Stephen Farrell: Rescuing Robohack
A ransom demand from the Taliban for the British journalist brought forward last week’s daring SAS raid to free him
The Sunday Times, 13 September 2009
One minute there was total silence in the darkness. Then, faint at first, swelling louder, came the unmistakable thwack of rotorblades as the helicopters approached their target.
The room in northern Afghanistan where the two hostages were held reverberated with the noise. The Taliban guarding them realised they were coming under attack. They rose from mattresses on the floor, grabbed their weapons and ran out to do battle.
Hovering a few feet above the ground, the American Chinook helicopters dropped off an elite team of British special forces made up of the SAS, paratroopers and some trusted Afghan troops. They fanned out and the night exploded with gunfire.
The target of the raid was a mud-walled farmhouse compound near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan where the Taliban were holding their hostages prisoner.
Four days earlier Stephen Farrell, a British journalist working for The New York Times, and Sultan Munadi, his Afghan assistant, had been captured by the Taliban while reporting on a Nato airstrike that had killed many civilians.
When the assault began there was chaos and terror. “We absolutely expected [the kidnappers] to cut us down as they ran,” recalled Farrell. “We were crouching targets in a long, narrow room devoid of anything but walls and matting. We were no longer of any use to them.”
He described how, as the Taliban picked up their weapons and ran from the room, the last fighter paused and considered the hostages. Farrell and Munadi crouched behind a camera case full of metal equipment in the hope that it would afford them some protection from the guard’s AK-47. They tensed for the shots that would end their lives. They never came.
Farrell and Munadi decided to run for it. At one point Farrell lost his balance and Munadi put out his hand to steady him. They reached the corner of a low wall and Munadi stepped out.
“He raised his hands and shouted, ‘journalist, journalist’, even as he stepped out,” said Farrell. “I could not see around him to discover who he was trying to reassure: the troops or the Taliban. There was a burst of gunfire and he went down immediately.”
Farrell dropped into a ditch. When he heard British voices, he came out and gave himself up. Minutes later he was on a helicopter.
He knew Munadi was dead but it was only on the flight home that he realised a member of the rescue party, Corporal John Harrison, a 29-year-old British paratrooper, had also been killed. “His blood-soaked helmet was in front of me throughout the flight,” wrote Farrell. “I thanked everyone who was still alive to thank. It wasn’t, and never will be, enough.”
Amid the relief there is recrimination. Was the operation necessary when negotiations were under way to free the hostages — and was Farrell partly to blame for being kidnapped in the first place?
THIS was the second time Farrell had been taken hostage. The first was in Iraq in 2004, when he was working for The Times. He was held by militants for eight hours before being freed unharmed. He attributed his release partly to a straightforward challenge he gave his captors: “Kill us, take us away and kill us ... If you kill me, I will be a martyr in an honourable cause.”
Among his colleagues his reputation for tenacity and the obsessive pursuit of a story has earned him the nickname “Robohack”. Last weekend he had travelled with Munadi to Kunduz to investigate the controversial Nato airstrike on two hijacked fuel tankers which left up to 125 people dead, including dozens of civilians.
Civilian casualties have dogged the Nato mission in Afghanistan. When General Stanley McChrystal took over as Nato’s commander in June he immediately issued orders aimed at reducing such deaths. Last week’s bombing seemed to have set back his goals. Establishing the facts was a valid journalistic enterprise. Inevitably there was an element of risk, but Farrell is no chancer.
In his description in The New York Times of his ordeal, Farrell reported there were at least two other western journalists in the area, as well as Red Cross officials. Clearly others had not heeded the advice he had been given not to go there. On his second day of reporting near Kunduz he had just completed his interviews at the spot where the fuel tankers were destroyed, using Munadi’s skills as an interpreter, when the locals warned them to leave because the Taliban were coming.
It was too late. They might have made it but for the fact that their driver had already fled with the keys to their car, leaving them stranded. Minutes later they were prisoners.
Farrell and Munadi were then ferried around on motorcycles between a series of safe houses. Their captors seemed to be enjoying the experience, boasting to their captives that they were driving within 500 yards of what they said were Nato watchtowers. While Farrell was constantly pestered to convert to Islam, he was otherwise well treated.
Munadi, by contrast, was terrified, being constantly reminded by the Taliban that the fate of Afghan hostages who worked with westerners was usually beheading.
In the meantime, British forces had already started preparations for a rescue. In London, representatives of the Cabinet Office, Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office, MI6 and special forces were summoned to an emergency meeting.
