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Linda Norgrove

Volume 519: debated on Thursday 2 December 2010

With permission, I shall inform the House of the outcome of the investigation into the tragic death of the British aid worker, Linda Norgrove, who was taken hostage by insurgents in Afghanistan on 26 September, and who died during a US-led rescue operation on the night of 8 October.

As I informed the House in my statement on 11 October, initial reports about the rescue suggested that Linda Norgrove’s death was cause by the detonation of a suicide vest worn by one of her captors, but new information came to light on the morning of 11 October that called that account into question. The Prime Minister therefore agreed with the international security assistance force commander General Petraeus, and confirmed with President Obama, that a full US-UK investigation would be launched, reporting to General Mattis, commander of US central command, with a remit to investigate the operation itself, the inaccuracy of the original accounts and to make recommendations for the future.

Today, I should like to update the House on the outcome of that investigation, but before I do so, I pay tribute to Linda Norgrove’s family, who have shown inspiring strength, dignity and fortitude throughout their terrible ordeal. They, above all others, deserve to have the fullest account possible. Throughout the investigation, Foreign Office officials have been in close contact with the Norgrove family. Linda’s parents, John and Lorna, were briefed yesterday on its outcome, and I met them this morning to discuss its findings.

I shall now report how the investigation was conducted, the conclusions it reached and what action will now follow. However, I must first remind the House that Her Majesty’s coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon is legally responsible for determining the cause of death, and my statement today must not in any way prejudice the course of his inquiries.

The investigation team began work immediately, led by US Major-General Joseph Votel and British Brigadier Robert Nitsch. A 10-man investigative team worked for two and a half weeks in Afghanistan. It conducted interviews with all the personnel involved in the rescue attempt, and assessed hours of video evidence and hundreds of pages of documentary evidence. I am grateful to the investigation team for the thorough work it has done and for the willingness of our US allies to share their most sensitive operational information with us.

We judged that Linda Norgrove’s life was in grave danger from the moment she was abducted, and we feared that her captors would pass her higher up the Taliban chain of command or move her to more inaccessible terrain. We also judged that the only credible prospect of securing her release was through a rescue attempt, which is why I authorised such an attempt to be made.

Locating and rescuing Linda Norgrove became the sole mission of approximately 1,000 US and Afghan forces, leading to significantly stepped-up activity in the region where it was believed she was being held. As a result of those intensive efforts, Linda’s captors were tracked to two small groups of buildings high in the Dewagal valley in Kunar province, a region of steep mountain valleys and peaks ranging from 8,000 to 14,000 feet, which were accessible in most areas only by pack animal or by foot.

On the night of 8 October, a rescue attempt was launched following analysis and surveillance of the area. The rescue force, chosen for its operational knowledge of the area, specialist training and experience in carrying out hostage rescue operations, set off in two separate helicopters. The operation took place during the night in total darkness. US forces were required to land on the near-vertical incline of a rugged mountainside, 8,000 feet in height, within a narrow valley, and to assault a series of buildings built in to the steep slope on several levels.

On the basis of intelligence, analysis and surveillance, it was judged that Linda was being held in the upper group of two groups of buildings. One of the two teams of soldiers landed near the lower group of buildings. The team came under attack as soon as they left the helicopter. As the soldiers progressed towards those lower buildings, Linda Norgrove’s captors came out and were engaged by the soldiers who were advancing on a narrow ledge and under threat. A grenade was thrown by a member of the rescue team—who feared for his own life and for those of his team—towards a gully from which some of the insurgents had emerged. When the grenade was thrown, no member of the team had seen or heard Linda Norgrove. All the actions that I have described so far took place within the space of less than a minute.

The team moved on immediately to the other group of buildings higher up the mountainside, where it was believed Linda Norgrove was being held. It was when the team returned to the first location that it became apparent that Linda had been taken by her captors into the gully into which the grenade had been thrown, and where her body was now discovered. She was examined immediately by the team medics. The investigation team had access to the provisional post-mortem results, which concluded that Linda Norgrove died as a result of penetrating fragmentation injuries to the head and chest. After the investigation, it is clear that those injuries were caused by the grenade.

This incredibly difficult operation was carried out with the utmost courage by elite US forces. The United Kingdom is grateful that they risked their own lives in the attempt to rescue Linda. They did so just as if she were one of their own. None the less, it is a matter of concern that the facts of how Linda Norgrove died were not made clear immediately after the operation was carried out. Initial reports suggested that she had died as a result of the detonation of a suicide vest because of the nature of the wounds found on the captor lying closest to her. The explosion observed was in line with the team’s experience of suicide vests or other weaponry exploding. Although the US soldiers did report their own use of a grenade, it was not immediately reported up the military chain of command. It was only on later examination of the video footage that the possibility that a grenade was thrown became known to more senior officers.

