat thinks Abu Elias worked by copying his own work, perhaps recycling some parts from the fifth test model he made for Jibril back in 1985.

This one hasn’t been studied, as it officially never turned up. Many, however, still suspect it did surface – on Pan Am flight 103. So we’ll return to it at the end, after grasping the four that were definitely never used.

Gobel and Khreesat explain the time aspect
[Note: a separate post details the hardware end of these bombs in a little more detail.]
David Leppard’s curious 1991 book On the Trail of Terror describes the work done by German investigators on the four bombs found in Germany, and summarized the findings of BKA scientist “W. A. Gobel." This looked at how the altimeter and time delay modifications worked. Here he refers only to unit 1, the seized BomBeat 453:
“Gobel had tested the performance of the pressure pick-up gauge in a vacuum chamber. The circuit would close at a pressure between 940 and 950 milibars - equivalent to an altitude of about 2,400 feet. The contact point was connected by a wire to a condenser which acted as a time delay switch. The condenser was an insulator, absorbing the electrical charge until it fired. At this point the circuit closed, detonating the bomb.”
The condenser here is what’s elsewhere called an ice-cube timer – a simple metal circuit, coiled-up, I believe, and encased in a cube of translucent resin (looks like an ice-cube made with dingy water).
"When the necessary operating height has been reached the fall in pressure connected with it will start the timing mechanism, and when the delay period has elapsed the detonator will be activated. […] The time delay of the electronic component fluctuates over a wide margin since the structure of the circuit is relatively simple. Time delays between 35 and 45 minutes were measured." [p 11-12]
This 35-45 minute range is often cited, wrongly I think, as the range of times to be expected in field usage. But a passage from Khreesat's interview with the FBI in November 1989 explained that the variability comes from repeated tests on the circuit in a lab setting:
"Khreesat advised that the times are not exact and the time changes depending upon how long the timers have been tested after last being used. They usually reset to zero after a day. He used to test the timers three times in a row before installing the timer in a device. He found that in each test the time decreased. When this happened, he put the timers aside, and the next day when he tested them, they would run for the same time as when he had first started them." [Marshman report, page 32, PDF p 19]
The variability then, with repeated testing, is downward from a long baseline time. Absent repeated tests, which might be unwise in an assembled explosive device, the timers would all have, as the designer described them as having, one set time each, and it would be the long time. So in use, the device Gobel analyzed would detonate about 45 minutes after triggering. This would be more than 50 minutes, not 38, from takeoff.

That certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a fit. Khreesat also told the FBI that the timers were not the same from one unit to the next:
"One of the timers was a half-hour timer, one was for three-quarters of an hour, and one was for one hour. Khreesat does not recall what time the fourth timer was set for. None of the timers were for more than one hour."  [Marshman report, p 32]
These seem to go in nice 15-minute increments - 30, 45, 60. His early bombs in 1970 and 1972 blew up too early - about 15 minutes after triggering - leaving two of three planes able to safely re-land. Thus for "stronger medicine" in the 1980s, he went for increments at or higher than 30 minutes. By deduction, the fourth unit was a repeat of one of the other three.

Three more to consider
Herr Gobel at the BKA, as we’ve seen above, made a close study of Khreesat device number 1, apparently housing the (or a) 45-minute ice-cube timer. He also looked at number two, the IED hidden inside a Sanyo computer monitor. This was armed with Semtex-H like the others, and rigged with the same basic altimeter-timer arrangement. “Calculated on the basis of the values of the built-in components,” Gobel wrote, “the delay time is put at between 30 and 35 minutes.” [Zeist transcripts p 8769] It's unclear if he means test variability or range of estimates for its one field-use time.

Leppard bemoans the German’s presumptions based on only one bomb sample to study, but they had units 1 and 2 and also, at one point, two other such devices. Numbered 3 and 4, these were both housed in Ultrasound radios, both found after the Sanyo monitor in a third raid, and were both destroyed under grim circumstances.

