An SAS sniper, lying on a bridge, points his long-range rifle towards a dual-carriageway and peers into his telescopic sight, as if poised to open fire. It makes for a startling image – all the more so since the picture was taken not in a conflict zone or even a training camp but in a public area in the Welsh countryside.
What makes it more arresting is that the photograph was found on a computer belonging to the Special Forces marksman known as Soldier N, who is said to have told his wife that members of the SAS ‘arranged’ the death of Princess Diana.
The Mail on Sunday can reveal that it has now been passed to the Metropolitan Police, whose specialist crime and operations command is investigating the sensational, if improbable, assassination theory.
The allegation first came to light during the second court martial of Sergeant Danny Nightingale, who was found guilty of illegally possessing a gun and ammunition.
Since then it has attracted global press attention and fuelled conspiracy theories.
It was outlined in a letter, written by the mother-in-law of Soldier N, who was a key witness for the prosecution.
The picture was one of 90 images of Special Forces soldiers found on Soldier N’s home computer.
He faces a Ministry of Defence investigation after he was also said to have illegally stored secret SAS tactical documents, videos of operations in Afghanistan and emails to his then wife from Afghanistan identifying the location of SAS and Special Boat Service units, times and dates of operations, and tactics used to kill and capture insurgents.
In all likelihood the men in the photograph taken on the bridge were engaged in a counter-terrorism training exercise, practising a procedure known as high speed vehicle interdiction. The tactic was developed to stop vehicles being driven by terrorists or suicide bombers travelling at speed.
It is thought that the bridge and a section of road beneath it were closed at the time. The Mail on Sunday knows the location of the bridge but has agreed not to disclose it at the request of senior defence officials.
Author and former SAS soldier Andy McNab said that although the exercise would have been ‘as realistic as possible’, the sniper would not have used either live or blank ammunition.
Even so, it is easy to see how the 2009 image, thought to have been taken by Soldier N, might be seized upon by those who believe Diana’s death, along with her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, in a car crash in a Paris underpass in 1997 was murder, not an accident.
Simon McKay, solicitor for Dodi’s father Mohamed Al Fayed, said it not only ‘causes concern and anxiety by everyone affected by this case but also the public generally, who are entitled to answers not just how it came about, but also how it was photographed and the extent to which the military sanctioned it’. The Ministry of Defence declined to discuss the picture last night.
Soldier N is said to have claimed that a former member of the elite regiment was in charge of an assassination squad which moved in on Dodi’s driver Henri Paul, who also died in the crash, using a white car and a motorbike – before flashing a blinding light into his eyes. But reflecting the twisting nature of the case, this has now been denied by Soldier N himself. A source close to the inquiry told this newspaper that he and his girlfriend gave statements to police last month, and that Soldier N blamed his former wife for ‘trying to cause trouble’.
Scotland Yard said yesterday it was ‘not appropriate to give a running commentary on the progress of the investigation’.
Meanwhile Mr McKay, acting on behalf of Mr Al Fayed and Soldier N’s wife, has been critical of the Met’s approach to the case.
He wrote to the Met Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, to complain that the officer leading the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Philip Easton, was unlikely to be ‘sufficiently objective or open-minded’. This, he said, was because DCI Easton was a ‘significant contributor’ to the Paget Report, which concluded Diana’s death was a tragic accident.
Mr McKay said last night: ‘It is important to bear in mind that it is not disputed that Mr Al Fayed’s son, Dodi, was unlawfully killed and that he is entitled to the same treatment that any father facing such a tragedy expects from the police in this country. The reality is the police have approached this new material with scepticism before exploring its truth. They have issued press releases without first speaking to the family. They have failed to meet promises that Mr Al Fayed would be kept up to date with inquiries.