Ken Bigley: A barbaric killing?


On 8 October, the day Ken Bigley was beheaded, the US Air Force killed 10 or more members of an Iraqi wedding party in Fallujah.  As usual, the precise number of Iraqis killed was not known.  Needless to say, the slaughter of the wedding party barely got a mention on our evening news or in the papers next day.


That evening, Prime Minister Blair stood before the cameras and declared:


I feel utter revulsion at the people who did this, not just at the barbaric nature of the killing but the way frankly they played with the situation over the past few weeks.”


He was talking about the beheading of Ken Bigley.  He expressed no revulsion whatsoever at the slaughter of the wedding party, for which he was responsible as part of the coalition occupying Iraq.   


Nor did he mention his own responsibility for the death of Ken Bigley, in the sense that the coalition that invaded and occupied Iraq in March 2003 is responsible for every death that has occurred there since.


He and his friend George Bush give the impression these days that Iraq is crawling with foreign Islamic militants led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and that they are doing most of the killing, including that of Ken Bigley.  There may be a small amount of truth in this, but not very much.  However, it can be said without fear of contradiction that before March 2003 there were no foreign militants in Iraq, at least not in the area controlled by Saddam Hussein.  Blair and Bush brought about the situation, in which al-Zarqawi has flourished.


To the best of my knowledge, only one politician, Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP, had the courage to say that in the context of the hostage taking in Iraq.  In a speech to his party conference in September after Ken Bigley had been captured, he said that “the hostages in Iraq are paying the blood price for Tony Blair’s policy” (this is a reference to Blair’s acknowledgement to Michael Cockerell in September 2002 that a blood price would have to be paid for the “special relationship” with the US).


On the day after Ken Bigley was killed, he was asked to defend himself on Today on Radio 4.  He said:


“Murderers are responsible for murders, and terrorists are responsible for terrorism.  And the direct responsibility for the death of Ken Bigley lies with the people who killed him, and our thoughts go out to Ken Bigley’s family today in the horror they have suffered over the last three weeks.  The point I was making about the Prime Minister and where I think he has responsibility, as does George Bush, is that they have created the circumstances in which terrorism and barbarism and gangsterism are thriving in Iraq.”


Blair less responsible

It is true that Blair is less responsible for Ken Bigley’s death than he is for the deaths of British servicemen or Iraqis – because Ken Bigley volunteered to work in Iraq and was presumably paid handsomely for doing so.


(A caller to Radio 4’s Any Answers on 9 October said that her engineer husband had been offered £1,000 a day to work in Iraq, but had refused on the grounds that it was too dangerous).


By contrast, once British servicemen have joined up they have very little option but to go to Iraq if ordered – and they get paid very much less.  Yet when they get killed their next of kin don’t get called up by the Prime Minister and visited by the Foreign Secretary.


Working for the US military

What work was Ken Bigley doing at the time he was taken hostage?  After he was killed, Blair and Straw both gave the impression that he was engaged in making life better for Iraqis by doing some sort of reconstruction work.  According to a statement issued in Straw’s name on 8 October:


He was in Iraq for no other purpose than to earn his living by working was [sic] for the benefit of the Iraqi people”


To all intents and purposes, that is a lie: Ken Bigley was in fact doing work for the US military.  According to a Press Association report in the Scotsman on 24 September:


“He was working at an American military base at Taji, 15 miles north of the Iraqi capital, for Gulf Supplies and Construction Services, his employers since 1997.  The UAE-based firm protects equipment and camps for the US military and Mr Bigley was part of a team fulfilling a £50million US army contract to provide ‘base camp life support’.”


And he had been in Baghdad since shortly after it was captured by the US military.


He didn’t carry a gun, but in effect he was part of the occupation forces, and had been for 18 months.  Inevitably, he was as much a target as other members of the occupation forces, and it is extraordinary that he didn’t live with them in the relative safety of the base where he worked, instead of living in Baghdad and travelling every day to work.


Blair and Straw did their best to keep this from us on the day of his death.  Beverly Hughes resigned for less.


The purpose of their little deceit was to try to portray his killers as evil barbarians, who even behead humanitarian workers.  The conclusion we are meant to draw from this is that it is Britain’s duty to stay in Iraq to save the Iraqi people from this evil, and prevent it spreading like a rash around the world.


