Murky death of MI6 ally who paid Linda Norgrove’s abductor

The Sunday Times

Sabar Lal’s son, Zaid, prays next to his father’s grave in Kunar’s Pech River Valley

The burly figure of Sabar Lal, a 49-year-old gem dealer with a salt and pepper beard, loomed in the arched doorway of his home. Facing him in the garden, a team of US special forces and Afghan commandos levelled their assault rifles.

As helicopters buzzed overhead, five bullets fired from one of the soldiers’ automatic weapons thudded into Lal’s chest and head and sent him reeling. Blood oozed onto his grey marble patio, forming a large pool around him.

The killing, in Jalalabad three months ago, provoked outrage among tribal elders, MPs and government officials. They depicted it as the cold-blooded execution of an innocent man at the hands of ruthless American aggressors who had relied on faulty intelligence to target their prey.

The Sunday Times has established that Lal once received cash from MI6 to counter Taliban insurgents, fought against them alongside British special forces and helped the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to eradicate poppies used to make opium.

But this newspaper’s investigation also found that, for at least the past two years, Lal had worked as an undercover Al-Qaeda operative — and that he paid the militant commander responsible for the kidnapping of Linda Norgrove, the British aid worker who died during a failed rescue attempt last year.

The curious life of Sabar Lal raises as many questions as his death and offers an unusual insight into the shifting allegiances that make Afghanistan such a volatile and unpredictable place.

Lal fought against the Soviet occupiers during the 1980s. In the 1990s, he joined the resistance to the Taliban regime and was shot in the arm during a skirmish in his mountainous home province of Kunar, on the border with Pakistan.

Then, in 2001, came the September 11 attacks. Before the American-led bombing of Afghanistan that followed, MI6 and CIA agents held meetings on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghan commanders opposed to the Taliban.

According to previously classified files from the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, one such meeting took place in Peshawar between an MI6 operative known as “Jim” and Haji Rohullah Wakil, a tribal leader from Kunar and a close friend of Lal’s.

Dressed in a casual shirt and combat trousers, Jim, who spoke fluent Dari, supplied Rohullah with mobile phones and cash.

“Jim spoke to us about the military plans we had to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Kunar,” said the balding Rohullah, 50, speaking at a house in Kabul.

“The British wanted us to help them eradicate the opium in the province. We also discussed the government that would replace the Taliban.”

Over the following months, the British gave Rohullah a total of $500,000 to finance anti-Taliban, anti-Al-Qaeda and anti-drug operations in the province.

Lal received a portion of this money and some of MI6’s phones. A fearless warrior with an intimate knowledge of the rugged local terrain and mountain passes, he was ordered by Rohullah to escort a small team of British special forces on reconnaissance patrols.

A growing number of Al-Qaeda Arabs were fleeing into Kunar from the neighbouring province of Nangarhar, where American and British special forces were hunting Osama Bin Laden. Lal was appointed commander of a border police force with 600 men at his disposal to prevent the militants from being smuggled out of the country.

In mid-2002, Rohullah met the British chargé d’affaires in Kabul, Stephen Evans, and a British customs official to discuss Britain’s poppy-eradication campaign.

“The British would come to Kunar in helicopters and vehicles to look at the drug fields,” Rohullah said. “Sabar Lal would provide them with security. He was in charge of a large team of Afghans. They would beat down the poppies with sticks.”

But Lal’s close relationship with the British failed to protect him from what happened on August 21, 2002. He and Rohullah went to a meeting with American special forces at a military base in Asadabad, Kunar’s provincial capital, ostensibly to discuss some recent rocket attacks against US forces.

As they left, the Americans pounced on them. They were handcuffed and flown to Bagram air base, where they were detained for seven months before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

The Americans accused the pair of smuggling Al-Qaeda fighters and their families out of Kunar at the same time as supporting British and US operations.

Lal’s detention records show the US suspected him of providing security for nine Arab Al-Qaeda fighters, two of whom were wounded as they escaped across the border.

