Mystery surrounds how James McCormick managed to build thriving business selling fake bomb detectors
The attacks had been well planned and executed with precision, three bombs aimed at hotels in Baghdad, tearing into buildings, spraying shrapnel and broken glass, setting cars on fire. The tally at the end of an afternoon of carnage was 38 people killed and 76 wounded.
The blasts had been at the Sheraton at 3.28; the Babylon at 3.31 and at 3.37, the Hamra; this last one had been hit before, five years previously, when I was among journalists staying there, killing 32 residents of homes nearby. But this time it was meant to be better protected, by checkpoints using sophisticated bomb detectors bought at great expense from a British company.
However, a week previously James McCormick, the owner of the company, ATSC, had been arrested at his home in Somerset. The ‘detectors’ he had sold to the Iraqi government for $85 million were useless, the ‘technology’ behind them non-existent, based on novelty ‘golf-ball finders’.
Grave doubts about the equipment had been persistent for a while before the police in England moved in. The fact that they were still in use at the time of the hotel bombings in January 2010 was the result of vast corruption and astonishing ineptitude. Massive kickbacks worth millions of dollars had been handed out to Iraqi officials; the government in London had been slow to crack down on the lethal fraud.
McCormick was arrested after Colin Port, the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset, ordered an investigation following reports about the ‘detectors’ in the media, including The Independent. It was carried out by a team led by Detective Superintendent Nigel Rock who collected evidence from six countries.
McCormick, who had briefly been a policeman, had sold his equipment, among other places to the Pakistani forces who used it for airport security in cities which have experienced terrorist bombings, the Mexicans in their murderous drugs wars, the Lebanese in protecting hotels in Beirut which has been affected by the strife from Syria’s civil war and the Thai army fighting an increasingly violent counter-insurgency.
ATSC’s sales literature claimed the device could ‘sense’ minute quantities of incendiary material from a kilometre away on land and three kilometres away from the air. It could also track down a variety of other items including various fluids, ivory and people who had hidden themselves. They were able to operate, McCormick maintained, through walls, underwater and underground. It was, he would declare in his sales pitch, truly a miraculous piece of engineering which could detect anything “from explosives to elephants.”
All this may seem somewhat comic but the bogus devices cost lives. Considering the prevalence of just one of McCormick’s ‘detectors’ - ADE-651s - in Iraq at some of the most sensitive checkpoints at some of the most violent locations, its failure had contributed to the loss of dozens, if not hundreds, of lives which may have been saved with genuine security equipment.
Abdulhamid Al-Masri, a 22-year-old student, was near the Hamra Hotel, on his way back to his home in the Jadriya district when he was caught by a blast. “I went to the area after the bomb because it was so near our house, we wanted to make sure none of our neighbours were hurt. It was a terrible sight even for a place like Baghdad. There were people hurt, lying in blood, people dead, we didn’t know my brother was one of those who died” said his 25-year-old sister, Rahima.
“We went to the morgue after they told us what had happened to Abdulhamid. My mother fainted when we got to the body. We didn’t know anything about the bomb detectors then, we found out later they were false. They have been using them all over the city. I just feel very angry; I can’t believe anyone would do such a thing, put so many lives at risk just to make money? It is shameful, shameful.”
Money was flowing in at a massive rate for McCormick. The devices could be bought in the US for $20 each and sold for $40,000 with a little makeover. His rewards included a £3.5 million house in The Circus, Bath, where the actor Nicholas Cage was a neighbour, a £600,000 Sunseeker motor yacht, called Aesthete, a farmhouse with paddocks in Somerset, worth another £2 million, and he made sure that his daughter, a keen horsewoman, lacked nothing as a member of the British dressage team.
Restraint orders have been put on around £7 million worth of assets, while others are still being traced; no significant sums of cash have been found so far.
McCormick, who left school with four O-levels, maintained until the end at his Old Bailey trial that his 'detectors' had produced results. They had been used, he claimed, to sweep a hotel in Europe before a visit by a US president, although he did not elaborate where. He declared he was so confident that he had no qualms about using them in a minefield to find an IED - but again there were no details.
Questions can be raised about how McCormick, a rotund and unsophisticated character who is not particularly articulate, could build such a thriving business selling a product which withstood little scrutiny.
McCormick claims that he only got £12 million out of the $75 million paid out by the Iraqi government. He may be lying about the size of his cut, just one invoice was for $38 million, but there is little doubt that massive amounts were paid out in bribes. When questions began to be asked in Baghdad about the detectors amid mounting casualties, Major General Jihad al-Jabiri, the head of the Interior Ministry’s directorate for combat explosives, declared “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.” He was subsequently arrested on suspicion of corruption over the purchases from McCormick.
A deputy minister at the Ministry of Defence, General Tarq al-Asl, who faced questions from Iraqi MPs over the affair, gave a ringing endorsement: “The reason the director of the company [McCormick] was arrested was not because the device doesn’t work, but because he refused to divulge the secret of how it works to the British and American authorities. I have tested it in practice and it works effectively, 100 per cent.” There is no evidence that the General was involved in corruption.
Iraqi officials gave evidence at the Old Bailey trial and the Iraqi government has announced that investigations have restarted in the country and further arrests may follow.
That may or may not happen. In any event, the families of the dead and maimed can be justified in thinking that like the paltry prison sentence for McCormick, it is too little too late.
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