The case of the ill-fated Flight BA149: The mystery continues

August 2018

Quist advised passengers on board the ill-fated flight BA149 which was flown into Kuwait during the outbreak of war with Iraq in 1990: There is renewed interest in this case. It remains unresolved. The BA149 story will feature in the book ‘Truthteller’: an investigative reporter’s journey through the world of truth prevention, fake news and conspiracy theories by Stephen Davis, to be published next year.

This was an extraordinarily sensitive case. The matters in issue presented fundamental questions that continue to be of significant public interest. They concern the extent to which a secret military/intelligence operation can be regarded as being necessary and being properly deployed in national interests and what the corresponding legal checks and balances and protections should be which innocent civilians can look to if they are harmed when they are caught up in such missions.

This case concerned passengers on board flight BA149 who were members of the same family. BA149 set out for Kuala Lumpur from London Heathrow on 1 August 1990. The flight was scheduled to have stopovers in Kuwait and Madras. BA149 landed in Kuwait immediately after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Passengers were forced to evacuate the aircraft and were subsequently taken hostage by the invading Iraqi forces. Our clients witnessed many gruesome horrors of war whilst on the ground in Kuwait and were held as hostages for weeks. One of our clients witnessed a Kuwaiti soldier being brutally killed by machine gun. Our clients were kept in oppressive conditions. They had to scavenge for food. At a later time women and children were separated from men. Our client left his father behind and was sent to London with his mother and sister after an 18 hour journey through the desert.

Many passengers suffered serious psychological injuries.

It subsequently emerged that during July 1990 a group of SAS soldiers who were part of a secret group called ‘Inc’ and who were run by MI6 were briefed by the British Foreign Office and Intelligence officials about operations in Kuwait and the expected invasion by Saddam Hussein. A nine man team was tasked with getting into Kuwait and setting up long-term observation posts to help call in counter strikes and monitor a further possible invasion into Saudi Arabia. It was agreed that the quickest and safest method of getting the team into Kuwait would be flying them on BA149 with a cover story that they were engineers and surveyors in the oil industry.

Whilst BA149 was en route to Kuwait, Iraqi forces crossed the border and hostilities began. Had the captain of BA149 been informed he would have had time to divert the flight. While the plane was airborne Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was informed of the invasion.

After the aircraft landed there were air strikes on the airport by Iraqi military. Passengers had disembarked and Inc disbanded to their various secret locations – although two were later captured by Iraqi forces. On 8 August 1990 a rescue mission was organised for two team members, one had fallen seriously ill – they were taken by a helicopter to a US warship. Other members of Inc relayed important intelligence back to UK. One called in airstrikes on Iraqi targets.

Interesting aspects of this case included:

  • A successful series of proceedings commenced in different jurisdictions around the world against BA which were settled favourably. In France BA were ordered to pay £3 million in damages to French passengers.
  • Quist also led a separate case against BA on behalf of several passengers which reached the House of Lords (the predecessor of the UK Supreme Court) on a question concerning the applicability of the Warsaw Convention to the contract of carriage and the exclusion of claims for psychological harm.
  • The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, misled Parliament by stating the flight had landed before the invasion began.
  • It was discovered that Margaret Thatcher was prepared to deploy nuclear arms against the Iraqi forces if they proceeded to cross the border into Saudi Arabia.
  • A Channel 4 news investigation revealed that there had been a failure in normal emergency procedures for preventing civil aircraft entering dangerous air space:
  • The mission was referred to in a published history of the SAS by Alex Taylor – Inside SAS.
  • Stephen Davis, while working as a news editor at The Independent on Sunday commissioned an investigation and published two stories. He developed numerous contacts and anonymous protected sources including members of Inc and has written a book about the subject.
  • Stephen Davis also made a programme for New Zealand TV and a further programme “Bravo Two Zero”. He also wrote ‘The Secret of Flight 149: Spies, Lies and Saddam’s Human Shields’.
  • A US lawyer with conduct of proceedings brought by other passengers against BA in the US discovered the passenger list had been “accidentally destroyed”.
  • Former Prime Minister John Major on 2 October 1992 reasserted that no British military personnel were on board BA149. This was untrue. He refused to establish an inquiry into the government’s conduct.
  • A former CIA operative confirmed the MI6 mission.

Two causes of action were potentially available against the British government: Misfeasance in Public Office and negligence.

Severe adverse psychological effects suffered by our client left him unable to purse this case further.