In April 1989, one of the Ultrasound IEDs inexplicably detonated while in the hands of a highly experienced BKA bomb technician, killing him and maiming an assistant. The other of the two (it’s not clear which is 3 and which is 4) was then destroyed rather than be studied, for obvious safety and psychological reasons.

But despite the British alarm over this German “sloppiness,” it wasn’t a complete scientific loss. Aside from what was missing in the rubble, which was safe enough to examine, the BKA’s forensics section ST33 noted on what remained from one the two:
“[T]he accompanying capacitor is of is of the same value as in 1 and 2, but has however, jumped out of circuit. […] it can be assumed from the remains of the circuit that the time delay was in the same region as 1 and 2." [p 144]
From four intercepted IEDs, we have three capacitors, all apparently of the vague 30-45 minutes “region.” This comports reasonably with Khreesat’s list of 30, 45, 60, and one repeat. It seems to be lacking anything with a longer time like one hour, but one device, likely the one that killed a bomb tech, was not studied like this. Perhaps that was the one-hour unit.

The results are not 100% conclusive with the information I have, but it remains consistent enough between Khreesat and the Germans to say we have a double-corroborated explanation, more-or-less, of what to expect with each of the four seized devices.

And the Fifth?
Khreesat felt that all four bombs he was tasked with re-used the timers and altimeters from his 1985 test run. But that involved five radios, one of which he says was kept intact by Jibril to study. It’s worth wondering if these same parts, fitting the same patterns, were later used to build Abu Elias’ fifth device. But wondering aside, we can’t be certain.

We can examine the facts of December 21 to see whether or not it’s compatible. Below is a graphic from the AAIB's report on the bombing, based on Flight 103’s data recorder. The key line here is altitude, of course labeled “ALT.” The other is some measure of airspeed. The left bar gives feet above sea level (add three zeroes) and the bottom gives time in minutes from data start.
In the marked-up detail at left, note that the altitude doesn’t change for the first minute – takeoff is at minute one, not zero. We can see here that 2,400 feet, the outside pressure that would trigger the timer, is really not very high, and was reached about two or three minutes in. If this pressure decided things for the 38-minute detonation, we’d be looking at a 35 or 36-minute timer, something not within the Khreesat arsenal.

But inside the plane, where the suitcases were, the pressure is controlled and drops more slowly. The work of Rainer Gobel, as related by Leppard, is also confirmed by Paul Foot, writing in 2001 in Lockerbie: The Flight from Justice, as addressing the expected rate where it matters:
"A clearer description of this ice-cube timer was given the same day by Rainer Gobel, physicist for the German police, the BKA. He had a remarkable insight into how long such a timer would take to set off an explosion. “Pressure change in the cabin,” he said, “is regulated automatically. It happens more slowly than the drop of pressure in the air through which the plane is flying, which means, according to the documents which were provided to me, in a plane of the aforementioned class, about seven minutes after take-off the pressure within the cabin will have dropped to such an extent that 950 millibars or hectopascals will have been reached at which the barometric gauge would be involved and a circuit, a current, would be activated.” [p 19]
Some would protest, and fairly I think, that we can't be certain that even if the PFLP-GC's bombs were involved, that this one used the same altimeter setting, or altimeter, or even timer style, as the units examined. But considering the group's reliance on Khreesat’s formula and available materials (the fifth device from 1985), it seems possible enough that it would. And Gobel's "about seven minutes" is quite a nice fit with the roughly eight required to make this fit into Khreesat’s 30, 45, 60 framework. Thus the strong possibility that cannot be reasonably discounted here is that Flight 103’s ascent triggered another ice-cube timer, of the 30-minute size, about eight minutes after wheels-up.


baz said...

Adam - you make a number of assertions that
aren't actually or quite proven such as (Khreesat) "was brought in by the PFLP-GC on a mission for Iran - avenge the destruction of Iranair flight 655 with an in-kind bombing."

If it was to be "in-kind" why five bombs and while it is a logical deduction there is no actual evidence the three further bombs "recovered" were made by Khreesat.

