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Use of export controls to limit export of defective bomb detectors

  • Iraq
  • Competition, EU and Trade - Export controls and sanctions


UK Businessman James McCormick has been found guilty on three counts of fraud for the sale of bomb detector devices worth over £55m, after admitting to the court he knew the devices did not work. The ADE651device, modelled on a novelty golfball finder, was claimed to detect explosives and narcotics at long range or deep underground using a “programmed” card reader, powered solely by the user’s static electricity. In fact the card reader was found to be an empty plastic box and results no better than random chance. The device has been sold to many governments, defence agencies and private institutions around the world including Iraq, which bought 6,000 devices between 2008 and 2010 at a cost in excess of £25 million to be used at checkpoints within the country.

Following a BBC Newsnight exposé of the device in 2010, the UK Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) announced that the technology used in the ADE651 and similar devices is unsuitable for bomb detection and introduced an export ban on sales to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The case raises interesting export control issues. UK and EU export control laws are aimed at controlling the export of military and ‘dual use’ goods outside the UK/EU. Trade sanctions further embargo trade with certain sanctioned countries and individuals. Their ambit is not generally to ensure the efficacy of expired goods, and the grant of an export licence is no guarantee that the goods will work. BIS does however have wide ranging powers and, in this case, was able to introduce an export ban to specific high risk destinations on the basis that the devices could cause harm to UK and other friendly armed forces within these destinations.