The family that fought to the end for their man

The tragedy of Ken Bigley's kidnap and eventual murder was matched only by the courage of a family who refused to give up. This is the inside story of the desperate attempts to free him
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The Independent Online

It fell to a liaison officer from Merseyside Police to make the knock on the door that Craig Bigley had dreaded for three weeks. Abu Dhabi television was reporting that his father had been beheaded by the extremist group who had kidnapped him in Baghdad three weeks earlier.

It was not the first time that Kenneth Bigley, the Liverpool-born civil engineer, had been reported dead. Two weeks earlier, news of his death was posted on a Middle East website, but it was discounted by the Foreign Office in the absence of the usual gruesome evidence.

This time, however, Mr Bigley's captors had contacted Abu Dhabi television to say that they had the video to prove that he was dead. The TV station reported the news but refused to broadcast the video, not wanting to act as a noticeboard for terrorists.

The Foreign Office suspected at once that this report, unlike the previous false alarm, would turn out to be true, and tipped off Merseyside Police to prepare the family for the worst. In Thailand, a consular official was dispatched to break the news to his wife, Sombat.

There was a ghastly two-hour hiatus, while the British embassy in Baghdad awaited delivery of the video. When it arrived, embassy staff performed the grim task of watching the grainy images of Kenneth Bigley being coldly beheaded.

Yesterday details emerged of a dramatic escape by the 62-year-old engineer before he was recaptured and killed, adding to the shock felt by his family. Their despair would have been all the greater, because some of his supporters were allowing themselves to hope that he might actually emerge from his ordeal alive.

An impressive array of international figures, from Yasser Arafat to the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, from the former pop singer Yusuf Islam to the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, had appealed for the kidnappers to show mercy. Even two Muslims being held without trial by Britain under anti-terror legislation offered to help.

Britain had insisted that it would not negotiate with the hostage-takers, but it emerged after Mr Bigley's death that in his final week the British embassy in Baghdad had been talking to an intermediary who claimed to be in contact with his kidnappers. But he was in the hands of Tawhid and Jihad, the most ruthless terror group in Iraq. Its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is accused by Washington not only of masterminding the worst atrocities of the post-war period, but of carrying out killings on camera. American sources claimed he personally killed at least one of Mr Bigley's two murdered American colleagues.

Canon Andrew White, an Anglican cleric with several years' experience of Iraq who has helped to get other hostages released, believes Ken Bigley never had more than "a chance in a million" once he was held by Tawhid and Jihad. "We all kept trying, but we have never had a kidnap victim released by this group yet," he said. "We've never had a successful negotiation with them."

As the crisis dragged on for three agonising weeks, the outlines of Ken Bigley's wandering life became well known. Traumatised by the death in a road accident of his 17-year-son, Paul, which wrecked his first marriage, he turned to one of his brothers, also named Paul, to help him begin a new life in the Middle East. He was sharing a house in the Mansour district of Baghdad with two Americans, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, when all three of them were seized by masked kidnappers armed with Kalashnikov rifles, just after dawn on 16 September.

Whenever a British national is kidnapped abroad, the Foreign Office makes immediate contact with the next of kin, who are warned from the start that the Government has a policy of not negotiating with hostage-takers, and advises them not to make public statements, at least until the kidnappers have identified themselves and set out their demands.

Strictly speaking, the Foreign Office should have dealt only with the hostage's Thai-born second wife. But the definition of "next of kin" was stretched to take in Ken's 33-year-old surviving son, Craig. Through him, the chain of contacts reached the hostage's 86-year-old mother, Lil, and two of his brothers, Philip, 49, and Stanley, 65, all of whom live in the Walton area of Liverpool. The Government, including the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, stayed in contact almost daily for the next three weeks. The family was warned that the terrorists were demanding the releases of women prisoners allegedly held by coalition forces, and threatening to behead all three hostages unless their 48-hour deadline was met.

That left Paul Bigley, 54, who ran his own business in the Netherlands. He was visited by a consular official, and had a phone call from Mr Straw, but evidently did not feel obliged to follow the official advice to keep quiet. The day after a video of the three hostages, kneeling and blindfolded, had been delivered to the Arab TV station al-Jazeera, he went public with a demand that the Government give in. "Unless these terrorists see women being released from prison, I have no doubt that three men are going to be beheaded," he said.

For the remainder of the family, the strain of being asked to keep silent also proved too much. After a ghastly nine-minute video of Eugene Armstrong being murdered by his captors was posted on a website, Craig and Philip Bigley went in front of the cameras to make their first public plea to the Prime Minister. "Only you can save him now. You have children and you will understand how I feel at this time," said Craig.

His uncle Philip was more damning, provoked by pictures of Tony Blair with Richard Branson and his new tilting train. "We have seen the Prime Minister spending time on trains that can help a commuter save 14 minutes on a journey to London, when he should be devoting his time to saving the life of my brother," he said. "We are not politicians. He is the political head of our country. It is the Prime Minister who has the power to save Ken's life. Prime Minister, we as a family are begging you, please help us."

