Monday, April 5, 2010

The scientist who knew too much

(Here's an article I wrote in July 2004 for The Bulletin magazine in Brussels, about the assassination of 'Supergun' designer Gerald Bull; it was exceptionally creepy visiting the building. The identity of his killers remains unproven.)


Saddam’s scientist

Fourteen years ago, Supergun inventor Gerald Bull was slain in a Brussels hallway. Jeremy Duns tells the story

It was a cold wet evening in the Brussels suburb of Uccle, and Jerry was glad he was nearly home. His assistant had given him a lift to Avenue Fran├žois Folie, and as he stepped through the gates of the Residence Minerve he was still smiling at the story she had told him about a female colleague asking her out on a date.

He took the lift up to the sixth floor. He was 62 now and the stairs didn’t appeal. Besides, he was carrying his large black canvas bag. Today, it was even heavier than usual: as well as the usual documents from the office, it also contained $20,000 in cash. Jerry came out of the lift and turned left and left again, until he came to number 20: his apartment. He took out his keys, registering the sound of footsteps further down the corridor. That was nothing unusual – it was a busy building. Then the footsteps stopped.

Three shots were fired into Jerry’s back, forcing his body into the door. Although he was dead, the killer didn’t flee. Instead, he leaned over and placed the pistol – a 7.65-millimetre automatic with a silencer – against the back of Jerry’s neck. He pulled the trigger twice more, spraying the corridor’s carpet with blood and fragments of bone.

The job was done.

The above is not an excerpt from Frederick Forysth’s latest thriller, but a reconstructed account of real events that took place on March 22, 1990. Jerry was Dr Gerald Vincent Bull, and the story leading up to his assassination in Brussels encompasses Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction and several of the world’s intelligence agencies. It’s the story of the downfall of the greatest gun designer of the 20th century and how it ended here, less than 15 years ago.

Gerald Bull was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1928, the second youngest of 10 children in a middle-class family. When he was three, his mother died of complications following the birth of his younger brother. His father suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, and Bull found himself living on a farm with his uncle and aunt. At 10, they sent him to a nearby Jesuit college, where he studied until he was 16.

After receiving two model aircraft kits for Christmas, Bull became interested in aeronautics, which he went on to study at the University of Toronto. By 24, he was working at the university’s Institute of Aerophysics. Largely funded by Canada’s Defence Research Board, the institute was investigating supersonic aerodynamics. In a 1953 interview with the Canadian magazine Maclean’s, Bull enthused about the possible civilian applications of the work he was doing: ‘It can provide us with safer and faster air travel. It will help us conquer space, man’s last frontier. Some day, guided missiles will carry mail instead of a warhead, and a letter mailed in Vancouver will be in Halifax an hour later.’

Bull’s idealism would not last long. In 1949, the Canadian government gave the Institute funding to create a tunnel capable of producing winds travelling at seven times the speed of sound. The project would lead to breakthroughs in supersonic science – and allow Canada to develop new kinds of aircrafts, rockets and missiles. The Cold War was hotting up, and Bull was to take a leading role in the arms and space races.

In 1951, he started working for the Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment, where he helped design an air-to-air guided missile codenamed Velvet Glove. Mixing with leading scientists in his field from around the world, Bull soon realised that Canada did not have the funding or vision of the superpowers. He cultivated contacts in the American military who, in 1961, co-sponsored a project called Harp in the island of Barbados. Harp – High Altitude Research Project – was Bull’s brainchild: its result was a massive space-cannon that fired projectiles into the ocean.

In 1967, Bull set up his own company, Space Research Corporation. As a result of discoveries he had made working with missiles, conventional artillery weapons now had greater range and accuracy. SRC began to provide the Pentagon with long-range shells for use in Vietnam. Bull’s work was so important that he was made an American citizen by an act of Congress, something that had only happened twice before, to Winston Churchill and the Marquis de Lafayette.

SRC quickly expanded: at its peak, the company had a staff of over 300 people. It sold cannons capable of firing ammunition over great distances, to Britain, Egypt, Israel, Thailand, Italy and others. Bull was now a player in the world of international arms-dealing.

In 1980, he was arrested in the US for selling arms to South Africa, and was imprisoned for seven months. He felt he had been made a patsy, and became embittered. He relocated to Brussels, then one of the capitals of the international arms trade. It was here that he became involved with the Iraqis. Saddam Hussein was using Soviet-supplied Scud missiles to attack the Iranians, but was frustrated by their limited range and accuracy. Through other countries, Saddam had bought cannons designed by Bull; their effectiveness had impressed him. So in 1988, Bull was invited out to Baghdad to discuss cooperation. He convinced the Iraqis that, to gain real power, they would need the capability for space launches. He offered to build a cannon that could do the job: a ‘Supergun’ 150 metres long, with a bore of one metre.

Bull built a prototype, nicknamed Baby Babylon, at a secret site in Jabal Hamrayn in central Iraq. It blew up on its first test, but he kept trying. However, word started to get around intelligence agencies that SRC was developing a ‘doomsday weapon’ with the Iraqis. The Supergun could dump a nuclear bomb, or nerve gas, on any Middle Eastern city. Even if never used, it would be a powerful propaganda tool for Saddam.

Sections of the Supergun were being built in the UK, Spain and the Netherlands. In Brussels, Bull’s apartment was broken into several times. On one occasion, his drinking glasses were replaced by a new, very obviously different, set. He was convinced his phone was being tapped, and his post being opened. He told friends he felt he was being sent a warning. Then, on March 22, he was silenced forever. The studious boy obsessed with model aircraft had ended up dead in the corridor of a Brussels apartment block, three bullets in his back and two through his head.

So who killed him? There’s no shortage of candidates: over three decades, Gerald Bull had worked for and sold arms to several dozen countries. Was it MI6, because Bull might have revealed that the British government was involved in shady arms deals with Saddam? That revelation did come about, after his death, creating an enormous scandal in the UK. And just one week before Bull was gunned down in Brussels, Farzad Bazoft, a journalist with The Observer, was arrested in Baghdad, charged with being a spy and hanged in Abu Ghraib prison. Bazoft had been discovered by Iraqi secret police near one of SRC’s Supergun test sites.

Or perhaps it was the work of the CIA, who some thought Bull had worked for in the ’60s. Others still think the Iranians may have killed him, in the hope of stopping the Supergun project. It could have been the Iraqis themselves – had they fallen out with their star scientist?

Nobody has yet been brought to justice for the killing, but the Belgian authorities’ prime suspect has always been Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Three months before Bull was murdered, two men rented an apartment opposite his and paid three months’ rent in advance, only to vanish 10 days later. However, to get the electricity connected in the apartment, one of the men had had to present identification at the utility company’s offices. Tracing this back to his entry into the country, the police discovered that the other man had entered with a false passport, and was an Israeli. That said, it seems unlike Mossad to have left such an obvious trail, and many assassins-for-hire during that time were Israeli.

Last year, the state prosecutor revealed that they had new information from ‘a reliable source’ who had identified a Mossad agent as one of Bull’s assassins. According to the source, the killer took a piece of jewellery from Bull’s body, which he still wears. In January, the same source apparently alleged that a Western intelligence agency helped with the killing, and the signs pointed to the British. The case is now at the Brussels’ public prosecutors’ office. The next step is ‘recquisition’ – the drawing up of a list of charges. ‘We don’t have the name of the killer,’ says spokeswoman Estelle Arpigny, which suggests that the charges will be against ‘persons unknown’ and will continue to languish unless new information is uncovered.

At the moment, it seems unlikely we will ever know for sure who killed Gerald Bull – the scientist who perhaps knew too much.

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