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TUESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2024
Does Yvonne Ridley deserve a place in the Fleet Street Pantheon? The jury’s out
DERRING DO: Sunday Express Chief Reporter Yvonne Ridley was captured by the Taliban and became a Muslim
Fleet Street attracted some tough women. Think of Ann Leslie, of the Mail, or Sunday Mirror Editor Eve Pollard, or our own Jean Rook.
They were formidable characters and outstanding journalists. They had to be. They were trading blows in a man’s world, no quarter asked and certainly none given.
To that list you might add Yvonne Ridley. Or you might not – judge for yourself.
Ridley was Chief Reporter on the Sunday Express when she was captured by the Taliban in 2001 as she reported, from beneath a burka, on the plight of the Afghan people.
It was a day none of us on the paper then will forget. Our Chief Reporter – a woman, remember – at the mercy of one of the cruellest, most fanatical and misogynistic regimes on earth.
We were in a routine editorial conference, planning that week’s paper, when we heard the shattering news from a management emissary.
In the silence that followed, I cracked a bleak gag, meant as gallows humour. “Well,” I said, “that’s the splash and the spread sorted.”
As Frank Carson would say, it’s the way I tell them. Anyway, it earned me some withering looks from around the table and a teasing admonishment in the book Ridley wrote after her release, In the Hands of the Taliban.
To his great credit, the Chairman, Richard Desmond, said when he heard the news: “How much will it cost to get her out?”
All through the crisis, I wondered: How did it come to this? Undercover in Afghanistan? Would Sir John Junor have entertained that idea? I think he might have preferred Ridley to find a vicar who had run off with the lady organist.
So, flashback to the days following the catastrophe of 9/11.
Ridley, then 43, was doing her damnedest to get to New York to cover this once-in-a-lifetime story. But unsurprisingly, the US government had locked the country down and there was no way in, especially by plane.
Afghanistan was already the focus of America’s hunt for those who killed almost 3,000 people by crashing commercial airliners into New York’s Twin Towers and another into the Pentagon. A fourth plane, believed to be heading for the White House, was brought down in Pennsylvania after passengers fought with the hijackers.
Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the most murderously audacious terrorist attacks the world had ever seen, was thought to be holed up in the White Mountains, tribal badlands that straddle the border of Afghanistan and its perfidious neighbour Pakistan, with a $25 million bounty on his head.
News Editor Jim Murray told Ridley to forget the US and go instead to Islamabad.
She called her daughter Daisy, then aged 8, whose father is Colonel Daoud Zaaroura, former head of Intelligence for Yasser Arafat’s PLO, at her boarding school in the Lake District to say goodbye.
Then, on Thursday, September 27, she set off on her doomed mission and flew to Pakistan.
She kicked her heels for a while, looking for a story, an angle, any angle that the pack didn’t have (by now there were rival hacks around every corner).
Ridley spent time with the unfortunate residents of Jalozai, a benighted slum that was Pakistan’s largest refugee camp. She pleaded for a visa to go to Afghanistan. She tried to gain permission to visit the North-West Frontier.
She talked her way into visiting the Khyber Pass when all foreign journalists were being refused permission to go there. The official she persuaded even offered an armed escort but banned her from getting out of the car while she was there.
Then she caught a broadcast by the BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson, pictured, who despite his six-foot-plus frame and considerable girth, had slipped in to Afghanistan disguised as a woman in a burka.
Ridley found it hilarious but admits in her book: “It planted the seed of an idea in my head. The words ‘burka’ and ‘invisible’ began to swirl around and the seed began to grow.”
Ridley presented Murray with two plans: either she would go to Kashmir to interview Islamist militants of the al-Badr group; or she would smuggle herself into Afghanistan to speak to women living under the tyranny of the Taliban.
She took the second option, with the blessing of Murray, Editor Martin Townsend and Managing Editor Alex Bannister, who bizarrely was trying to arrange insurance for the journey.
In an email to Murray, she said: “If this comes off, I know there will be pats on the back and if it doesn’t I will be called reckless and stupid.
“I have taken every precaution possible. My hair is dyed and so is my skin. I am wearing second-hand, traditional Afghan clothes and shoes. Muskeen [Ridley’s guide] will tell people he is going to get his old mother out of the country.”
She planned to leave all identification with a contact at the border and if they were challenged by the Taliban she would act literally dumb.
The only piece of journalistic equipment she planned to take with her was a Nikon camera. It was to prove a fateful decision.
At a remote farmhouse in Pakistan, she pulled on an Afghan dress and a blue silk burka. She noticed that the outfit immediately changed the attitude of the men in the party.
“They were pretty dismissive of me and I suddenly went from being a Western woman in charge of a project to someone who had no significance at all.”
Considering what was to come, this was a strange show of Western feminism from Ridley.
Ridley’s guides took her to an Afghan village called Kama, where she was greeted with excitement and curiosity. She shared a meal with the villagers and asked them about their hopes and fears, their ambitions, their take on 9/11, which they all referred to as “the mishap”.
A young translator told her: “It is very difficult to escape from this poverty and follow my ambitions. Very few of us can afford to have ambitions.”
