12 Oct 2010

Kidnapped aid worker: SAS briefed Hague

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

A senior British SAS officer briefed the Foreign Secretary on the American military operation to release aid worker Linda Norgrove, Channel 4 News understands.

Aid worker Linda Norgrove

It is not clear how much planning detail was given to William Hague, but the revelation suggests that both the SAS and the British government had the opportunity to raise questions about strategy ahead of the failed rescue attempt by the “Delta” force of US Navy Seals last Friday night.

The Prime Minister announced yesterday that the 36 year old Scottish aid worker may have been killed by an American hand grenade, and not by one of her Taliban kidnappers as previously reported. An investigation is being led by the US Central Command, based in Florida, and Mr Cameron will discuss the case with General David Petraeus, the US Commander in Afghanistan, on Thursday.

‘Fog of war’
Washington and London have mounted a show of unity amid claims that the “special relationship” may have come under strain over the affair. But if it emerges that avoidable mistakes were made as opposed to errors in the “fog of war”, then the roles of Whitehall and the SAS in authorising the operation – along with the roles of Mr Cameron and Mr Hague – may be called into question.

It has been reported that the SAS raised concerns over what is known as a “noisy attack” – the use of helicopters, which may have alerted Norgrove’s Taliban kidnappers. The questionable use of helicopters was raised by Bob Stewart MP, a former army Colonel, in the House of Commons yesterday.

The focus of the investigation will be the apparent use of a hand grenade close to where the British hostage was being kept and whether a more precise weapon could have been used instead. Investigators will want to know if a commando pulled the wrong type of grenade by mistake or if he didn’t realise how close he was to the woman he had come to rescue. A local elder has claimed that at least two Afghan women were also killed during the rescue attempt.

“From the start it was felt that Linda’s life was in grave danger.” Foreign Office source

While the US Navy Seals are better equipped than the SAS and knew the region, the British brigade prides itself on its expertise in silent “insertion”. It is unclear if Mr Cameron pressed for British forces to be used instead. Reports suggest the Americans were engaged in a half hour “firefight” after abseiling down ropes into a mountain location in north east Afghanistan. It is not clear how close the commandos landed to the kidnappers’ hideout.

It is also unknown if Norgrove’s life was in as imminent danger as intelligence reports suggested, or if a negotiated release was as unlikely to succeed as the Foreign Secretary has said. Three of the aid worker’s Afghan colleagues had been released a few days earlier after local elders intervened. Local Afghan police also suggested to Channel 4 News that negotiation should have been given more of a chance to succeed.

If Linda Norgrove was not killed by her kidnappers as the Americans opened fire, that might suggest that killing her was not the kidnappers’ intention.

No ransom
The Times has reported that of more than 70 aid workers kidnapped in Afghanistan since 2002, 16 were killed by their captors while 58 were released. Ransoms are frequently paid, though the British government refuses to endorse such payments.

“From the start it was felt that Linda’s life was in grave danger,” a Foreign Office source responded tonight, suggesting there were fears the hostage might have been taken across the border into Pakistan. “We knew Shura negotiations were going on. They might have contributed to the release of her colleagues, but we saw no sign of any progress for her.”