The advice from the specialists was that a search and rescue operation was feasible. Gordon Brown was informed and permission to go ahead was given. Much has been made of whether or not Brown took the decision himself, but in truth operational decisions are left to the commanders in the field, with ministers rubber-stamping their advice.
The priority was to find out where the Taliban were holding the hostages. A small reconnaissance team of half a dozen Royal Signals and Intelligence Corps operatives were scrambled from Lashkar Gah to fly north to the Nato base at Mazar-e-Sharif.
They took listening devices to eavesdrop on Taliban satellite telephone conversations and video terminals to download live pictures from Reaper drones overflying the area.
With negotiations for the hostages’ release continuing and the kidnappers using their phones so frequently that they were easily located, critics have asked why British forces moved so quickly to end the kidnapping with an assault.
The overriding purpose of the mission was to save the two hostages’ lives, but a subsidiary reason for the operation was to scupper ransom negotiations. Intercepted telephone conversations revealed that the Taliban were demanding a large ransom for Farrell.
If paid, any ransom would swell Taliban coffers, enabling them to buy more weapons to kill British and other Nato troops. Past ransom demands in the region have led to huge payments.
The case of David Rohde, another New York Times correspondent who was kidnapped last year, is of particular note. The newspaper denies it paid a ransom for his release but, according to authoritative sources in the region, the Taliban received up to $9m (£5.4m) for freeing him.
Rohde spent seven months in captivity, partly in Pakistan’s lawless North West Frontier province. The official story is that he escaped by using a rope to scale a 20ft wall.
The more pay-offs Afghan gangs receive from western sources, the more likely they are to continue the increasingly popular activity of kidnapping westerners. Coalition forces consequently would be distracted from their mission, duty-bound to rescue their countrymen.
Heightening these fears was the knowledge that the Taliban group holding the pair was more than just a local force. It included foreign fighters. The presence of Uzbeks and Chechens suggested more sinister connections with international jihadis to whom Farrell and Munadi could be sold.
They could have been moved over the border to Pakistan. This would have made their rescue almost impossible. Farrell recalled that he felt nervous as his captors increasingly started mentioning more militant Islamist groups by name.
Another factor that may have hastened the rescue mission was the composition of the assault force. Insiders have noted the SAS recently took charge of British special forces operations in Afghanistan from the Special Boat Service.
Previously, the SAS had been stationed in Iraq where they had been involved in the unsuccessful hunt for Ken Bigley, who was beheaded in 2004, and the four security contractors who were killed after being captured in 2007 at the finance ministry. This convinced them that all leads had to be acted upon quickly, otherwise they might go cold, with the hostages being moved or killed.
They also had little time for negotiating with hostage takers and no experience of Afghan traditions of honouring deals to release hostages.
On Tuesday night the commanders decided to attack. But the co-ordinates were slightly off and they stormed the wrong location. Farrell said he heard loud explosions in nearby fields and air activity.
The Taliban grabbed the hostages and fled to a new refuge. “It alerted the bad guys that we were after them,” said senior military officers with knowledge of the rescue. “As a result we had no choice but to press on with the second attempt.”
The next night the Taliban allowed Munadi to phone his father in Kabul to tell him he was all right. They spoke for almost 20 minutes. Munadi reassured his father that he was sure he would be released.
“My son’s words brought me so much happiness. I felt maybe I could sleep for the first time in many nights,” said Karban Mohammed.
His family now believe this phone call was intercepted and set in train the rescue mission which freed Farrell but left their son dead with a bullet through his head.
MUNADI’S family are angry and upset that the British did not bring back his body (it was recovered later by locals). The British military emphasise that no offence was meant. The mission had been intended to rescue both men alive.
There is resentment among some of the military, too, that a soldier died rescuing a journalist who, they argue, behaved recklessly. “This whole thing was a real pain — we had to pull out some our best intelligence assets for almost a week to find these guys that could have been better used fighting the war,” said a senior Nato intelligence officer.
Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, said journalists “should act more responsibly in the field” and consider the effect their actions might have on others.
The extent of the recriminations over this semi-successful mission should not be surprising. It exposed many of the raw emotions lingering beneath the surface of the controversial intervention in Afghanistan.
The Afghans are left feeling that western lives are valued above their own. For Britons, the loss of a paratrooper on the rescue mission reinforces doubts they feel about the whole Afghan venture — ironically fuelled by some of the media in the first place.
Additional reporting: Christina Lamb in Washington, Jerome Starkey in Kabul, Tim Ripley