The story was taking shape and it was time to go. But when Ridley and her party reached the border there was a serious hitch. Pakistan had closed it and she was told they would have to wait until morning and then take a smugglers’ route out.
She was worried by now and thought of her friends and colleagues at the Sunday Express. Her last text message had come from reporter Keith Perry: “JIM SAYS BE CAREFUL AS WE DON’T WANT TO LOSE YOU! LUV KEITH.”
Ridley walked on stony tracks and through a mountain pass in plastic shoes that blistered her feet. With the border only a short distance away, she was given a donkey to ride the last leg of the journey.
As she climbed on, the animal bolted and Ridley roared: “Flaming Nora!” But it wasn’t her Northern curse that betrayed her, it was her camera, which was revealed as she tried to grab the donkey’s reins.
It was spotted by a Taliban fighter with “the most amazing emerald green eyes I have ever seen”. He yanked her from the donkey and into captivity.
Ridley was jeered as she was driven away by Afghans calling her “Amreeka spy” – American spy, words that could spell a death sentence. She was groped in the car and later, in the room that served as a cell, she feared she was about to be raped when a man crept in and lay beside her.
After that, she was allowed to lock the door from the inside. She was on hunger strike and told the Taliban she would not eat with them unless she was their guest and not their prisoner.
And all the time she faced repetitive questioning from stony-faced men suspicious of her motives for entering Afghanistan secretly. Behind the interrogation lay the unspoken menace of torture, a bullet in the head or a long and lonely incarceration.
But Ridley, a former captain in the Territorial Army, toughed it out. A cleric asked what her religion was. She told him Christian, Protestant. She added that she found Islam fascinating and promised to look into it when she got back to London.
She was told she was going home but instead they took her to the terrorist wing of Kabul prison and put her in a 7m x 5m cell with some captured aid workers accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
But Ridley had resolved to be the prisoner from hell and gave her captors the full hands on hips, toe tapping fury of a loud and brassed off Newcastle lass.
It wasn’t all they had to endure. She would sing Rule Britannia and threatened her captors with a war crimes tribunal.
Then the bombing started and Ridley had a front row seat as Cruise missiles fired by Western forces pounded targets around Kabul… but no means of calling the news desk to file copy.
Finally, on Monday, October 8, they allowed her to leave. They gave her a black velvet dress with a red and gold veil to wear. She joked with a man from the Foreign Ministry that she had slept through the bombing, thinking it was “a farewell fireworks party from the Taliban”.
“Ridley,” he said, “you are a man. You are a great game player. Come now – it’s time to go.”
Once back in Pakistan, she was greeted by TV cameras and reporters. “How did the Taliban treat you?” she was asked.
“With courtesy and respect,” Ridley answered.
Later, she learnt that Paul Ashford, Editorial Director of the Express, and Salayha Hussain-Din, one of the company’s lawyers who spoke Urdu, had been in Pakistan, negotiating for her release, which also owed much to the intervention of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, pictured.
So, the derring-do did not end in disaster. Not quite. But nor could it be called an unqualified triumph.
However, the story does not end there. What followed was every bit as interesting as Ridley’s capture and imprisonment.
She disappeared for a while with Jim Murray to write her book, which was published by Robson Books, in association with the Sunday Express.
In many ways, Ridley was the hard-drinking, chain-smoking stereotype Fleet Street woman journalist, a regular at Gerry’s, the drinking club in Soho, where she lived. She came to the Sunday Express via a spell with the Sunday Times Insight team and then the News of the World.
“Newspapers are my life,” she says. “Boyfriends and husbands have come and gone and they can’t compete with the job.”
It wasn’t long after her release that rumours began to swirl that she was a changed woman. She had promised to examine the Muslim faith – and she went on to embrace it.
Why? These are four possible reasons:
Was she brainwashed by her captors? They could easily have applied pressure with the threat of death or a long and terrible prison sentence.
Did she have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Who could blame her if she did? Plenty of hardened soldiers have fallen victim to what used to be called shell-shock.
Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome, a condition that psychologically binds a victim of kidnapping or abuse to their captors. It happened to newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who was seized in 1974 by a terrorist group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and ended up robbing banks for them.
Or did Ridley just experience a Damascene conversion, a sudden realisation that Islam was the path to peace and fulfilment, causing her to turn her back on Christianity?
Ridley, married five times including to her Palestinian Intelligence chief and also to an Israeli businessman who has admitted links to the Israeli spy agency, the Mossad, converted to Islam in 2003.
She got a job with al Jazeera as a senior editor in the same year but was sacked months later for her “overly-vocal and argumentative style”. She won a case for unfair dismissal and was awarded the equivalent of £14,000 compensation.
She has also worked for the Islam Channel (unfairly sacked again with compensation set at £26,000) and an Iranian English language news channel.
She has campaigned for the people of Gaza – long before the current war between Hamas and Israel – and has stood as a Respect candidate in several elections, including an attempt to represent North East England in the European Parliament.
She was nominated in 2014 for Muslim Woman of the Year. And in 2019 she was nominated for the Nobel peace Prize for helping lawyers to take statements on war crimes from Rohyingya refugees who had fled from Myanmar.
That’s quite a life. But does it qualify her for the Fleet Street Pantheon?
9 January 2024