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October 20, 2010

US intelligence is a contradiction in terms

Yvonne Ridley

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The horrible death of hostage Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan propelled me back to my own personal hell nine years ago when I was also held prisoner by the Taliban.

It was a terrifying experience, and despite the unexpectedly kind treatment of my captors, I was still convinced they would execute me.

Unlike aid worker Linda Norgrove who had a legitimate right to be in the country, I had sneaked in wearing the all enveloping blue burqa while working for the Sunday Express newspaper in London. And unlike Linda who was kidnapped, I had been arrested for entering Afghanistan illegally without a passport and visa.

The Taliban, who were in power at the time, did not believe that I was a journalist and instead investigated me for spying for which the penalty was death … I doubted I would get any fair treatment and convinced myself that every day was going to be my last.

I wondered at the time if the British SAS would mount a rescue mission, and having previously written about their modus operandi I was confident they could extract me. I truly believed that was my only hope. I also prayed that if a rescue mission was mounted it would not be by the Americans because I doubted if I would survive.

I remember even 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.

The six women – three Germans, two Americans and an Australian – were also horrified at the thought of such a rescue operation being mounted by the US military because of the gung-ho attitude and heavy reliance on fire power to resolve any situation.

We specifically discussed it to such a degree that I remember looking around the cell for any hiding place should such a rescue take place and there was none.

Linda Norgrove, I imagine, must have wondered how her own situation would be resolved and from talking to a couple of people who knew her I imagine the last thing she would have wanted was to be rescued by US Special Forces.

She had, over her time in the country, developed a great love and understanding for the Afghan people and spoke their language. Unlike me, who was culturally unaware and ignorant of the people who held me, she would have been able to engage her captors and may be even develop a rapport.

My understanding was that she was held in a room where other women and children slept. I wonder what happened to them during the bungled raid.

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 the US military has an appalling record on hostage extraction. It is not their specialty, it is not what they train for and in my view they should not have been allowed to embark on such a reckless mission.

Local Afghans on the ground were asking for more time and felt 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 the political and military decisions made on the ground.

Who remembers WMD in Iraq … the bombing of an aspirin factory in the Sudan capital, Khartoum … Red Mercury and Ricin plots - all of it emanating from US intelligence.

Faulty US intelligence costs lives, starts wars and sees innocents locked up and tortured. US intelligence is simply a contradiction in terms.

And, bringing things closer to home in Pakistan, who can remember the demonisation of Dr Aafia Siddiqui? At first we were told she was buying and selling conflict diamonds from Africa for al Qaida ... her name even appeared on a list of seven Al Qaida suspects. The FBI's claims that she was in Liberia in 2001 were demolished by her lawyer Elaine Whitfield Sharp who proved that she was running a child's nursery programme in the USA.

But I digress. Returning to Linda's situation, I would have taken the advice of the real experts – the Afghan tribal leaders on the ground who were working towards a peaceful outcome. Her Afghan guides and helpers had already been released a week or so earlier.

My own personal situation in September 2001 was resolved because Express Newspapers in London talked and entered in to negotiations with the Taliban using local experts.

While I acknowledge each situation presents different challenges in Linda's case, the local intelligence was saying something quite different to the US.

Sadly the local knowledge and wisdom was brushed aside and the ill-fated rescue mission was launched in the dead of night. The element of surprise would have been lost immediately because of the use of helicopters – I’m also told at least one drone was in the area and you can hear a drone approaching from miles away because of its whining, irritating noise, let alone the sound emanating from military choppers.

Without going over old ground British Prime Minister David Cameron was told by the US that during the failed mission Linda Norgrove was "killed by her captors", "executed by the Taliban" and died after one of her kidnappers "detonated a suicide vest" when her rescuers were "within seconds" of saving the Scottish aid worker’s life.

As soon as I heard that statement I didn’t believe it, not for one second and neither did many people buy in to it either.

We now know the US killed Linda Norgrove, albeit accidentally. My heart goes out to her family just as it does on a daily basis for the deaths of entirely innocent Afghan and Pakistani men, women and children killed in US actions.

But it should not end there. The US deliberately lied about her death, and this was repeated by NATO and then the British Prime Minister and William Hague the Foreign Minister that she was killed by a suicide vest.

I knew they were lying as soon as the phrase “suicide vest” emerged – it is synonymous with so-called Islamic fundamentalism and the US military wanted the world to believe that Linda was killed by a Muslim fanatic.

The reason I knew they were lying is that I also know the nature of the Afghan people from that region. I know their customs and their character.

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 either. Their criminal act of kidnap started this whole, tragedy.

But let’s be clear about the motives of the Taliban in Afghanistan – the majority of them are motivated by nothing more than defending their own soil just as previous Afghans did during the Russian occupation.

And let’s be clear about another thing – we need a full and frank and independent enquiry and we will not get this from the US military who bungled the raid and then lied to the world about it from the start.

So far we have been fed a pack of lies to further fuel Islamophobia and the already discredited War of Terror.

And disciplinary action against one US Special Forces soldier who killed Linda by throwing a fragmentation grenade in her direction is not going to cut it either.

The purveyor of the “suicide vest” story should be outed and held to account and asked what he hoped or expected to achieve by this pure invention.

In the meantime Cameron, clearly disturbed by the changing US narrative, should if nothing else, treat future US intelligence with a degree of skepticism unlike his two predecessors ... And should never ever leave the fate of a British citizen in the hands of the Americans again.

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