Permanent Joint Headquarters, Northwood, North London – Thursday 1st February 2018
Cécile was driven from RAF High Wycombe with COS Ops, his outer office bag carrier and an MT Driver. They left the A40 before RAF Northolt and wound through the London suburb of Northwood to PJHQ. She was stiff and aching, as though she had been involved in a car crash and although a doctor had examined her after the SERE course and pronounced her physically fit, it was the tricks that had been played on her mind that would leave the deepest scars.
There was very little faffing at the headquarters’ main gate as the MT vehicle contained a two star officer who was expected. To Cécile’s surprise, COS Ops’ squadron leader bag carrier remained with the driver in the vehicle while the Air Officer and she made their way to a large block, which had been built in the past few years. She plucked up the courage to ask him why his ADC wasn’t accompanying him.
“Because apart from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, only the people you will meet this morning are aware of the full nature of your appointment. The less that know the better. We can’t afford for this to go belly-up.”
Inside the headquarters building, their phones and all other electronic media were taken off them. At least they wouldn’t have to go down into the bunker, which Cécile had heard was even more claustrophobic than the one at High Wycombe. They went through the tiger traps into the Joint Ops area of the building and upstairs to a conference room. Once again there was a sign and light above the door and a plain clothes military policeman wearing his ID card on a lanyard, opened the door for them and they went in. Surprisingly, he followed them in and sat at the conference table, opposite COS Ops and Cécile. There were six people in the room. The Chief of Joint Operations (CJO) who was in the uniform of a Vice Admiral, A tall man in a brown suit who had sharp features, A rather dapper little man in a pinstriped suit, the military policemen in his mufti uniform of a dark suit, who was totally bald and had rather a cold demeanour, COS Ops and Cécile who were in uniform.
The CJO opened the meeting and made the introductions, “Good morning, Air Vice-Marshall and Wing Commander Hammond. Can we go round the table and just introduce yourself and give a very brief background. I’m the Chief of Joint Operations here at PJHQ. I’m responsible for all UK led Joint and multinational operations, directly reporting to the Secretary of State for Defence.”
They went round the table, brown-suit next, “Alan Bartlett, Intelligence Services, probably better known as MI6.”
“Chief of Staff Air Operations, Headquarters Air Command.”
“Err, Wing Commander Hammond, Directorate of Legal Services.”
“Staff Sergeant Phillips, Special Investigations Branch of the Royal Military Police (RMP).”
“Martin Franks, Ministry of Justice,” said Mr Pinstripe Suit.
Cécile looked across the table at the RMP and was surprised to note that he was looking directly at her with a totally neutral expression, almost as though he was inspecting her. He wasn’t hostile or indeed friendly. He showed no emotion whatsoever and she couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing at this meeting. He wasn’t a big man, relatively nondescript, clearly fit, probably mid-thirties. He was totally bald and at first Cécile pondered if he had alopecia, but then she noticed he had eyebrows. She reckoned he had lost his hair relatively early in life and rather than worry about it, decided that it would all come off. She could see that his scalp bore the faint traces of childhood mishaps, with one large and more recent scar on the side of his head. But he didn’t look away and she started to feel uncomfortable.
So this is her at last, Phillips thought to himself, the most important person in the room. The person I might have to die for. Thirties? Could pass off as younger. Nice to look at, but nothing screams at you. But she has to be clever and obviously good at her job. Bar exam. Partner in a Birmingham law firm and then joins the RAF and makes a very powerful enemy. Did he try it on with you? How well do you want to get on my dear? Some senior officers look on it as their God-given right. Why did you stick with it? You could be earning a mint with your skills outside. Still a flight lieutenant, despite those new rank slides.
Do you know what you’re getting yourself into? Yes you certainly do. He had seen the film of her interrogation and was struck by just how cruel the instructors had been to her. But you didn’t exactly help yourself, did you? You didn’t play the grey man. Sure, you were terrified, but something else came through and they picked up on it. You were defiant and there was an anger. It was like… Like you hated them. And you broke that guy’s nose, didn’t you. Oh dear.