The investigation team found that the failure to disclose information that a grenade was thrown breached US military law. As a result, members of the rescue team have been disciplined for failing to provide a complete and full account of their actions in accordance with US military procedure. I cannot announce any more details of the disciplinary action taken by the military of another nation, but the fact that that action has been taken will confirm to the House how seriously the US authorities regard the matter.

As a result of the investigation, the US military is reviewing post-operation procedures to ensure that the true sequence of events in such complicated operations is revealed earlier and more accurately than was the case on that tragic occasion. In the aftermath of a rescue operation in which a hostage died, the US military is conducting a number of other reviews of the tactics, techniques and procedures involved in hostage rescue operations. Senior British military officers have been briefed on the results of the investigation and will ensure that the lessons learned from the operation are shared.

Following this statement, the US authorities will release their own statement on the outcome of the investigation, a copy of which I will place in the Library of the House. The coroner will now be able to conduct his inquest, which has been adjourned until the new year. Once he has issued his verdict, it will be possible for the investigating team to publish its findings, including judgments made by the investigators, but in advance of the coroner’s verdict I cannot go into that greater level of detail.

Linda Norgrove’s death was a terrible tragedy. Her parents have paid tribute to her inspiring devotion to the people of Afghanistan and her love for the country. I believe that all in this House will have been moved by her example and her dedication. Her parents have set up a foundation in their daughter’s name that will honour her memory and fund projects that support education and health for Afghan women and children, including scholarships to help Afghan women to go to university. The House will want to join me in paying tribute to all those working to support the people of Afghanistan in extremely difficult circumstances, and in sending our sincere condolences to Linda Norgrove’s family, as they come to terms with their irreplaceable loss.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for providing such a thorough statement today on such a tragic and difficult set of events, especially as he is constrained by the inquest procedures. I join him in sending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Linda Norgrove and in paying tribute to Linda Norgrove’s parents, John and Lorna Norgrove, who have acted with such great dignity and strength since the tragic death of their daughter. The House will want to wish well the Linda Norgrove Foundation, which they have set up to provide education and health and child care for women and families in Afghanistan, to continue the courageous and selfless work to which Linda Norgrove dedicated her life.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for the details of his response today. Linda Norgrove’s family have made it absolutely clear that they are grateful for the bravery and efforts of the US special forces who attempted to rescue her, and the whole House will agree with the Foreign Secretary’s tribute to their bravery. We are grateful that they risked their lives to attempt to save Linda Norgrove.

Operations such as the one launched by those US forces are of course high risk, and we must all recognise that success can never be guaranteed. The practicalities of that specific operation were especially difficult. I know that the House will also want to condemn utterly the actions of Linda Norgrove’s kidnappers, who must take responsibility for putting her life at risk from the very moment of her kidnapping.

We welcome the swift conclusion of the inquiry and not only the commitment of the US forces to investigate the events, but their readiness to involve senior British personnel in the inquiry. That point was raised when the Foreign Secretary made his first statement on the matter and I am grateful to him for taking it forward.

It would be helpful if the Foreign Secretary would address a few further points about the inquiry’s conclusions and the importance of the lessons that are being learned. He said in his statement that the special forces believed that Linda Norgrove was held in an upper group of buildings when in fact she was held in a lower area, in a gully. The operational conditions were clearly difficult, as he said, but will he tell the House whether the investigation examined the intelligence before the operation, or whether that will be done as part of the subsequent review? Can any lessons be learned?

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us more about the grenade that was thrown, including about the practice of using such grenades in a rescue operation of this nature? Was that covered by the investigation, or will it be dealt with in the US forces’ subsequent consideration of such cases? Again, will lessons be learned?

The Foreign Secretary set out further information about why the facts did not emerge immediately, but it would be helpful if he would clarify part of his statement. He said: “Although the US soldiers did report their own use of a grenade, this was not immediately reported up the military chain of command.” However, he also said that “failure to disclose information that a grenade was thrown breached US military law” and that members of the rescue team had been disciplined as a result. It was unclear from his statement whether the investigation concluded that the failure of information lay with the rescue team or the upward reporting processes. It would be helpful if he could give us clarity on the matter so that lessons can be learned.

