Upcoming International Women’s Day speaker, Rabia Siddique has been an international humanitarian lawyer, retired British Army senior officer, former war crimes and terrorism prosecutor and hostage survivor.
Rabia was taken hostage by Islamic insurgents as she tried to negotiate the release of two kidnapped British SAS operatives in Iraq. Her male colleague was given a Military Cross for his involvement in the incident, Rabia received a hug. Here she shares her extraordinary story…
Hundreds of enraged Iraqis hurl petrol bombs as they try to storm the compound surrounding the notorious Iraqi police station, al-Jamiat. The scene is chaotic, as a barrier of British soldiers tries their hardest to keep the angry civilians at bay. Rabia Siddique is watching it all from above. The British Army Lynx helicopter she’s in cuts through the thick black smoke as it brings her down; Rabia is being dropped in the middle of this frightening scene. “I am wearing full-body armour and cradling an SA80 assault rifle between my knees. I have a moment to wonder whether many other military lawyers have found themselves so far out of their comfort zone,” she remembers of the day.
Although a major in the British Army, this is not part of her job description. Earlier that day on the 19th of September 2005, two British Special Forces soldiers had been kidnapped and were being held hostage at al-Jamiat. “The Jamiat police station is the headquarters of the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU), which locals refer to – without joking – as the ‘Murder Squad’,” Rabia says. “The SCU is staffed and run by members of a Shite insurgency group. By day, they masquerade as police officers; by night, they kidnap, torture and murder Sunnis, foreign civilians and soldiers.”
Rabia was back at the army’s base at Basra Airport listening to updates as the drama unfolded. “There was not a lot that I thought I could do or be involved in,” Rabia says. “The head of the UK brigade’s surveillance unit, Major James Woodham, was sent to try to persuade the police to release them. By the time he was allowed to see them, they were bloodied, hooded and chained to chairs in a cell. But his negotiations to have the pair freed went nowhere. The police at the Jamiat, as well as an Iraqi judge who’d been summoned to the station, told James they won’t speak to anyone except ‘Major Rabia’.”
“Despite my concerns I guess I felt I had no choice; these two lives were really in my hands. I just had enough time to grab my helmet, my rifle and my body armour … I hadn’t been trained for close combat or as a hostage negotiator, I was terrified.”
As part of her work in Iraq since April 2005, Rabia had often been to the Jamiat and had formed relationships with some of the police officers and the judge. They knew her yes, but they also knew Major Woodham, so there was no clear reason why they’d asked for her. Although Rabia and her brigade commander expressed concern over sending her into the situation, Major Rupert Jones, the chief of staff, ordered her to get in the helicopter and go. “Despite my concerns I guess I felt I had no choice; these two lives were really in my hands. I just had enough time to grab my helmet, my rifle and my body armour. I even forgot to put on the hijab I always wore as a mark of respect when working with the Iraqis. I hadn’t been trained for close combat or as a hostage negotiator, I was terrified.”
“When I got to the compound I was met by a very nervous looking James who ushered me into the office where the Iraqi judge was waiting for me together with many of the terrorist police officers who were standing around looking very menacing. The judge was very much in control and he made it clear that the only people that would be talking in the room were me and him. I made an agreement with him that I could go in and see the two guys. So we went up and we saw them in the cell where they were being held. The first thing I said to the soldiers who were elite trained killers was ‘it’s ok, I’ve been sent in to rescue you.’ The guys sort of looked at me and gave me a smile, but they were probably thinking ‘holy shit, if this is all the British Army’s got then we’re stuffed!’ Just as we were about to secure an agreement all hell broke loose outside. I could hear rocket propelled grenades go off, screaming and shouting and the crack of gunfire and I could see flames out of the little window. The officers standing around us started to cock their weapons. They threw the two soldiers back into the corner of the cell, ushered the judge out and physically threw James and I out of the cell. We were thrown into another cell and it was clear that we too were now hostages.
“At one point during our period of captivity, a man from the crowd outside raced in screaming that his relative had been shot by a British solider and he turned around and saw me and James standing there. He cocked his AK-47 at us; he was just about to shoot when he was wrestled to the ground by the police officers. I have no idea why, but it was a weird twist of fate that these terrorists saved our lives. From the little bit of Arabic I understood, I heard the police officers saying that the two SAS soldiers were no longer at the compound, but I had no idea where they’d been taken,” Rabia recalls of her terrifying ordeal.