Women prisoners

Straw’s statement was also misleading about the hostage-takers’ demands.  Describing the contact that allegedly went on with them, it said:


“Messages were exchanged with the hostage-takers in an attempt to dissuade them from carrying out their threat to kill Mr Bigley. But at no stage did they abandon their demands relating to the release of women prisoners, even though they were aware that there are no women prisoners in our custody in Iraq.”


There were then, and are now, two women prisoners in the custody of the coalition in Iraq: biologists Rihab Rashid Taha and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, who have been interned without trial because, many years ago, they worked on Iraq’s biological weapons programmes.  Physically, they were in US military custody.  However, like Saddam Hussein, they were supposed to have been transferred into the legal custody of the Iraqi Interim Government at the end of June.  And now it was up the Iraqis, not the US military, to decide what should be done with them.


On 22 September, the BBC reported that one of these two women, Ms Taha, was going to be released the next day.  A spokesman for the Iraqi justice ministry was quoted as saying that she was no longer considered a threat to national security, and that the Iraqi authorities had agreed with coalition forces to release her on bail.  He added that Ms Ammash “may be released soon”.


No sooner had that been announced than the US military authorities stated bluntly that Ms Taha was in the physical and legal custody of the US, and that she wasn’t going to be released.  Somebody in the US military had forgotten the fiction that the occupation ended in June, and that the US was not supposed to say things like that any more.  By the next morning, however, the story had been straightened out: Iraqi minister, Kassem Daoud, told Today that Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had made the decision not to release Ms Taha, and had not bowed to US pressure in doing so.  Obviously not.


Had Ms Taha been released on bail as the Iraqi justice ministry had decided, with the prospect of her colleague following in the near future, it is possible that Ken Bigley would be alive today.  But the US stymied that, and Blair and Straw stood idly by and let it happen.  The two women were obviously no threat to anybody, and should never have been interned in the first place.


So was Jack Straw lying when he said “there are no women prisoners in our custody in Iraq”?  No, Jack was playing a childish game: by “our custody” he meant “British custody”, as if there were two independent occupying authorities in Iraq.  The purpose of the childish game must have been to absolve himself of any responsibility for blocking the release of the two women, which made Ken Bigley’s death a near certainty.



Politicians competed to find words to condemn Ken Bigley’s beheading.  The Prime Minister felt “utter revulsion” at the killers and described their act as “barbaric”.  The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Aherne, was “shocked and outraged” by the “callous murder”; “the perpetrators have shown a total lack of mercy and humanity and in doing so have reached new depths of barbarism”, he said.  Clearly, in this competition Bertie Aherne won.


But by what criterion can beheading with a knife be described as any more barbaric than killing by F16, for which Blair is responsible?  There are, it is true, important differences between the killing methods.  First, the F16 is a vastly more effective, and more indiscriminate, killing machine.  Second, killing by F16 is a much more impersonal business for the killer – he can go on killing indefinitely without a conscience, as if playing a video game, and never get real blood on his hands.  Obviously, that’s not barbaric.


War on terrorism?

The Government’s handling of the Ken Bigley affair was guided by two principles – to avoid any blame for his death and to use his death to justify the continued military occupation of Iraq.  On the day of his death, Blair said:


“I feel a strong sense, as I hope others do, that the actions of these people whether in Iraq or elsewhere should not prevail over people like Ken Bigley.”


The message there is that the “terrorists” who killed Ken Bigley are part of a worldwide Islamic terrorist conspiracy, and Britain must stay in Iraq to combat them.  It doesn’t go as far as saying that Iraq is the “main battleground” in the “war on terrorism”, as both he and his friend George Bush have said in the past.  The fact that Iraq was a “terrorist” free zone before March 2003 is, of course, an irrelevant detail.


Perhaps, the grand plan was for US/UK forces to invade Iraq to act as a kind of flypaper to attract “terrorists” into Iraq in order to destroy them.  Certainly, from time to time words have come out of George Bush’s mouth implying that.  In his address to the nation on 19 March 2003, after military action had started, he said:


“We meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”


It seems a long time ago since the Prime Minister told us that we must invade Iraq to disarm it of its “weapons of mass destruction”.



Labour & Trade Union Review

November 2004