The CJO continued without any preamble, “You all know why we’re here. You’ve read the reports and have seen the appalling atrocities that were committed against the aircrew. Wing Commander Hammond, I’m afraid that the forensic report regarding the findings in Syria has not yet been completed. I will make sure you have the opportunity to read it as soon as it’s available,” He looked pointedly at the representative from the Ministry of Justice.
“As CJO I will have Operational Command (OPCOM) of this operation and as the arrest phase will be conducted on foreign soil, Operation Control (OPCON) will be under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office jurisdiction, lying with Mr Bartlett. As soon as the arrest phase is completed and we have the three individuals in custody back here in the UK, the preparation of the cases for prosecution will fall under the OPCON of Mr Franks and the Ministry of Justice.”
Cécile looked down at the file in front of her. They each had a copy. To her as well as all of the military personnel in the room, the command structure sounded ridiculously convoluted, as though it had been put together by politicians to assuage the sensibilities of various government departments, as indeed it had. It was the brainchild of probably the worst Home Secretary the country had ever had, an individual who was currently masquerading as the Prime Minister.
“If you would start the briefing please, Mr Bartlett, we’ll go straight onto the first phase of the operation.”
Bartlett fiddled with his laptop and turned on the overhead screen. Cécile looked down again and gave a little smile. PowerPoint. Whatever would they do without their bloody PowerPoint? When she looked up, Staff Sergeant Phillips was regarding her coolly again. What the hell is it with you, Baldy?
“Lady, gentlemen, If you’ll open your files, enclosure one shows a map of central Brussels. The area of interest is the suburb of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, which lies to the west of the R20 trunk road and the Brussels–Charleroi Canal. It is one of the poorest and most densely populated city suburbs in Europe. The crime rate in the area is astronomical and Molenbeek has become notorious as a safe haven for Islamic terrorists.
“Hassan el-Haski, one of the 2004 Madrid terror bombers, came from Molenbeek. The perpetrator of the Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting, Mehdi Nemmouche, lived in Molenbeek for a time. Ayoub El Khazzani, the perpetrator of the 2015 Thalys train attack, stayed with his sister in Molenbeek. French police believe the weapons used in the Porte de Vincennes siege two days after the Charlie Hebdo shooting were sourced from Molenbeek. The bombers of the November 2015 Paris attacks were also traced to Molenbeek. During the Molenbeek capture of Salah Abdeslam who was an accomplice of the Paris bombers, protesters rioted when the police arrested him.
“Enclosure two in your files are the latest photographs that we have of Parinoush Mahar. They were taken by one of our undercover teams two days ago in Molenbeek and that undercover team is still operating in the area. At this point, national sensitivities have reared their ugly heads. Our operatives wanted to perform a simple grab off the streets, into a van and then a short drive to Beauvechain military airbase, onto a Falcon jet and then back to Northolt. Quick, clean and giving the locals no time to react or riot.
“Unfortunately, the Belgian authorities want to arrest Mr Mahar themselves and they are not happy that one of our undercover team has been operating on Belgian soil. We did notify them through their State Security Service, but that notification would appear to have been lost within their convoluted bureaucracy. The Belgian authorities are adamant that they will make the arrest and take Mahar to the high security area of the Brussels Central Police Station and held there until the application under the European Arrest Warrant has been processed. You will be present during his initial interrogation, Wing Commander Hammond. To that end, you and Staff Sergeant Phillips will fly from Northolt tomorrow morning in a BAE 146 to Brussels. Accommodation has been booked for you both in a hotel near the Central Police Station. You will be based at Northolt from now until phase one has been completed. Do you have any questions?”
Cécile had several questions but decided to ask them off line after the meeting. The biggest one being, why the hell a member of the RMP going with her and what was his role in this bizarre undertaking.