Late that night the British and American Armies launched a rescue operation and Rabia and James were recovered. Through aerial surveillance they also managed to work out where the SAS soldiers had been taken and were miraculously able to save them minutes before they were to be beheaded. “It was incredible that we all came out of it alive,” Rabia says.
Rabia was taken back to base and mentally prepared for what she thought would be a long process ahead. “Standard military procedure would be to go through some lengthy debriefing so we could share whatever information and intelligence we’d heard. Obviously I’d been through a lot, but I knew this was going to be important.
“It was clear to me that the only chance of these guys surviving was me. Yet no one would recognise or discuss or acknowledge the role that I played.”
“We got back to the headquarters and James was given a hero’s welcome, a pat on the back and was sent in for debriefing. I was given a hug, offered a cup of tea and told to go to bed.”
In the days and weeks that followed, the silence surrounding Rabia’s key involvement in the event was deafening. “I was confused, I was hurt, and I didn’t know what was going on. I had risked my life and despite my misgiving, I decided to go in, it was clear to me that the only chance of these guys surviving was me. Yet no one would recognise or discuss or acknowledge the role that I played.”
Rabia chose to put her personal feelings aside and continue with her important work in Iraq until she’d served out her full term and returned to the UK at the end of 2005. In 2006, Major James Woodham was awarded a Military Cross for the outstanding bravery he showed in the incident, while the Army still refused to acknowledge Rabia’s involvement on her confidential internal staff report.
The fight for justice
Although she was deeply hurt by the lack of recognition she was given for her key role in the Iraq incident, Rabia stayed with the British Army. But, as she says herself, you couldn’t make this stuff up – she was posted to a job where she could not ignore the discrimination she’d experienced. “How could I go around training soldiers and officers and be convincing and persuading them to leave the old ways behind and to promote equality and diversity if I wasn’t prepared to stand up to the discrimination that I had suffered. Being an officer was all about having the moral courage to do the right thing and being a leader is having the courage to do the right thing even if it is difficult.”
Rabia spent a year and a half trying to do everything possible to resolve the issue without making it official. She didn’t want public recognition or accolades; all she wanted was for her involvement to be noted on her internal staff report. Rabia believes the reasons for the army’s behaviour were the result of a lot of complicated issues. “I had some contacts that made it clear to me that it was a decision not only made at the highest level of military but by the highest levels of government. They had decided that I was a walking, talking, political hot potato and that I represented a lot of things that they wanted to shy away from and so my part in the incident couldn’t be acknowledged. To acknowledge that I, as a female, Muslim, lawyer had played a significant part in the incident in Iraq and nearly lost my life would be political suicide.”
In the end she was only given one option – to sue the UK Ministry of Defence for discrimination. “From the day it was lodged to the day in court the British army tried to make it as hard for me as possible. They tried to intimidate me and frighten me. They tried to medically discharge me from the army, they tried to send me on a punishment posting and then just a few weeks before the trial they went to the British tabloids and painted me to be this money grabbing, attention seeking woman.”
The leak to the media sparked the world’s media attention and on the day of the trial over 60 members of the international press was waiting to hear Rabia’s story and witness what had become a landmark case for the British government and the British armed forces. “Within half an hour of myself and my legal team arriving at the court, the barrister representing the British government asked what it would take to make this all go away. My initial reaction was no way, there is nothing you can do to make this go away, you could have made this go away a long time ago, we’re having this trial; we are fighting.”
Unknown to everyone else, Rabia and her husband Anthony, who’d she’d met in the military and married in 2004 before her deployment, were expecting. And, again you can’t make this stuff up, they were expecting triplets. “My husband, who was my wonderful support through all of this, reminded me that for us something had changed. So together I sat down with my legal team and came up with a list of conditions that we wanted met before I would agree. This list meant that I was going to win regardless, and the army agreed to it. They agreed to a public apology and public recognition of what I had done by the most senior officers in the armed forces. I also wanted an enquiry into the incident so that this form of discrimination would never happen again. I felt that I had got the justice that I was seeking. It was a huge weight off my shoulders, because this was something that had become my life.”
Rabia left the army and was offered a new job quickly, working in a job prosecuting terrorists and war criminals for the next three years. Rabia, Anthony and her three sons moved to Perth in 2011 and worked as a senior government lawyer. As you’d expect, her story has become known around the world, she is increasingly in demand on the speaking circuit and released a book titled ‘Equal Justice’ telling her full story. A movie deal has been secured for the book with rumours that Angelina Jolie will take the lead role.
Only in her early forties Rabia has lived an extraordinary life, her story is certainly the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster, but the film will need a sequel because this woman isn’t finished being extraordinary just yet.