According to these records, the operation was financed by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI, which used Rohullah as a conduit for the funds. Elements within ISI have long been accused of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The truth of the American allegations is difficult to gauge. Rohullah, who was eventually freed from Guantanamo, maintains his innocence to this day. Some Kunar officials say the US forces relied on teenage informants who fed them faulty intelligence to weaken Rohullah’s tribe in a power struggle over the province’s lucrative trades in timber, drugs and gems.

During a hearing at Guantanamo, Lal told his tribunal it was “so ironic … that I am in the same spot as a Talib”.

The arrests of the two men outraged tribal elders in Kunar, who demanded that President Hamid Karzai and the United Nations force the Americans to release them.

As Lal and his friend languished in prison, local leaders who had previously worked for them joined a rebellion against US troops in Kunar. Al-Qaeda militants soon arrived, courtesy of powerful local Salafis, a group that adheres to a fundamentalist Islamic ideology.

In 2007, as Kunar’s insurgency gathered momentum, the Americans released Lal after deeming him a low risk to their interests in Afghanistan. He was transferred to a prison in Kabul. Four months later, he walked free with a pardon from Karzai. Rohullah’s release from Guantanamo followed.

Afghan officials from Kunar said the men returned to a “life of peace”.

Lal set up a property business in Jalalabad as well as dealing in gems. Rohullah advised Karzai and his inner circle on Kunar’s internal politics.

“Sabar Lal announced to the tribal elders that he wanted to live in peace. He took a second wife and settled into his business,” said Mauwlawi Shahid, a friend from the same province and a member of the High Peace Council set up by Karzai to persuade insurgents to lay down their weapons.

American intelligence officials suspected otherwise. Lal was placed under surveillance in 2009, according to Afghan intelligence officials and a close associate of his.

The Afghans believe Pakistani agents approached Lal, a Salafi, and rekindled a connection dating back to the antiSoviet jihad when ISI backed mujaheddin fighters like him against the Russians.

“I can imagine the sinking feeling in his stomach when certain Pakistanis approach him shortly after being released from Gitmo and say, ‘We’ll make a lot of trouble for you and your Salafi people in Pakistan if you don’t lend a helping hand’,” said a source.

Lal is said to have joined the insurgency for both financial and ideological reasons. “He was definitely more religious when he left Guantanamo,” said a close associate. “But it was also about money, and he knew that without a link to the insurgents he wouldn’t survive long in Kunar.”

It was not until the kidnapping of Linda Norgrove in September last year, however, that Lal’s activities attracted closer scrutiny from the CIA, according to an official in eastern Afghanistan.

Militants loyal to Mauwlawi Basir, an insurgent commander in Kunar, ambushed the 36-year-old Norgrove’s convoy. Eight men with assault rifles dressed Norgrove, from Lewis in the Western Isles, in Afghan men’s clothes and marched her into the mountains.

American special forces mounted a rescue operation, fast-roping from two helicopters into the mud and timber shack where she was being held hostage, and a brief firefight erupted. In the confusion, Norgrove broke away from her captors.

But after she took shelter in a gully, an American soldier tossed a hand grenade that exploded close to her. She died of her wounds.

Several months later, US special forces captured Al-Qaeda’s operational commander in Kunar, Abu Ikhlas, following a tip-off from the militant’s driver, who was later murdered for his treachery.

At around the same time, American intelligence received information, perhaps from the interrogation of Ikhlas or from a CIA spy who had penetrated Lal’s inner circle, that he had given Basir a reward for orchestrating Norgrove’s kidnapping.

“He passed Basir £2,500,” said a western official who investigated Lal’s death. “It is believed this money came from Pakistan and was passed on to him by Rohullah.”

In a sign of how blurred relationships between insurgents and officials have become, the Afghan government continued to call on Lal for help despite the evidence against him.

Last July, the interior ministry asked him to free 40 policemen abducted in Kunar. He travelled to the Pech river valley and lobbied elders for their release, according to Rohullah and Lal’s relatives.

But the CIA began to track his movements more closely, and surveillance drones patrolled the sky above his house in Jalalabad.

In August, one of these drones crashed into the tiny yard of a one-bedroom dwelling 800 yards away.

Days later, US special forces stormed Lal’s home, arrested him and handed him to Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the NDS, which locked him up at the headquarters of its counterterrorism department.