“Once Mahar is in custody we will take DNA from both him and his immediate family and he will be held incommunicado until you have a framework of a case against him, Wing Commander Hammond. You won’t have long because you and the Staff Sergeant will then fly to Islamabad to meet with my staffers in the British High Commission. We are keeping tabs on Gamal Kirmani with the help of our friends in the CIA and the Pakistani ISI. Enclosures three in the file are surveillance photographs of Kirmani, who seems to be operating with impunity in Karachi, Islamabad and the Swat Valley. However, despite his feeling rather safe in his homeland, Mr Kirmani has provided us with some very useful leads and some useful knowledge concerning his associates. And once you are in theatre our team will lift him and have him flown to Jordan for interrogation. Once again, Wing Commander, you will be present during his interrogation, which will not be for the faint-hearted and the reason, well one of the reasons that you were sent on that conduct after capture course. Once Kirmani has been interrogated you fly back to the UK. Again, you will have a limited time to prepare the framework of a case.
“Phase two is logistically the most difficult stage of the operation, as it has involved multiagency planning and operations in a hostile and non-permissive area. We have a Special Forces team operating in Syria and it was this team that found the video and documentary evidence as to the fate of the RAF aircrew. They were specifically sent into the Levant to find what evidence they could and they hit the mother lode. By his use of social media and carelessness with his mobile phone use, we have tracked the ringleader, Daffi Hashmi to a town in southern Syria called Ad Dumayr, which remains an ISIL stronghold. It is within an area controlled by the Syrian government and Russians. It is Daffi Hashmi that we must get hold of, at all costs.
“We have had to liaise closely with the Russian authorities and have had to pay a great deal in intelligence blood and treasure. With the permission of CJO, I think we should reconvene for another meeting once phase one has been completed. We still don’t know what the conditions are likely to be on the ground, until our Special Forces team is in position. The Russians have tentatively agreed for us to use one of their, or rather a Syrian airfield close to Ad Dumayar, but final planning will go ahead once we have, and I’m sorry to use this horribly hackneyed expression, boots on the ground.
“Maps of the area including the airfield are at the final enclosures of your files. You will each be issued with a small, metal document folder with a combination lock to transport the files. The instructions in setting the new combination is inside. The default setting is 000-000. If the document folders are lost, submitted to excessive shock or tampered with, a chemical agent will be released that will pulp the paper into a meaningless mush. That is about it as far as the initial stage of the operation goes. Does anybody have any questions?”
The AVM leaned forward, Perhaps CJO could answer this rather than yourself, Mr Bartlett. What about the composition of the military’s prosecution team? When will that be decided, given that Wing Commander Hammond has been asked to head it?”
The CJO looked at the young wing commander, “That will be entirely the choice of Wing Commander Hammond. She will be given the names and career précis of ten members of the Directorate of Legal Services. It will be up to you, Wing Commander to choose your team.”
“Thank you, sir,” said the AVM.
“What about input from the Director of Public Prosecutions?” asked the man from the Ministry of Justice to the CJO.
“There will be no input from the DPP. This has been made clear at COBRA level. The prosecutions will take place in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.”
Cécile raised her hand and asked: “Sir, given that we are prosecuting these individuals in The Hague, am I to prepare a case regarding possible atrocities against civilian or other combatant personnel?”
“Yes. But the murder of the aircrew must take priority.”
“That’s quite a broad remit, with respect, sir.”
“Indeed it is, which is why you must prepare your team with a great deal of thought and care.”
Well thanks a bunch, “Yes, sir.”
“I have a question for our legal expert, if I may,” said Franks, the Ministry of Justice civil servant. He turned to Cécile, “Given what we have seen regarding these three individuals, what possible defence could they offer? It seems very much an open and shut case to me.”
