World

The Diana conspiracies

16 years after the death of a princess, new allegations point to MI6 involvement. And Scotland Yard is taking it seriously

Neil Munns / CP; Reuters

The latest version of the story of Princess Diana’s tragic death goes something like this: 23 minutes past midnight on the evening of Aug. 31, 1997—just after the black Mercedes that was carrying Diana and her lover, Dodi Fayed, entered Paris’s winding Place de l’Alma tunnel—a black motorbike and two cars (one dark and one white) entered the underpass in a tight formation. The white car approached and quickly brushed the side of the Mercedes, nudging it off kilter and allowing the motorbike to surge ahead. Then a great flash of light (likely a strobe light)—followed by a thunderous slam, as the Mercedes crumpled into the tunnel’s 13th pillar. (Fayed died on impact; Diana, about four hours later). Moments later, one of the motorbike passengers stopped to peer inside the broken car, before turning to his partner and raising his arms into an X: the military signal for “mission accomplished.”

According to last month’s British broadsheets and tabloids—many of which carried variations of the above tale—those shadowy operatives were members of “the Increment”: an elite squad of the Special Air Service (SAS) that is attached to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. In 1997, new accusations charge, Increment soldiers banded together to murder the nation’s most unruly princess.

Arriving days shy of the 16th anniversary of the crash—and after numerous official inquiries, all of which concluded that Diana’s death was a horrible accident—the claims of military involvement appear preposterous. Nevertheless, for the first time since its own inquiry closed, Scotland Yard has pledged to review the allegation, “assessing its relevance and credibility.” In a brief statement, a spokesperson explained that an “assessment will be carried out by officers from the specialist crime and operations command,” stressing that this would not amount to “a reinvestigation” of the case. So what is it?

The office gave no further details. Scotland Yard is thought to be evaluating whether claims of military involvement have been thoroughly ruled out. This new accusation, after all, comes from the inside, which is what makes it difficult to ignore.

Speculation about “the people’s princess” and her untimely death has never really gone away. So many different versions of the same few minutes. The cast of potential Diana murderers has changed over the years, variously including Balkan arms dealers, Islamist terrorists and, of course, the royal family.

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But Scotland Yard’s indulgence in this latest round of revelations has captured mainstream attention—and even swayed a few naysayers. Some have taken the move as a validation, that claims of MI6 involvement are worthy of scrutiny. Others believe that Scotland Yard has simply been backed into a wall: that in the face of such highly publicized claims, and in an effort to maintain public trust, the office has no choice but to go forward.

BBC broadcaster Nicholas Owen is not the only respected journalist to recently speak of “a lot of unanswered questions about what happened in those desperate days” after Diana’s death. Even Dai Davies, head of the Metropolitan Police’s “royal protection” squad at the time of Diana’s death, who calls the new accusations “a complete load of rubbish,” grants, “there are some curious factors.”

With a new Diana biopic due out in theatres this fall, and new theories of her murder cueing up hysteria about a Buckingham Palace-directed inside job, there is plenty to bolster the world’s enduring fascination with the Diana story.

In 2011, a 38-year-old SAS sniper named Danny Nightingale was arrested for illegal possession of a pistol and 338 rounds of ammunition. A key witness in his court martial was a man identified as “Soldier N”: Nightingale’s housemate and a member of the same elite military unit, who was himself jailed for illegal weapons possession. Prior to his arrest, Soldier N allegedly told his wife that his SAS unit had “arranged” and “covered up” Diana’s death. Around the time of Nightingale’s trial—at which point Soldier N and his wife were estranged—the man’s mother-in-law sent a letter to military authorities, relaying Soldier N’s boast. (Scotland Yard would not confirm its source.)

