News story

Investigation into the death of British aid worker Linda Norgrove

Foreign Secretary statement to the House of Commons on the outcome of the investigation.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

“Mr Speaker with permission I will 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 8th October.

As I informed the House in my statement of 11th October, initial reports about the rescue had suggested that her death was caused by the detonation of a suicide vest worn by one of her captors. But new information came to light on the morning of 11th October which called this account into question. The Prime Minister had therefore agreed with ISAF 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 would like to update the House on the outcome of this investigation.

Before I do so I would like to 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 the outcome of this investigation, and I met them this morning to discuss its findings.

I will now report how the investigation was conducted, the conclusions it reached, and what action will 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 ten 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 they have 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 one thousand 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 these 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 mountain peaks ranging from eight to fourteen thousand feet, accessible in most areas only by pack animal or by foot.

On the night of the 8th 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 into 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 their helicopter. As the soldiers progressed towards these 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 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 they believed Linda Norgrove was being held. It was when they 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 these injuries were caused by the grenade.

This was an incredibly difficult operation that 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.

Nonetheless, 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 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, this 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 this action has been taken will confirm to this House how seriously the US authorities regard this 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 this 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 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 this operation are shared.

Mr Deouty Speaker, 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 then also be possible for the investigating team to publish their findings, including judgements made by the investigators, but in advance of the coroner’s verdict I cannot go into this greater level of detail now.

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 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 which will honour her memory and fund projects that support education and health for Afghan women and children, including scholarships to help Afghan women go to university. I know the House will 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.”

Published 2 December 2010