Linda Norgrove was in Afghanistan to help heal the wounds of a nation torn apart by war, but it was her selfless spirit that led to her untimely death.

The Scottish aid worker, who grew up in the Western Isles, was caught in the crossfire of a conflict in which she had played no active part.

One of the few westerners in Afghanistan for purely altruistic reasons, the 36-year-old had devoted her life to the country she loved, working tirelessly to rebuild local infrastructure and stand up for the rights of vulnerable people.

Following her killing during a bungled American-led rescue attempt, the Norgrove family were too upset to talk yesterday, but tributes flooded in to the memory of the courageous woman.

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil said he spoke for the islanders as a whole when he branded her death “an absolute tragedy”.

Ms Norgrove was a dedicated aid worker who was doing everything she could to help people in Afghanistan
First Minister Alex Salmond

First Minister Alex Salmond said: “Ms Norgrove was a dedicated aid worker who was doing everything she could to help people in Afghanistan – hopefully that legacy of service in a humanitarian cause can be of some comfort to her loved ones in their time of grief.”

While she was being held hostage the media had an agreement with the Foreign Office not to report details of her personal life and Scottish background. The blackout had been agreed to minimise the ‘trophy value’ of her capture by the Taliban, and to protect her life during tense negotiations,.

Now, in the wake of her tragic death at the hands of the very people she was trying to protect, the Foreign Office has waived the agreement and what can now be revealed is the picture of a young woman living her dream, following a path set out for her in her earliest days at home in Scotland.

Raised by her parents Lorna and John in the northwest, regular jaunts to developing countries helped shape Linda’s world view, instilling a sense of justice and a desire to do good early on in her life. She was born in Sutherland, but grew up mostly on Lewis, with a family home in Mangersta, Uig. Every second winter, the family would spend five weeks in one of the world’s poorer countries, later inspiring Linda’s working visits to Peru, Laos and Afghanistan.

Her experiences on the family’s small croft helped prepare her for gap year work at a stable in Belgium, before she attended Aberdeen University and picked up a first class honours degree in tropical environmental science, winning the departmental prize in the process.

She continued to study and work in needy locales, becoming fluent in Spanish and then Dari, an Afghan language related to Persian. Among other far-flung projects in Africa, Asia and Central America, she completed a stint with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Peru, during which time her focus shifted from protection of the environment towards poverty reduction and the protection of indigenous communities.

Her next posting took her to Afghanistan, a country she came to know well, where she worked for the United Nations on its mission to Kabul between 2005 and 2008.

Her leadership potential was soon apparent and, after a brief spell in rural development, she was promoted to take over road-building and irrigation schemes. Her team led efforts to retrain ex-soldiers, and to find new livelihoods for the opium-poppy farmers who start the supply chain that eventually brings heroin to the western world’s addicts.

She transferred to another UN project in Laos in 2008, but the lure of Afghanistan proved too strong, and she returned within the next year.

Her nightmare began while she was working with American charity DAI in the northeastern Kunar province, a flashpoint for the troubles that continue to plague the struggling nation nine years after the Nato invasion.

 

On September 26, the vehicle in which she was travelling was ambushed by an insurgent battle group, and she was abducted on foot along with three Afghan colleagues. Police gave chase with guns, and shooting broke out before the kidnappers managed to escape with their innocent victim.

Tense negotiations followed, with reports that Taliban leaders were attempting to swap her for female Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui, who was jailed last month for 86 years over a plot to kill American citizens. Linda was believed at one point to have been taken across the border into Pakistan, adding to the difficulty of the already desperate attempts to free her.

The heartache of her family on Lewis was kept out of the public eye, partly because the community closed ranks to protect the anguished parents, but partly also because newspapers agreed not to personalise the plight of the hostage while a glimmer of hope remained.

Parents John, 60, a retired civil engineer, and Lorna, 62, who launched the charity Western Isles Beach Clean Up, produced a short video that government officials were preparing to release if an opportune moment presented itself. Linda’s younger sister, married with two boys and living in southwest Scotland, was also believed to feature in the recording, but the moment for its release never came.

Late on Friday local intelligence led Nato forces to the remote location where she was held. The area is ostensibly under US control, and it was American soldiers – acting under the auspices of the International Security Assistance Force – who seized the opportunity and mounted a bold rescue attempt to rescue Linda.

However, during fierce fighting, which is understood to have claimed the lives of seven insurgents, Linda’s captors killed her. The Foreign Office refused to say how she died, although sources claimed a grenade was thrown into the room where she was being held.

Force leader General David Petraeus insisted Afghan and coalition troops “did everything in their power to rescue Linda”, but accusations of heavy-handedness are sure to fly in the days ahead as the post-mortem examination begins.