The Foreign Secretary is aware of the considerable concern and confusion that was caused by the inaccurate information that was disseminated in the immediate aftermath of Linda Norgrove’s death. At the time of the previous statement, I raised concern about the early information that was given to journalists by the Foreign Office and the apparent level of certainty that was given in responses about suicide vests and in reply to journalists’ questions about grenades. Although he has provided details of why incorrect information was held, may I press him further on the certainty in the responses, because clearly there must have been considerable uncertainty about the events at that time, given the difficulty of the operations? Will he say whether Government communications have been reviewed in light of that?

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us how the outcome of the inquiry and the details of what he has said today came to be, regrettably, reported in The Sunday Telegraph? I hope that that matter concerns him, given that the importance of accurate information has been at the heart of the case.

This tragic case reminds us all of the dangers faced by those who work so bravely to support the people of Afghanistan. The civilian effort in Afghanistan, especially working on the ground with Afghans in rural areas, is crucial to finding and sustaining a political settlement and lasting stability in the country. We all want Linda Norgrove’s work in Afghanistan to be continued, and we pay tribute to her work and that which other aid workers are doing today.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her questions and wider remarks. She joined me in paying tribute to Linda Norgrove’s family and extending the House’s condolences to them, for which I know that they will be appreciative. The Prime Minister hopes to meet them this afternoon, and he will be able to convey the heartfelt condolences from all quarters of the House.

The right hon. Lady was right to pay tribute to the bravery of the forces involved who, as I said in my statement, operated in total darkness with no moonlight or artificial light of any kind. They disembarked directly into a hostile environment from helicopters that could not land because of the near-vertical nature of the terrain. She was also right to condemn those who were entirely responsible for this chain of events: the people who kidnapped Linda Norgrove and deliberately placed her in grave danger.

As the right hon. Lady acknowledged, the United States has been ready to involve UK officers at a senior level. Our brigadier has had full access to all information and has been fully involved in the investigation, so we have truly had a joint UK-US investigation.

The right hon. Lady was quite right to raise the report of the statement in The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend. I strongly deprecate any advance leaks of, or revelations about, statements to the House, especially those about such a matter. I have made that absolutely clear within Whitehall and I appreciate her reinforcement of that point.

The right hon. Lady asked about the initial information that we gave on the Saturday lunchtime after the rescue operation, when we said it appeared that Linda had died at the hands of her captors or due to the explosion of a suicide vest. We were clear about that because that was the unequivocal information that was given to the Government, and to our embassy and military in Afghanistan. Indeed, that was how senior US officers understood it. During our exchanges on the October statement, I think I said that if we err on the side of transparency, as we try to do in governmental matters these days, it can sometimes lead to apparent certainty. We made a correction as soon as possible. As soon as General Petraeus and his colleagues realised that an inaccurate account might have been given, he was straight on the telephone to No. 10 Downing street and the Prime Minister, and we immediately made a correction that morning. We will all reflect on the dilemma when balancing transparency and showing certainty. However, the Government gave the information that was available to them in good faith.

The investigative team examined the surveillance and intelligence that was available before the operation, and it will make further comments about that in its final report, which will be published at the time of the coroner’s verdict. However, as the House will understand, any details that would reveal how we gather intelligence will, of course, have to be withheld. Nothing in the investigative team’s analysis contradicts the overall analysis that all of us involved came to, which was that the best chance—the only credible chance—for Linda Norgrove to return alive was to mount a rescue operation. However, the team has examined the use of intelligence and the belief that she was being held in a particular group of buildings distinct from the group where she was actually killed.

It is hard for me to make further detailed comments about the use of a grenade without cutting across what the coroner might wish to pursue although, as I said in my statement, the investigative team will make further comments about that in its full report. We should be clear that it is not normal practice for special forces of the United States or the United Kingdom to use grenades—to employ explosive munitions—in a hostage rescue operation. Nevertheless, there are issues in this case about when a hostage rescue operation begins, because the troops involved believed that Linda Norgrove was being held in a different set of buildings from those around which they were fighting at the time a grenade was thrown. We have to understand that to be fair to all concerned.

The right hon. Lady asked about responsibility for not giving information in a timely fashion. I think that I can go so far as to say that responsibility lay with the rescue team, but not its junior members. The disciplinary action has fully reflected the responsibility of the individuals identified by the investigative team as not having passed on information in a timely way.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, and join him and the shadow Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the Norgrove family. The House will want time to digest the contents of the statement, but in the meantime, will my right hon. Friend say a little more about the procedure for authorising rescue attempts of this nature? He said that he had authorised such an attempt to be made. Was that part of a standard operating procedure, and did he actually give the order himself or did he delegate it to others?