You continue "Khreesat was made to make or modify five bombs and contrary to GID orders make them fully armed." (why the G is GID?)

At the end of para.74 of the Judgement their Lordships wrote "Marwan Khreesat who was in fact an agent who infiltrated the cell on behalf of the Jordanian Intelligence Services. his instructions from them were that any bomb he made must not be primed".

I do not know on what evidence they made these several assertions.

The paragraph concludes "Moreover when he himself did not give evidence," (for reasons that escape me he was not named in the Special Defence) "there was evidence of a statement given to him by FBI agents (production 1851) in which he said he never used radio cassette players with twin speakers (such as the Toshiba RT-SF16 had) to convert into explosive devices."

In fact in this "statement" Khreesat claimed said that due to the fact he was closely supervised by Abu Elias (whether or not such person actually existed) he was constrained from making the devices harmless and they were in fact fuly functional. (Further the evidence that the IED was contained within a RT-SF16 is quite dubious.) What became of the Toshiba bombeat recovered on the 26.10.88?

Where the supposed "instructions" from Jordanian Intelligence (essentially a CIA proprietary) that the bombs were to be harmless is made in evidence is unknown to me as are the other assertions that Khreesat was "infiltrated" by Jordanian Intelligence.

Regards Baz

Caustic Logic said...

In-kind, well, that's airplane. I don't know if they were ever planning multiple airline bombings or just creating spares, confusion, etc. to allow one to slip away and do its job. Who knows? GID is General Intelligence Directorate.

On not supposed to arm, it's true this is not certain, but I'm taking as said - at least in a post where it's a side-issue. Might deserve a quick qualification. From what Khreesat told Marshman:
“Before Khreesat left for Yugoslavia, he met his GID case officer, who instructed him not to arm any explosive devices while in Yugoslavia. He was told to build any improvised explosive device necessary, but he was instructed to alter the device so that it would not detonate ..."
There may be other evidence I missed in there supporting the Judges' expansion of this to everywhere, or it might be wishful thinking. Perhaps he really was trying to infiltrate this time, along with others, and Jibril merely identified the moles and made it so THEY did the bombing as much as possible, for a black eye to the West. It's a subject to explore some more (I need to update the Khreesat piece - apparently GID told BND and it was BND that failed to alert BKA).

I think we're getting there. o what do you think about the timing? Is it just the ice cube timers that can vary so widely ?

baz said...

Dunno mate - the issue of how the bomb was detonated is intimately related to where it was introduced. It is unlikely that a "barometric" bomb could have been introduced at Frankfurt (or Luqa) but having studied Leppard you will appreciate that this is what the Police initially argued. When the bomb exploded is also an argument that the IED had a barometric trigger. Against this is the "official" evidence that the IED incorporated an MST-13 timer. This does not exclude the possibilty that such a device was introduced at Heathrow but makes it possible that it was introduced at Frankfurt or Luqa. While I admire you attempt to deal with this issue by issue it's like a Rubic cube - everything relates to everything.

Pingu said...

Not sure why the variation in delay time of the "ice cube" timer is important, but from the picture it looks like a very crude device, either a two transistor circuit or a 555 based circuit. Either way it relies on a resistor-capacitor pair for its time delay and both the resistor and capacitor are subject to some pretty loose tolerances, Their values would also be affected by temperature, humidity and ionising radiation. Not my first choice if I wanted to be far away from something when it went bang.

I would guess that there would be at least a 10% margin of error between two "identical" circuits built with matching components due to manufacturing tolerances alone.

There is also a risk from testing the device, as the capacitor would take a while to discharge once it had been tested. In theory if you test it twice in quick order, the second time it might switch within a few minutes, or even seconds.

One final point, getting long accurate delays from this kind of circuit 10 hours say, is prone to much longer errors. 10 hours +/- 10% is +/- 1hr rather obviously, so if flown from Malta you might expect the device to be anywhere within a 2 hour window of its journey. i.e. Either still at the gate at Heathrow or 1hr off the coast of Scotland in this case.

