The horrible death of aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan thrust me back to my own personal hell nine years ago when I was also held hostage by the Taliban. It was a terrifying experience and despite the unexpectedly kind treatment given to me by my captors I was still convinced they would execute me.
Unlike Ms Norgrove, who was in the country legitimately, I had sneaked in wearing the all-enveloping blue burqa on an assignment for the Sunday Express. And unlike Linda who was kidnapped, I was actually arrested for entering Afghanistan illegally without a passport and visa. The Taliban were in power at the time and officials did not believe that I was a journalist; they were convinced that I was a spy and so I faced the possibility of the death penalty. I doubted that I would be treated fairly and convinced myself that every day was going to be my last. At the time, the thought crossed my mind that Britain’s SAS might mount a rescue mission; I had written about the regiment’s modus operandi and, if a rescue was attempted, was confident that its daring soldiers would get me out alive. That, I believed, was my only hope for survival. I had no confidence that an American-led rescue attempt would succeed.
I remember raising this very issue with my cellmates when I was transferred from solitary confinement in Jalalabad to a ghastly prison in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and they agreed with my assessment of US Special Forces’ abilities. The six women – three Germans, two Americans and an Australian – were also horrified at the thought of a rescue mission being mounted by US troops because of their renowned gung-ho attitude and heavy reliance on sheer firepower to resolve any problem. We discussed this issue to such an extent that I remember looking around the cell for any hiding place should such an attempt be made, but there was nowhere to go. In the end, it was all academic, as no rescue attempt was necessary. Linda Norgrove, however, must have wondered how her own situation would be resolved and from speaking with some people who knew her I imagine the last thing she would have wanted was to be rescued by US Special Forces.
She had, in her time in Afghanistan, developed a great love for and understanding of the Afghan people and spoke their language. Unlike me, she wasn’t culturally unaware and ignorant of the people who held her captive; she would have been able to engage her captors and may even have developed a bit of a rapport. My understanding is that she was held in a room where other women and children slept. I wonder what happened to them during the bungled rescue.
Of course, it is very easy for me to sit in the comfort of my London home and speculate after the event. However, the truth is that US soldiers have an appalling record on hostage rescue; it is quite simply not their speciality, it is not what they train for and, in my view, they should not have been given the go-ahead for such a risky mission.
Local Afghan officers on the ground were asking for more time and felt that their hostage negotiations and talks could resolve the situation peacefully. I do not buy in to the bull coming from the US that their intelligence said otherwise. US intelligence cannot be trusted and is often manipulated to suit political and military decisions. Let’s not forget the issue of WMDs in Iraq; the bombing of an aspirin factory in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum; Red Mercury and Ricin plots; all of these disasters were written or spoken about with great authority using information from US intelligence. Faulty American intelligence costs lives, starts wars and sees innocents locked up and tortured. On such matters, US intelligence is simply a contradiction in terms.
Personally, I would have taken the advice of the real experts – the tribal leaders who were working towards a peaceful outcome. My own spell as a hostage was resolved because Express Newspapers did exactly that; they went and talked and entered into negotiations using local experts. While I acknowledge that each situation presents different challenges, local intelligence sources were saying something quite different to those of the Americans.
Sadly, local knowledge and wisdom was brushed aside and the rescue mission was launched in the dead of night. Any element of surprise would have been lost immediately because the rescue team used helicopters; I believe that at least one unmanned drone aircraft was also in the area and you can hear them approaching from miles away because of their whining sound, never mind the noise emanating from military choppers.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was told by the US that during the failed mission Linda Norgrove was “killed by her captors” and “executed by the Taliban”; she died, we were told, when one of her kidnappers “detonated a suicide vest” with her rescuers “within seconds” of saving the Scottish aid worker’s life. As soon as I heard this I didn’t believe it, not for one second, and neither did many other people. We now know that a US soldier killed Linda Norgrove, albeit accidentally. My heart goes out to her family just as it does on a daily basis to the families of entirely innocent Afghan and Pakistani men, women and children also killed by American bombs and bullets.
It should not end there. The US military lied deliberately about her death, lies which were repeated by a NATO spokesman and then David Cameron and his Foreign Secretary, William Hague. I knew that they were lying as soon as the phrase “suicide vest” was uttered; it is synonymous with so-called Islamic fundamentalism and the Americans wanted the world to believe that Linda was killed by a Muslim fanatic.
If I can give the Norgrove family any words of comfort it will be that their daughter would have been treated with respect by her captors, although this does not absolve them from any responsibility for her death. It was, after all, their criminal act of kidnap which started this whole incident on the path to its tragic conclusion. But let’s be clear about the motives of the Taliban in Afghanistan; most want nothing more than to defend their own land against foreign invaders just as previous generations of Afghans have done for centuries up to and including the Russian occupation; then the Afghan mujahedeen were heroes in the West and given financial and military backing, and included a certain Osama Bin Laden in their ranks.
We need a full independent enquiry about the killing of Linda Norgrove, but we will not get this from the US military which bungled the raid in the first place and then lied to the world about it. So far we have been fed a pack of lies to fuel Islamophobia and prop-up the discredited War on Terror. Disciplinary action against one US Special Forces soldier who killed Linda by throwing a fragmentation grenade into the room where she was being held is not going to cut it either. The purveyor of the “suicide vest” story should be named and questioned about what he hoped or expected to achieve by his lie.
In the meantime, David Cameron – who was clearly disturbed by the changing US narrative ‑ should if nothing else resolve to treat future US intelligence with a degree of scepticism of the kind that his two Labour predecessors did not possess and never, ever, leave the fate of a British citizen in the hands of the Americans again.
* British journalist Yvonne Ridley is the European President of the International Muslim Women's Union