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Investigation finds evidence of war crimes by UK special forces in Afghanistan

Originally published: Peoples Dispatch on July 12, 2022 by Tanupriya Singh (more by Peoples Dispatch)  | (Posted Jul 16, 2022)

A four-year investigation by the BBC has revealed evidence of war crimes by members of the UK’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) in Afghanistan. These pertain to the repeated killings of unarmed men and detainees between 2010 and 2011. Military reports obtained during the course of the probe suggest that one unit may have killed 54 people in a single six-month tour. BBC’ s Panorama analyzed SAS operational accounts, including reports covering more than a dozen “kill or capture” raids carried out by an SAS squadron in the Helmand province.

Individuals who were deployed alongside this squadron told the BBC that they had witnessed SAS operatives kill unarmed people during night raids. They also stated that they had seen these operatives using “drop weapons”–a tactic wherein AK-47 rifles were planted at a scene to justify the killing of an unarmed person.

The UK Ministry of Defense has stated that it cannot comment on “specific allegations”. Meanwhile, internal emails have shown that top-most level special forces officers were aware of concerns over possible “unlawful killings”, but failed to report these to the military police, in violation of their legal obligation.

The killings in Helmand

The SAS unit in question arrived in Helmand in November 2010. Its primary role was to carry out deliberate detention operations, or DDOs, which were also known as “kill or capture” raids. Their stated purpose was to detain Taliban commanders and disrupt bomb-making networks. Sources told the BBC that there were “grave problems” with the intelligence that informed the selection process, meaning a civilian could be easily misidentified and targeted.

A British representative told the BBC that lists of supposed Taliban members were put through a short process of discussion, and were then passed onto special forces who would be given a kill or capture order. “It didn’t necessarily translate into let’s kill them all, but certainly there was a pressure to up the game, which basically meant passing judgements on these people quickly”, the source added.

The BBC investigation has cited several other people who were deployed along with special forces, who said that SAS squadrons were competing with each other to “get the most kills”. The squadron in Helmand was trying to achieve a higher body count than its predecessor.

During the SAS raids, the operatives used a recognized tactic wherein they would call everyone from inside a building out, search and restrain them with cable-tie handcuffs. A male would then be taken back inside to assist with the search. However, senior officers soon became concerned by the frequency with which the SAS squadron described detainees being taken inside the buildings and then supposedly grabbing hidden weapons.

In at least six raids, the number of people killed surpassed the number of weapons reportedly recovered– suggesting that the SAS was shooting unarmed people, and that the operatives were falsifying evidence by dropping weapons at the scene. Internal emails at the time described these reports as “quite incredible” and made references to the squadron’s “latest massacre”.

One operations officer emailed a colleague saying “for what must be the 10th time in the last two weeks”, the squadron had sent a detainee back into a building “and he reappeared with an AK…Then they walked back into a different A[building] with another B[fighting-age male} to open the curtains he grabbed a grenade from behind a curtain and threw it at the [SAS assault team]. Fortunately, it didn’t go off…this is the 8th time this has happened…You couldn’t MAKE IT UP!”

The BBC looked at a series of incidents between November 2010 and April 2011, with strikingly similar reports of detained men grabbing hidden AK-47s or hand grenades from behind curtains or under furniture. In one such case on February 7, 2011 the squadron killed a detainee claiming that he had “attempted to engage the patrol with a rifle”. The same justification was used for killings on February 9 and 13. The total death toll from the squadron’s six-month tour was in the triple figures.

The killings were so brazen that even the senior special forces took note, with one officer writing to the special forces general director in April 2011 that there was evidence of “deliberate killings of individuals even after they have been restrained” and “fabrication of evidence to suggest a lawful killing in self-defense”. Two days later, the assistant chief of staff of the UK Special Forces wrote a similar letter stating that the SAS could be operating a policy to “kill fighting-aged males on target even when they did not pose a threat”.

No accountability

These growing concerns eventually led to a rare review of the SAS squadron’s tactics. However, the special forces deployed to Afghanistan for the inquiry appeared to take the operatives’ version at face value. According to the BBC, the officer did not even visit any of the scenes of the raids or interview any witnesses outside the military. Not only that, the final report was signed off by the commanding officer of the SAS unit that was itself responsible for the “suspicious” killings.

None of this evidence was passed onto the Royal Military Police. Instead, the BBC found that the statements raising concerns were put into a restricted-access classified file for “Anecdotal information about extrajudicial killings”. Meanwhile, the SAS squadron was allowed to redeploy to Afghanistan in 2012, for another six months.

When a murder investigation was launched by the Royal Military Police in 2013, special forces director General Carleton-Smith did not disclose any of the existing concerns or the existence of the tactical review.

Meanwhile, the BBC visited several homes that had been raided by the squadron between 2010 and 2011. One such site was a guesthouse in a village Nad Ali in Helmand, where 9 Afghan men including a teenager had been killed. The SAS operatives had arrived in helicopters in the dark and approached the house from a nearby field. They claimed that insurgents had opened fire at them, prompting them to shoot back and kill everyone in the building. Only three AK-47s were recovered at the site– one of the instances where the number of casualties exceeded the number of supposed enemy weapons.

The BBC also showed photos of the bullet holes in the guesthouse to ballistics experts, who said that the clusters suggested multiple rounds had been fired downward from above, and “did not appear indicative of a firefight”. The same pattern was visible at two other locations. Ballistic experts stated that the bullet holes were suggestive of “execution-style killings” instead of firefights.

An RMP investigator also told the BBC that the bullet patterns had raised alarm, and that the bullet marks appeared to “undermine the special forces’ version of events”. The RMP eventually opened Operation Northmoor in 2014, which was an investigation into over 600 alleged offenses by British forces in Afghanistan. This included a number of killings by the SAS squadron.

However, RMP investigators told the BBC that their efforts were obstructed by the British military, and Operation Northmoor was closed down in 2019. The Ministry of Defense stated that no evidence of criminality was found, a claim which the RMP investigation team has disputed. The MOD has also accused BBC Panorama of jumping to “unjustified conclusions from allegations that have already been fully investigated”.

This is not the first such investigation into the killings of civilians by foreign occupying forces in Afghanistan. A four-year inquiry conducted by Major General Justice Paul Brereton in Australia found “credible evidence” that its elite soldiers had unlawfully killed 39 people, including prisoners, farmers, or civilians, between 2009-13.

Meanwhile, the BBC investigation (and the MOD’s response to it) has also re-directed attention to the unjust and ongoing imprisonment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who did the critical work of exposing military abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now facing extradition and upto 175 years in prison in the U.S. for it.

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