Just a thought.

Caustic Logic said...

Pingu, thanks. Some reasonable-sounding thoughts and potentially useful specifics.

I'm no electronics expert, and all I know about these devices is what I've read. I managed a bit more detail in a later post trying to catalog everything that wnt into Khreesat's bombs and the"fifth device." That can be seen here.

Not sure why the variation in delay time of the "ice cube" timer is important...

I don't think it was fully clear here, but the variation, IMO, isn't important. It only matters when you've got it open and fiddling with it, testing it repeatedly. You've corroborated that above, I see. It certainly makes sense to me.

Once it's been set and armed, packaged up and still for 24 hours, it will run to its baseline (long) time. So the unite Gobel describes as alternating from 35-45 would detonate 45 min. after takeoff.

Also, I have to say my trigger altitude and FDR analysis above is not probably right. 36 minutes just doesn't sound right. Likely instead the trigger altitude was reached about 8-minutes after takeoff, and this ice-cube was a 30-min. version.

On that last thought, interesting. Hypothetically, a support for a barometer device loaded far away and genuinely going off well short of their actual attempted burial at sea. Possibly accounts for theMST-13, but full of logic holes I can't be bothered with.

Nah... The known motive, known contractors, and known techology correspond with the known evidence (Bedford's account, mainly) the bomb was sent off at London only. There's a reason the Malta leads all stink and the London clues were the first ones denied.

Pingu said...

I'm still unclear what was so "special" about the MST-13, to my mind a timer is a timer. What can an MST-13 do that any other timer cannot? A digital watch is as accurate as any timer of this sort, and the "icecube" timer is about as crude as timers come, any of these three will do this particular job. The accuracy is almost irrelevant if you only want to switch something on later, and are not too concerned how much later.

Presumably if you have some misguided notion that publicly killing a three year old girl, her parents, and a bunch of other complete strangers is some how going to change the world, then accuracy is not necessary. That goes for the US Shooting down the Airbus, just as much as blowing up the PanAm 747. The sad fact is that neither changed the world significantly as most of the world has forgotten both of these unforgivable acts. The only worlds changed were of those immediately affected.

The families of those killed and injured in both cases, obviously cannot simply forget.

I fear the only way the truth will be found in the Lockerbie case will be if those involved are strong enough to admit their involvement. Not an easy thing to do, but perhaps easier than living with that truth eating away inside them.

One other point, I was wrong about the accuracy of the "icecube", it is probably only accurate to worse than +/- 20% since in all likely hood the two components (the resistor and capacitor) will be rated as +/- 10% - these errors add up. In other words a half hour timer may be a 30 mins +/- 6 mins timer, and further more since the component values can only be chosen from a limited sub set of values, even the 30 mins is a nominal value, so accuracy is even worse. This is the electronic equivalent of the blue touch paper, not the atomic clock. If you use this, timer, you don't care too much when it operates.

Caustic Logic said...

I'm still unclear what was so "special" about the MST-13, to my mind a timer is a timer. What can an MST-13 do that any other timer cannot?

Well, of course, it can pinpoint blame to Libya. TWENTY of the things only... how limited edition can you get? The Libyans could have used anything else, but chose the one that said "hey, Libyan job, plain as day."

What it can do the ice cubes can't it something other than this - blow up much later with better precision and bury itself at sea. Best feature squandered, enabling the selected timer to be found.

Now what voodoo they did to it to ensure the most identifiable corner would survive a blast of at least 450g Semtex on inch away, I don't know. But those Libyans were trying hard to get caught, and the FBI and Scots police played right into it.

Thanks for the other points as well. Indeed, it seems all the PFLP-GC people wanted was to make sure the plane was airborne. I suspect they slipped their device in at Heathrow, directly into the lower outboard corner of AVE4041, and trusted to the Semtex and/or the cover-up to erase all the clues. One or the other clearly did.