 

 

Killing will raise questions about tide of violence that has followed US ‘surge’

 

The Politics: James Cusick, Westminster Editor

 

The death of Linda Norgrove confirms the contradictory messages on Afghanistan that have recently been coming out of both Washington and London.

Commanders of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have recently acknowledged that violence in key Afghan provinces is at its worst since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. Civilian casualties are on the rise.

ISAF’s 150,00 personnel, dominated by a 100,000 US military force, are due to begin pulling out of the country in eight months’ time. For aid agencies like DAI (Development Alternatives Inc), who Norgrove had been working for, their ability to remain in Afghanistan beyond next July is now in severe doubt.

The rescue of Norgrove, who had worked for the United Nations and supervised projects in Peru and Laos, had been given a high priority status by both the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence in London.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, pictured right, indicated that British intelligence knew the identity of the Kunar militia group that had taken her.

Folllowing her killing, political and military focus will immediately fall on the rescue operation, and the role of the US special forces unit involved in it.

Platoons of US special forces have been at the centre of operations in Kunar since the start of the Afghan war, with Kunar logs recording more than 1000 gun battles against the Taliban every year.

The US “surge” began in December last year, when President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more US troops into Afghanistan. However, its success has been chequered, and the last 10 months have seen a rise in civilian deaths.

According to UN data, violent civilian deaths in Afghanistan jumped 31% in the first half of 2010.

Gulzar Sankerwal, of Afghanistan’s provincial council, recently questioned the ISAF strategy. “The Taliban don’t fight face to face. So when the commander [ISAF] in Kabul asked Obama for more troops, he knew the US would end up with one achievement – and that is more civilian casualties.”

Due to the direct role of US special forces and intelligence input from both US and UK agencies, Norgrove’s death will prompt new questions for Obama.

Success for the “surge” in troops is seen as crucial for the Democrats in the looming mid-term elections. Now this high-profile failure to protect an experienced aid worker shows that, far from a battle being won, Afghanistan is a battle out of control.

Last night ISAF commander General David Petraeus said Afghan and coalition security forces did everything in their power to rescue Linda Norgrove.

Petraeus, who described Norgrove as a “courageous person”, said: “Our thoughts and prayers are with her family during this difficult time.”

 

The Badlands: David Pratt, Foreign Editor

 

It has always been known as Afghanistan’s badlands. For years, Kunar Province where Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove was abducted and killed, has been a favoured sanctuary for Afghan guerrillas, bandits, Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists.

Talk to US soldiers who man Forward Operating Bases (FOB’s) in this northeastern part of the country and you will often hear them refer to it as “Taliban Central” or “Indian Country”.

Sitting adjacent to the Pakistan border opposite that country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North-West Frontier Province, Kunar sits at the crossroads of “jihad trails” and cave networks which for decades mujahideen holy warriors fighting the Russians in the 1980s and more recently the Taliban have used to infiltrate and base themselves in Afghanistan from neighbouring Pakistan.

The fighters here are a mixture of indigenous and foreign fighters while the province’s problems are compounded by smuggling routes for arms and drug trafficking. For these reasons, Kunar, though comparatively small as Afghan provinces go, has among the highest concentration of both US and Afghan security forces.

Special Operations Forces and CIA officers also operate extensively from remote bases throughout the area.

Though far from the other main frontline areas of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south of the country, for some months now intelligence and security analysts have been concerned at the growing level of instability even further north from Kunar, in the provinces of Badakshan and Kunduz.

Until recently, both had been considered relatively safe and secure, but it was in Badakshan that British doctor Karen Woo and nine other aid workers were killed by unidentified gunmen in August.

That same month, also in Badakshan, the humanitarian agency Oxfam suspended operations after three of its workers were killed by a roadside bomb near the village of Shari-Buzurg, close to the border with Tajikistan.

Only a short time before this incident, I accompanied to that same village some of those Oxfam workers who subsequently died in the attack. The use of an improvised explosive device to target the Oxfam vehicle would suggest that, on this occasion at least, the attack was almost certainly carried out by Taliban insurgents.

While in Badakshan, local villagers told me of a dramatic increase in activity by armed groups, some of which have begun setting up makeshift checkpoints on remote roads.

Locals say they are often unsure as to whether the gunmen are Taliban or simply criminal gangs. So long preoccupied with combating the Taliban in the south, the Afghan government and coalition forces appear to have become complacent in parts of north-eastern Afghanistan. This has allowed the Taliban to once again establish a foothold, from where they can conduct bomb attacks and kidnappings, with “soft” targets such as foreign aid workers.