Head of bomb detector company arrested in fraud investigation

Government announces ban on export of devices to Iraq and Afghanistan

Hundreds of people have been killed in horrific bombings in Iraq after a British company supplied "bogus" equipment which failed to detect explosive devices.

The head of the company, which has made tens of millions of pounds from the sale of the detectors, has now been arrested and the British Government has announced a ban on their export to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But questions were being raised last night about why action had not been taken sooner on the supply of the detectors which leading weapons specialists had condemned months ago as "useless and dangerous". The equipment, which operates on a "dousing" principle and has no electronic components – was also sold to Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan, all countries suffering deaths and injuries through terrorist bomb attacks.

Iraqi families who have suffered in the blasts last night condemned their own government as well as the British authorities for allowing the extraordinary security failure. Among the attacks that the detectors, it is claimed, had failed to prevent were suicide bombings in October last year which killed 155 people and blasts two months later which resulted in 120 more deaths.

Jim McCormick, a 53-year-old former police officer, was arrested by Avon and Somerset police on Thursday after Chief Constable Colin Port ordered an investigation. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has also ordered an inquiry into the purchase of 1,500 of the ADE 651 detectors by his officials who paid £45,000 apiece for the equipment when they were on sale elsewhere for about £15,000 each.

Last night it was announced that Lord Mandelson had asked the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ban the export of the ADE 651 device to Iraq and Afghanistan. In a statement the department said: "The reason the ban is limited to these two countries is that our legal power to control these goods is based on the risk that they could cause harm to UK and other friendly forces. The British embassy in Baghdad has raised our concerns about the ADE 651 with the Iraqi authorities. We have offered co-operation with any investigation they may wish to make into how the device came to be bought for their military as bomb detection equipment."

Mr McCormick, who served with Merseyside police before becoming managing director of the company ATSC, said that his "highly successful" ADE series was based on a similar principle to dowsing – the belief that certain types of woods can detect water underground.

He claimed recently: "We have been dealing with doubters for 10 years. One of the problems we have is that the machine does look a little primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights."

Avon and Somerset police said Mr Port became aware of the problem through his role as the chairman of the International Police Assistance Board. A spokesman stated: "We are conducting a criminal investigation and as part of that a 53-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of fraud by misrepresentation. That man has been released on bail pending further inquiries. The force became aware of the existence of a piece of equipment around which there has been many concerns and in the interests of public safety launched its investigation. Given the obvious sensitivities around the matter ... we cannot discuss it any further at the moment."

The "bomb detector", a small hand-held wand, with a telescopic aerial on a swivel, is used in dozens of checkpoints in Iraqi cities including Baghdad. It is claimed that it had failed to detect two tonnes of explosives used by suicide bombers to murder 155 people and destroy three ministries in October last year. There was a similar alleged shortcoming when 120 people were killed in another series of bombings in December.

ATSC's sales literature claims that the device can detect minute quantities of explosives from 1km away on land and up to 3km away from the air. Mr McCormick had held that a "card reader" in the device can detect anything "from explosives to elephants".

However Sidney Alford, a leading explosives expert, who has advised the UK and US military, told the BBC's Newsnight programme that an examination of the card showed it had "nothing to do with detection of TNT. There is no microprocessor, there is no digital memory, there is no way to store any information... This is a very cheap tag which I would estimate would cost about two or three pence." Mr Alford added that he was "horrified" that the device had been exported from the UK. "It could result in people being killed in the dozens, if not hundreds."

Major General Richard J Rowe, of the US army, who oversees the training of Iraqi police in Baghdad, stressed that the American forces did not use the ADE 651. He said: "I don't believe there is a magic wand that can detect explosives. If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work." The American professional magician James Randi has charged that the detectors were a "blatant fraud" and offered Mr McCormick $1m if he could prove that they work.

However the device has some defenders in Iraq. Major General Jihad al-Jabiri, the head of the Interior Ministry's directorate for combat explosives, said: "Whether it's magic or scientific, what I care about is detecting bombs. I don't care what they say. I know more about bombs than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world."

Iraqis who have suffered from bombings are angry at the "fiasco" surrounding the devices. Hakim al-Safi, a 48-year-old teacher whose son Haidar died in the October bombings, said: "I am angry. I do not know who I am angry with more, the people who made these stupid things and then made money or our government officials who paid so much money for these things which failed to protect us. And the British Government, did they not know what was being done from their land?"