Sunday Herald, 14.06.09
By Daniel Bach, Ren Deakin and James Ellingworth
The second anniversary of the kidnapping of five Britons, including two Scots, in Baghdad has just passed. Just over a week ago, another Briton, Edwin Dyer, was executed by an al-Qaeda cell in Mali.
To the outside world, it often appears as if these captives languish in sweltering terrorist hideouts forgotten by everyone but their loved ones. But from the moment a Briton is taken captive by a terrorist gang, a huge system – spanning the military, the intelligence services and the government – swings into operation: the so-called “hostage machine”.
When the hostage machine cranked into life in Whitehall for Edwin Dyer, he was 2,500 miles away. It was January, and he had spent the day enjoying the vibrant African music and dance festival Tamadacht N’Azawagh, amid the dunes of the Sahara on the border between Mali and Niger. But by nightfall, Dyer and his three European companions were in the hands of a Tuareg rebel band, who subsequently sold them to the Al-Qaeda in North Africa group.
The sequence of events which followed Dyer’s kidnapping is well-known to British military top brass, civil servants and intelligence chiefs. Some 18 months earlier, the same protocols had swung into action when, just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on a blisteringly hot afternoon, British IT consultant Peter Moore, 35, was delivering a lecture when he and his four bodyguards were snatched from the Iraqi finance ministry by an organised group demanding: “Where are the foreigners?”
A former British military hostage negotiator who now runs a private security firm says that, despite the two cases beginning in different ways, they were tackled by the British government using the same routine.
Of Edwin Dyer’s case, he says: “These guys haven’t been specifically targeted, they’ve been picked up by ‘ordinary decent criminals’ who very quickly assess what they’ve got and have then sold them on.”
Of the Baghdad case he says: “Political extremists will adopt a very military-type hierarchy. They select their target, they will do surveillance, look at various options for lifting the guy ... In a lot of cases they’ll do a dry run of the operation itself to see if it works. Once they are happy it’s going to work, then they’ll do the attack.”
Developed over years, Whitehall has a standard operating procedure in place to resolve the abduction of British subjects within established parameters, which exclude conceding political demands or paying a ransom – although the government is unlikely to stand in the way of a ransom payment from the hostage’s employer.
“Government policy is not to do nothing,” says Professor Paul Wilkinson, an international relations expert and former director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. “On the contrary, the Foreign Office has developed considerable expertise in working with governments and foreign agencies to try and uncover the nature of the kidnappings.
“Sometimes it is very difficult to tell who is in control of the situation, calling the shots and making the decisions,” he adds, which makes intelligence gathering a crucial part of the initial process.
The Foreign Office begins to co-ordinate with foreign intelligence agencies and local governments and seeks a channel to the kidnapping cell – moderate Islamists in the Arab world often keep an eye on local radicals, for example.
A former British intelligence officer with experience of top-level Whitehall decision-making describes the start of the process: “Normally, what happens is that a senior civil servant is put in charge, possibly from the Cabinet Office, possibly from the Foreign Office. You’d have the Foreign Office at the meeting, you’d have SIS [MI6] obviously, people from the Ministry of Defence. You might have people from domestic ministries, depending on the implications.”
If a military solution is not deemed possible, the intelligence agencies are called on to find out where the hostages are, who is holding them and whether a deal or rescue is possible.
Phil Bigley is the brother of Ken Bigley, the hostage from Liverpool who was captured and killed in 2004 by a Jihadist terrorist cell led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He says: “I heard within a few hours of them discovering Ken’s identity. Within an hour of my getting the phone call, Merseyside Police had dispatched three family liaison officers to my house, and they lived with us. They gave us tremendous support and kept us up to date.
“Al-Zarqawi’s was the worst group that my brother could have been with ... this was statistically going to end very badly. The Foreign Office weren’t going to let us forget that, so they weren’t building up hope. The strongest memory I have is that of feeling absolutely helpless. I had no control over whether my brother would live or die.”
Shortly before his murder, Ken Bigley managed to escape with the help of some members of the cell in an attempt linked to MI6, but was recaptured at a terrorist checkpoint and later beheaded. Video footage of his death was released by Al-Qaeda in Iraq and sent shockwaves through Britain. His remains have never been found.
Those liaising between the frontline of the operation and the families believe that controlling the flow of information is crucial to getting the captive back alive.
The negotiator says: “We don’t want them doing any harm unwittingly by speaking to the media and saying things out of place that could damage the operation.”
While this is going on, a base known as a Red Centre is set up in the country where the kidnapping has taken place. All operational decisions are taken from here.
From the earliest stages of the incident it is clear that demands need to be understood. Groups either want money or are ideologically driven. Often a key negotiating chip is prisoner exchanges – a Brit for an al-Qaeda operative, for instance. Both the Mali and Baghdad hostage-takers have called for prisoner releases as a condition for freeing their captives.
In Mali, the terrorist captors from Al-Qaeda in North Africa demanded the release from a UK prison of hard-line cleric Abu Qatada, a Jordanian once labelled Osama bin Laden’s “right-hand man in Europe.” Last month in an internet posting, the group promised the execution of Dyer if a 20-day deadline for Abu Qatada’s release was missed. The deadline passed. Dyer was executed.
British and Iraqi officials say that central to the resolution of the situation in Baghdad is the release of Khais al-Ghazali, a former spokesman for hard-line Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is currently in military custody suspected of involvement in the killing of five US soldiers. If he is freed, the captors say, progress will be made in the release of the five Britons.
The pressures on the hostage during captivity fall into two distinct categories: self-induced pressures, i.e. the hostage’s own fears about their situation; and system-induced pressures which come from the captors, such as confinement, poor diet and threats.
Colin Eglington, a Briton who was held in an Iraqi chemical weapons factory as part of Saddam Hussein’s human shield strategy in 1990 during the first Gulf War, attempted to mitigate his circumstances as best he could. “Despite the lack of food, I tried to keep fit and took on an attitude to try and not provoke them, and a feeling of acceptance, an attempt not to react, so they couldn’t see the chink in your armour and get enjoyment out of it, like a bully at school.
“They play their mind games. They like to show you who is in power. The guards would say, ‘Oh, you’ll be going home tomorrow, you’ll be going home very soon.’ Whenever they wanted to come and punch you, they could.”
A hostage incident can end in one of three ways: the captive is either rescued, released or killed. Wilkinson says: “The thing to remember is that a number of people have been rescued from capture, not through military operation, but through successful negotiation. Rescues are possible and have been done spectacularly through special forces. It must not be assumed the worst will happen.”
The silence surrounding the current abductions in Iraq suggests a wide-ranging operation is under way to secure the Britons’ release.
The negotiator confirms this assessment: “Red Centre is based in Iraq, there are boots on the ground, and there is a huge effort to get these guys back ... I know guys who are intimately involved with this operation. It’s not getting out in the news because that’s the strategy they’ve chosen. Even though this is two years old, they’re still talking. Do you know what? The hostages are not dead yet.”
Sadly, soon after this piece was published, the bodies of two of the Baghdad hostages, Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst, were found.