“It may seem that way, sir, but there are many loopholes they could use. Firstly, in many legal systems the use of video evidence in court is often inadmissible. The reason for this is a competent defence team would argue that the material has been tampered with or faked. I doubt if there would be any DNA evidence that could tie them directly to the murdered aircrew. The pilot’s body has been in the ground too long and the navigator’s body will probably never be recovered.
“Secondly, the defence team may argue that in bombing “civilian” (inverted commas) targets, then the Royal Air Force is itself guilty of crimes against humanity, specifically under Article Eight War Crimes. The defence could and will argue that Coalition air strikes are wilfully causing great suffering and constitute the destruction and appropriation of property. In prosecuting a case, we might have to defend our targeting strategy and our entire involvement in Coalition air strikes.
“Thirdly, the ICC has faced a number of criticisms from states and civil society, including objections about its jurisdiction, accusations of bias, questioning of the fairness of its case-selection and trial procedures, and doubts about its effectiveness. It has proved itself in the past to be hostile to western governments, it is Africa-centric and ICC cases mostly focus on those most responsible for committing grave crimes such as high government officials, military leaders, or rebel commanders. And of course, it is under no obligation to even consider hearing these cases, as I’m sure the Attorney General has pointed out to the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister.”
“Are you saying, Wing Commander, that we have no chance of successfully prosecuting these men in the International Criminal Court?” asked Franks with an undercurrent of annoyance.
Without even being aware of it, Cécile had slipped into lawyer mode, rather than an acting-up junior officer, hopelessly out of her depth at a table of senior military officers and civil servants. She had also decided that there was something about Mr Franks from the Ministry of Justice that she intensely disliked, “No I am not saying that, sir and please don’t misrepresent my words. What I am pointing out is the way a defence team will mount its counter attack against us. If we skip into court, confident that some pieces of video footage, transcripts of social media gossip and data files will swing the day, then we are doing a disservice to our murdered aircrew and countless innocent, or perhaps not so innocent civilians and members of the Syrian armed forces.”
There was silence round the table and Cécile could feel that her neck was warm. The AVM glanced sideways at her and had to conclude that this was a remarkable young woman, whom the system and a fellow senior officer had done a great disservice. He was also conscious of the fact that Air Marshall Pine was at best a fool and at worst a poltroon. COS Ops wanted to pat her on the shoulder in a fatherly way, but in this new touchy-feely RAF that he hated, being touchy-feely could get one into fathoms of ordure. Cécile looked up into Staff Sergeant Phillips’ eyes and could have sworn there was a faint smile, which she was in no mood to return.
The CJO summed up and drew the meeting to a close, “Thank you, Mr Bartlett for an excellent synopsis of the first part of the operation. I would like to give credit to the brave men and women of our security services and Special Forces, whose contribution to our national safety we will never know. Thank you, Wing Commander Hammond for agreeing to accept this onerous assignment and thank you for your timely health warning. Please feel confident that any resources that you need will be placed at your disposal. And finally, thank you gentlemen for making time in your busy schedules to attend this meeting. We will reconvene here after the Belgian operation is completed. Please set up the combinations of your document carriers before you leave this room.
She left with COS Ops a minute or so after the staff sergeant. When they went back out through the tiger trap, she saw him in the foyer, buying a cup of coffee. She turned to COS Ops, “Would you please excuse me, sir for a few moments. I’s just that I’d like to have a brief word with Staff Sergeant Phillips,”
“Of course. We’ll be waiting in the car.”
She went over to the coffee kiosk, “Hello.”
He turned round, “Oh hello. Can I get you a coffee?”
“Err no thanks. Got to get back to High Wycombe and pick up my things if we’re staying in Northolt tonight. You in the Sergeants’ Mess?”
“Staff Phillips, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“What’s your role in all of this? I wouldn’t have thought, with respect, that a copper was needed at this stage.”
“Haven’t they told you? I’m your close protection, so I hope you’re going to be nice to me.”
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file