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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us