In response to the complaints of the Bigley family, Tony Blair spoke personally to Ken's son Craig to express sympathy and explain what he called the "limitations" on what his government could do in a hostage crisis. That call, and similar conversations with officials, convinced the Bigleys in Liverpool that the Prime Minister actually cared about the fate of Kenneth Bigley, and would do what little he could to save him.

It was not enough, however, for Paul Bigley in the Netherlands - particularly after the grim announcement that the terrorists had now killed Jack Hensley. "Mr Blair should take notice that I am not going to stop on this," Paul told Sky News. "If I lose my brother, Blair has to go. Ken is there shivering with fear, but he is alive. It is sickening to hear Blair say that he won't deal with terrorists."

It seemed merely a matter of time before Ken Bigley went the way of his two American colleagues, but on 22 September, six days after the kidnapping, there was a flicker of hope. Instead of another execution, the Briton was shown without a blindfold, wearing an orange jumpsuit, making a direct plea to Tony Blair to save his life. Both the hostage's mother and his wife in Thailand went on airto seek mercy from his captors.

The kidnappers appeared to believe widespread rumours in Iraq that hundreds of women prisoners were being held in prisons run by the occupiers. Britain pleaded in vain that it had no women in detention at all. But it was undermined by an episode which appeared to demonstrate what most Iraqis suspected: that the interim government of Iyad Allawi was a puppet of Washington.

The only two women being held prisoner in the whole of Iraq, it was said, were "Mrs Anthrax" and "Dr Germ", two senior scientists accused of helping Saddam Hussein to develop illegal weapons. The interim government said it was about to release one of them, and that the case of the other was under review, but it was swiftly contradicted by the US. Not only did it emerge that the two women were in American, not Iraqi, custody, but Washington said flatly that it had no intention of releasing either of them.

As Kenneth Bigley began his eleventh day in captivity, the Labour Party assembled in Brighton for its annual conference, shielded by a multi-million pound security operation. Tony Blair gave a television interview on 26 September, on the eve of the conference, warning against raising "false hopes" that the hostage could ever be brought back alive, but insisting that the Government would do everything it "legitimately" could for him. Those holding Mr Bigley, he said in another interview, were "manipulating" the media.

The Stop the War Coalition held a rally in which Paul Bigley spoke on a telephone link, saying: "I think not only is this war illegal, I think it is immoral and it is costing too many lives. Mr Blair's silence for the past 10 days is a kiss of death for my brother."

Perhaps Tony Blair's aides read too much into the malignant cunning of Bigley's captors, but they feared that the terror group might consider the Prime Minister's big speech on Tuesday afternoon the moment for a ghastly publicity stunt. Terrorists hidden in central Iraq would kill Bigley and release a video of his death, they were convinced, just to see if they could make the Prime Minister abandon his speech. On 11 September 2001 he had been forced to cancel an address he was due to deliver to the TUC annual conference.

In fact, the kidnappers decided that they could derive more propaganda value from keeping their victim alive: the day after the Prime Minister's speech, al-Jazeera received another video of a tearful Mr Bigley, caged like a prisoner in Guantanamo, pleading for help. Once again he addressed Mr Blair directly: "Please help me. I'm begging you, Mr Blair, I'm begging you to speak, to push."

By now, however, Paul Bigley had given up on the British Government, deciding that it aroused too much hostility in Iraq to have any persuasive force on the kidnappers or groups close to them. One avenue he explored was Ireland, where the hostage's mother was born - apart from appeals by Mr Ahern and other senior politicians, Ken Bigley was issued an Irish passport a few days before he was killed. It was Gerry Adams who first tried to put into the terrorists' mind the idea that they should spare their captive because he was half-Irish, and therefore by implication should be treated differently than a British prisoner would be.

This proposition appalled the Foreign Office, which had to consider the safety of other Britons in Iraq, but the Sinn Fein president appeared to have cleared this line with Paul Bigley before telling al-Jazeera: "Mr Bigley's mother is from Ireland. The cause of those who hold Mr Bigley can be better advanced if they are magnanimous and generous and release him. The majority of people in Ireland were against the invasion of Iraq, and are against the war in Iraq."

The family's publicity campaign also elicited support from Mr Arafat and Colonel Gaddafi, whose son Said was said to have played a part in other hostage negotiations. The British embassy in Baghdad agreed to distribute leaflets with an appeal from the family, and the Muslim Council of Britain sent emissaries to Iraq.

The event that appeared to give most cause for hope, however, was the release of two Italian women aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, who had been kidnapped by a criminal gang not far from where Mr Bigley was taken. In their case too, there had been false claims on the internet that they had been killed, only for the pair to emerge alive. It soon emerged, however, that the Italian government had done what Mr Blair would not countenance: it had paid a huge ransom, reportedly $1m (£550,000). Gustavo Selva, a senior figure in Italy's governing coalition said: "In principle we should not give in to blackmail, but this time we had to."