A delegation of tribal elders, MPs, senators, scholars and High Peace Council officials pressed the government for his release, on the grounds that he was a blameless businessman. Rohullah personally met Karzai and officials from the UN, Nato and the American embassy.

“Karzai told me it was all a big mistake,” Rohullah said, kneading worry beads as he spoke. “Everyone promised to investigate.”

The pressure worked. Nine days after his arrest, the NDS apologised to Lal and told him he could go. The elders promised to keep an eye on him. But the Americans were determined not to let him off the hook so easily.

Two weeks later, the team of US special forces and Afghan commandos scaled the walls of his opulent home in the bustling eastern city of Jalalabad.

The men and women inside were fast asleep as the troops took up firing positions in an outer courtyard.

Mohammed Gul, the 70-year-old yard-keeper, watched horrified from his wicker bed as the shadowy silhouettes of armed men swarmed across a neat lawn towards the house.

One of the Afghan commandos ordered Gul to open a locked iron gate. They trained their weapons on him as he turned his key in the padlock.

The soldiers then formed a semicircle around the patio and told Gul to usher the other occupants of the cream-coloured house outside.

One by one, male and female guests appeared on the patio. The men were handcuffed and lined up in the dusty street outside as helicopters hovered over the scene.

Lal was not among them. When Gul found him on the top floor of the house, Lal told him he would come down when he had finished his ablutions. Soon afterwards, he appeared in the carved wooden doorway.

No one apart from the commandos knows what happened next. Outside the compound, the handcuffed Gul heard the shots ring out. Inside, Lal was dying.

The US military said he had reached for a weapon, a claim strongly denied by MPs, Afghan officials and Lal’s friends and family.

“He didn’t even have a simple knife,” said his 21-year-old son, Zaid.

However, a document signed with a thumbprint by the yard-keeper shows that the special forces seized two assault rifles and a pistol, along with two pairs of combat fatigues, on the night of the raid. Zaid claimed the Americans had taken the thumbprint from his dead father.

A note signed by the Afghan defence minister and pinned to Lal’s front door warned: “If you follow in these footsteps, you too will be killed by Afghanistan’s security forces.”

Two months later, a Nato airstrike killed Lal’s cousin. Accompanied by 11 other insurgents, the cousin had just attacked a district centre with rocket-propelled grenades when they were spotted by Nato warplanes.

The United Nations in Jalalabad opened an investigation into Lal’s killing in the belief that he may have been wrongly targeted. They have since dropped the case.

Lal’s story highlights the complex, fast-changing alliances that have come to define Afghanistan’s politics and its insurgency. In order to retain their influence, the country’s strongmen have formed sometimes unexpected relationships based on pragmatism and a desire for money. Lal was no different.

On the one hand, he retained links with Pakistani intelligence and Al-Qaeda. On the other, he fostered connections with Afghan government officials, settled land disputes and ran a profitable gem and property business in the shadow of one of Nato’s largest military bases in the country.

His bonds with government officials were strong enough to force Karzai’s hand and ensure his release from counterterrorist custody despite the evidence against him.

Western officials say Karzai has little choice but to bow to such demands to prevent the insurgency from escalating even further.

“It’s a juggling act for Karzai,” said one. “It’s his way of reining in the insurgency. If he doesn’t listen to the elders then he risks losing them completely and pushing them deeper into the insurgency. It’s a dangerous game.”

Tribal elders and officials in turbulent provinces such as Kunar play an equally perilous game, often motivated by a mix of money, ideology and pure practicality.

“In Kunar, you have to find a way to live. You keep in with every side because if you can’t find a way to support the insurgency, then you’re a dead man,” said a western official.

Kunar will be handed over to Afghan security forces midway through next year as Nato withdraws more forces from the country.

Nato officials admit that the Afghan government in troubled provinces such as this will have to forge links with insurgents in order to survive.

As regular combat troops leave, Nato will increasingly rely on special forces operations and night raids like the one that killed Lal if the Karzai government is to be prevented from crumbling in the face of a re-energised insurgency.

But as the distinctions between the warring sides break down, observers and diplomats fear that “knowing your enemy” may soon become almost impossible.

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