For whatever reason, the Royal Military Police (which conducted Nightingale’s investigation) appears to have waited two years before passing the letter on to London constables. Scotland Yard has said only that it received new evidence “recently.” News of that letter, and Scotland Yard’s subsequent pledge to assess its credibility, has propelled a steady rush of news stories. Mainstream outlets have given the scoop a fair nod—while tabloids like the Express and the Mirror seem to cover little else. Last week, the Daily Mail published “tantalizing new clues,” under the headline, “That SAS murder claim and why it may not be as mad as you think.”

From his home on the Isle of Man, author Alan Power is feeling vindicated. Power is a long-time proponent of the inside job theory—as outlined in his new book, The Princess Diana Conspiracy: The Evidence of Murder. The book tells the story of the Increment and its alleged role in Diana’s death. “The main motive was simply the self-preservation of the monarchy,” explains Power, who used to own an IT company, but recently decided to take up writing. “Diana was going to take the children to live abroad after she married Dodi.” She also had “a whole stream of evidence” on Prince Charles, which she planned to release “to make sure he didn’t succeed to the throne.”

But back in the summer of 1997, all the world knew was that Diana had embarked on a new love affair with Dodi Fayed, the son of an ostentatious Egyptian-born billionaire, and had escaped to Fayed’s yacht for a nine-day vacation, sailing the waters around France, Monaco and Sardinia. By then, Diana was travelling without official personal protection—at her own request.

On Saturday, Aug. 30, the couple arrived in Paris, dining at the Ritz Hotel. Around midnight, they decided to drive to Fayed’s apartment, just off the Champs-Élysées. At 12:20 a.m., Diana and Fayed got into the back seat of a Mercedes S280 car; Henri Paul, head of security at the Ritz, took the wheel—alongside Fayed’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones. They drove from the rear of the hotel, in a botched effort to elude the journalists gathered out front.

The crash in the Alma underpass took place just minutes later. Details of the carnage—the ruined Mercedes, Dodi’s mangled limbs, Diana’s stunned eyes and torn left pulmonary vein—were reported worldwide, in grisly detail. Only Rees-Jones, the bodyguard, would survive.

Within hours, several paparazzi were arrested by Parisian police—and later investigated for failing to provide assistance to the victims at the scene. (The prosecutor’s department eventually judged that there was insufficient evidence against them.) Over the following months, French authorities carried out an extensive investigation. In August 1999, they ruled that no manslaughter charges were warranted. A month later, French Judge Hervé Stephan released his long-awaited report, blaming the crash on Henri Paul, the driver, who was reportedly drunk and under the influence of antidepressants.

Meanwhile, roused by a growing chorus of public skepticism—and the stalwart insistence of Fayed’s father that the crash was no accident—the British royal coroner asked the Metropolitan Police to open an investigation. In 2004, “Operation Paget” was launched. It would prove an immense undertaking, involving elaborate recreations of the crash site as well as interviews with some 250 witnesses—all at a reported cost of $20 million. Two years later, an 832-page forensic report was released. Like the French authorities, British investigators blamed the driver. They also cited paparazzi aggression and the fact that Diana and Dodi were not wearing seatbelts. In 2008, a separate judicial inquest came to the same conclusion, again emphasizing the driver’s “gross negligence.”

And still, conspiracies abound. As early as 1998, Dodi’s father Mohamed Fayed told investigators that the crash was a plot by MI6 to kill Diana. Later, in a letter to British authorities, Fayed’s lawyers claimed that Diana had been pregnant at the time of her death—and was imminently planning to announce her engagement to Dodi. The “Establishment,” Fayed charged, “could not accept that an Egyptian Muslim could eventually be the stepfather of the future king of England.”

The letter named Prince Philip as the plot’s mastermind. (Later, Fayed implicated prime minister Tony Blair, the American CIA and Diana’s older sister, among others.) Fayed retained the services of American Senate majority leader George Mitchell (decorated for his role in Northern Ireland peace talks), to make inquiries on his behalf in Washington.