The ever unpredictable Paul Bigley remarked pointedly that "our concern is saving Ken, not sparing Mr Blair's blushes. I hope the kidnappers appreciate this fact and let Ken go." But Canon White said the situation of the "two Simonas" had been "completely different", adding: "The Italians were never sold up the line to extremists. As for reports that Kenneth Bigley had been sold down the line to criminals by the group holding him, that was simply ludicrous."

What can be deduced from the kidnapping of the Italians, as well as the saga of two missing French journalists whose imminent release has been announced at least half a dozen times, is that governments find themselves having to deal with a host of would-be mediators, many of them self-appointed, publicity seekers and figures claiming influence with the hostage-takers. Drastically conflicting advice will be offered - for example, Rime Allaf, an associate fellow of the Middle East programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, believed it was "counter-productive" to accept an offer of help from Col Gaddafi.

"Groups such as Tawhid and Jihad consider their first war to be against Arab dictators like Gaddafi," said Ms Allaf. "They see him as a puppet." On the distribution of leaflets in Baghdad, she said local reaction would be to ask why so much effort was being made for one foreigner, when 30,000 Iraqis had died. Mr Bigley's fate was sealed in the first few days, when the interim government was overruled on the women scientists, she concluded.

All the same, at a fringe meeting in Brighton Tony Blair dropped his first hint that he was prepared to stray beyond the tough "we don't negotiate with terrorists" line. "We can't make contact with them," he said. "We don't know where they are. They've made no attempt to have any contact with us at all. If they did make contact, it would be something we would immediately respond to."

After delivering his main party conference speech, Jack Straw returned to the Foreign Office for his first face-to-face meeting with Craig and Philip Bigley. Uncle and nephew apparently accepted the Foreign Secretary's argument that they were dealing with a much more ruthless group of people than those who had kidnapped the two Italians, and that the Government neither could give them what they were demanding. Afterwards, Mr Straw praised the family's "remarkable fortitude under pressures which are hard to imagine".

After days of upheaval, what turned out to be Ken Bigley's last week began quietly. Much of the media appeared to have heeded complaints that too much feverish coverage of the crisis played into the terrorists' hands. Developments such as the granting of an Irish passport to Mr Bigley and the intervention of the Gaddafis received only modest headlines. What newspapers and TV channels might have done had they known what was happening behind the scenes can only be conjectured.

The Government has now revealed that in the wake of Tony Blair's remarks about being willing to respond to any approach from the terrorists, an intermediary contacted the British embassy in Baghdad, and back-door negotiations began. The Foreign Office has refused to give any details about this mysterious figure, who may be useful again if another Briton is kidnapped, but it all came to an abrupt end on Thursday afternoon, when the intermediary returned with the news that Ken Bigley was dead.

What was the Government prepared to offer? Would Mr Bigley have attempted to escape if he had known? We may never know the answers, but in the bloody chaos that Iraq has become, we could soon find ourselves asking similar questions about another hapless British hostage.


16 September

Ken Bigley and Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, employees of construction firm GSCS, are kidnapped by 10 masked gunmen in a dawn raid on a house in central Baghdad.

18 September

Ken Bigley seen pleading for his life in a tape on al- Jazeera. His kidnappers, a group called Tawhid and Jihad, threaten to kill all three hostages within 48 hours unless US frees Iraqi women prisoners.

19 September

Ken Bigley's brother, Philip, appears on Arab television to appeal for his release.

20 September

Video shows beheading of Armstrong. Kidnappers threaten to murder one of the other hostages within 24 hours if female prisoners not released.

21 September

Second video showing beheading of Hensley is released. Jack Straw and Tony Blair telephone Bigley family to say the Government is doing 'everything possible'.

22 September

On an Arabic website, Ken Bigley appeals to Blair to save his life. Iraqi officials say at least one female prisoner will be set free. US embassydenies this.

23 September

Paul Bigley, another brother, accuses US of sabotaging attempts to free him. Sombat Bigley, Ken's wife, joins emotional appeal for his release. Elizabeth Bigley collapses.

26 September

Two British Muslim leaders begin talks with hostage-takers in Baghdad to secure Bigley's release. Paul Bigley says Tony Blair's refusal to act decisively to free his brother is the 'kiss of death'.

28 September

Italian aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, return home after three weeks as hostages in Iraq, amid rumours that the Italian government paid a $1m ransom.

29 September

Al-Jazeera shows a video of Ken Bigley caged and in chains, pleading for his life. He says Blair is lying over negotiations.

1 October

Newspaper reports suggest Zarqawi may be prepared to accept a ransom for Ken Bigley's life. Thousands of leaflets carrying a plea from senior British Muslims are distributed in Baghdad.

5 October

The Irish government grants Bigley an Irish passport. Tawid and Jihad has said it considers Ireland to be a neutral country and would not harm its citizens.

8 October

It is confirmed that Ken Bigley has been killed. His captors blame Tony Blair for his death, but the Bigley family says the Government did all it could in an 'impossible situation'.

Research by Sophie Morris