I gave the general authority for a rescue attempt to be made, based on the intelligence that we had received, which covered the intelligence and other information that we had received that gave rise to our fears that Linda Norgrove would be taken to more and more inaccessible places, and that she would be passed higher and higher up the Taliban chain of command. We were aware that her life was in grave danger at the time, and within a very short time after her kidnap. Based on that, the normal procedure is for the Foreign Secretary—in this case, with the knowledge and agreement of the Prime Minister—to give the authority for a rescue operation to take place, if he or she thinks that that is the right thing to do. It is also entirely common—and, as in this case, the normal procedure—for the actual details of such an operation to be worked out on the ground in Afghanistan by the forces involved, with a final go-ahead to be given by our representatives in Afghanistan, in this case in the British embassy. So that was the procedure involved.

I would also stress that, in this case, all involved—the military commanders, the staff of our embassy in Kabul and everyone involved in COBRA here in London, as well as the Ministers involved—were clear that this was the best course of action. Risky as it was, the risks associated with inaction were greater. The procedure therefore involved an authority to proceed, which came from me, but with a final go-ahead based on the details cleared by our embassy in Kabul.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement about my constituent, Linda Norgrove. He will of course be aware that her parents, John and Lorna, have sought not to apportion blame but to find the truth. From the outset, at a time of great personal difficulty for them, they have publicly expressed their gratitude for the transparency and openness of the Americans, and indeed from UK diplomats as well. They are now greatly involved in continuing Linda’s work, and I wonder whether the wider Foreign Office, and perhaps other Government Departments, could help by highlighting and helping the foundation and its website, lindanorgrovefoundation.org, which was set up by her parents and which aims to continue Linda’s great humanitarian work for women, families and communities in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We will all want to support the foundation in different ways, and I particularly drew attention to it in my statement. It is inspiring that Linda’s family have set up this foundation and are conducting this work for the future in memory of her life and work. There will be tremendous respect and enthusiasm for it across the House, and it is something with which the Government want to assist. Linda’s parents have been to the Department for International Development this morning, after their meeting with me, to discuss how DFID might be able to assist with the work of the foundation. We will provide support where we can, in keeping with Government policy and the wishes of the family. The foundation will fund projects to support education and health for Afghan women and children, as I have said, and I think that it will serve as a fitting testimony to Linda Norgrove’s dedication to the people of Afghanistan.

On international volunteers day, does my right hon. Friend agree that it behoves all of us who are able to sleep soundly in our beds at night to remember that there is an army of volunteers and aid workers around the world who are placing themselves in harm’s way and in grave danger and discomfort in the interests of humanity? Will he assure the House that his Department will do everything in its power to recognise the service and courage of those people, as exemplified by Linda Norgrove, and to ensure that they receive as much help as possible in their work?

Yes, and my hon. Friend’s question forms part of the recognition for which he calls. We often rightly pay tribute in the House to the work of our armed forces and the sacrifices that they make as they try to bring security and stability to Afghanistan, but we must never overlook the work of others, including the many voluntary workers and aid workers who are doing their utmost to give assistance in many different ways. They do so out of their humanity, bringing their expertise and compassion to the people of Afghanistan, and it is absolutely tragic that someone who was simply seeking to do that for the benefit of humanity should have ended up in those tragic circumstances, and the victim of such a tragic death. That is a reminder of the risks that those people run, and of the need to recognise their efforts, as my hon. Friend has suggested.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decisiveness in making the very difficult decision to authorise this mission. Despite its outcome, that was clearly the right decision to make. May I urge him not to forget the wider context of all this? It is hugely impressive that ISAF managed correctly to identify where Linda was being held within days of her capture, and we came extremely close to liberating her. The actions of the military forces on the ground will act as a huge disincentive to other Taliban groups thinking of trying to do the same thing again.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He makes an important point. We should recognise that the operation came tantalisingly close to success. Linda Norgrove was located in very difficult terrain, and the troops managed to get very close to her, despite having to fight their way in. Nevertheless, it was a failed mission, because the hostage was killed. We have to be very clear about that, but we must not lose sight of the enormous expertise, skill and bravery that was involved even in getting to that point and enabling us to have any prospect of rescuing a hostage in those circumstances.