From early days, conspirators have fed on alleged gaps in the official account. Why did none of the CCTV cameras in the Paris tunnel capture the crash? (They weren’t positioned to.) Where is the white car that was spotted at the scene? (It was never identified.) Did it belong to paparazzo James Andanson, who was found dead with two bullet holes in his head 23 months later? (The inquiry says no.) Amateur sleuths allege that Henri Paul’s blood tests were botched; that the car’s seatbelts had mysteriously malfunctioned. One particularly popular claim is that Diana’s anti-land-mine activism had provoked the ire of global arms dealers, who had arranged the hit themselves.

But the most enduring theory is the one that places MI6 at the heart of the plot. In large part, the story has stuck because of a seemingly prophetic letter that Diana wrote to her former butler in October 1993. (Paul Burrell, the butler, reportedly hid the letter from investigators. He was later prosecuted and acquitted for hoarding Diana’s belongings.) In the letter, Diana warned: “This particular phase in my life is the most dangerous. My husband is planning ‘an accident’ in my car, brake failure and serious head injury in order to make the path clear for him to marry.” The letter was presented at the Royal Courts of Justice during the 2007 inquest—though some have questioned its validity.

In some versions of the story, intelligence forces in the Paris tunnel used a technique (blinding the driver via stroboscopic light) that was drawn up as part of an earlier plot to assassinate Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. This morsel came from ex-SAS agent Richard Tomlinson, who testified that MI6 was involved in Diana’s death. During Operation Paget, however, British investigators were granted unprecedented access to MI6, and were unable to substantiate any of Tomlinson’s claims; indeed, they discredited many of them. In other versions, the soldiers had simply been ordered to scare Diana straight—to cause a minor crash, perhaps break a couple of bones—but had, in the dark of the Paris tunnel, pushed the Mercedes just a little too far.

“So interesting how conspiracies came out around the 16th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death,” scoffed Dickie Arbiter, Queen Elizabeth II’s former press officer. “It’s quiet all year. But then at her anniversary: presto!”

“It’s been 16 years. And every year, someone comes out with ‘new’ information. I find nothing new in this,” insists Dai Davies, the former Met officer, about these recent allegations. Davies is now retired (he spends part of his time lecturing on cruise ships about “royal protection in a historical sense”) but he has followed Diana investigations over the years, and remains “100 per cent convinced” of the official version of events.

Many of the most popular conspiracy theories, Davies points out, are the easiest to refute. For one: medical investigations showed that Diana was not pregnant when she died. As for the fact of Fayed being Muslim? “Diana had a number of affairs. She dated a Pakistani for almost two years. If someone wanted to get rid of her because she was [romantically linked] to a Muslim man, it could have been done many times over.” (This romance, with British-Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, will be the central plotline in the upcoming Diana film, staring Naomi Watts.)

Davies is critical of Scotland Yard’s management of the new allegations—and, in particular, its pledge to investigate the new claims. “They should have given the caveat that we get many such allegations, with each given the weight it deserves.” In his day, Davies says, he used to have a cozier relationship with reporters—and was able to quash misleading stories about the royals before they even appeared in print.

Power, the author, might argue that they’re still trying. On the phone with Maclean’s, Power was adamant that “authorities” are trying to hush him up. “I had an unmarked helicopter hover over my house. They stayed there a while, I just waved at them. They are almost certainly MI6.” And who can disprove him? After all, the whole premise of a good conspiracy is that it can only be undermined by an especially astute coterie of code-breakers. Edward Snowden’s colossal revelations about American and British spy programs have added weight to the old adage: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not following you.” In Britain, Scotland Yard’s reassurances on the Diana front are less comforting than they might once have been—before the police force was implicated in Britain’s ongoing phone-hacking scandal.

Arbiter, the Queen’s former press agent, predicts that all this “will come up with nothing”—but that, over the next few months, London police officers will “go through the motions of investigation. They have to. If they didn’t . . . there would be a hell of a to-do.”