AOAV: all our reportsExplosive violence by the TalibanExplosive violence in AfghanistanMilitarism examinedImpact of explosive violence on civiliansDeaths in the 'War on Terror'

British Special Forces hid evidence of Afghan killings

Senior military officers buried evidence that British troops were executing detainees in Afghanistan, the High Court in London has been told.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence documents reveal British Special Forces officers suspected their men were killing unarmed Afghans who posed no threat, according to a report by the BBC.

Of concern, the documents also show that the allegations were kept secret and not reported to the Royal Military Police (RMP).

The MoD says the evidence is not new and has already been investigated.

The court case follows a 2019 investigation by BBC Panorama and the Sunday Times that raised allegations of unlawful killings by special forces during the war in Afghanistan.

The High Court is considering whether the allegations were investigated properly by the UK’s armed forces. The man bringing the case, Saifullah, claims four members of his family were assassinated in the early hours of 16 February 2011. The BBC reports that his lawyers were asking the court to order the defence secretary to release more documents before a full judicial review hearing.

The BBC also reported that documents already disclosed were presented to the court that showed nine Afghan men were killed in a raid on 7 February 2011 and eight more were killed by the same special forces assault team two days later.

More than a dozen detainees were killed after they were taken back into buildings to help search them. British troops claimed they were forced to shoot them after they reached for hidden weapons.

The documents show that in one email, a British lieutenant colonel expressed disbelief at the official accounts. He said it was “quite incredible” the number of prisoners who decided to grab weapons after being sent back into a building.

A fellow officer replied: “I find it depressing it has come to this. Ultimately a massive failure of leadership.”

A week later, the four members of Saifullah’s family were shot dead in similar circumstances by the same special forces assault team.

The documents show the killings were described as “astonishing” by a senior officer.

Another senior officer later dismissed a soldiers’ description of events, saying “the layers of implausibilities” made the official account “especially surprising and logic defying”.

The court heard a British officer provided a written statement to a commanding officer after a member of the special forces told him all fighting-age males were being killed regardless of the threat they posed.

The officer said: “It was also indicated that fighting-age males were being executed on target inside compounds, using a variety of methods after they had been restrained. In one case it was mentioned a pillow was put over the head of an individual being killed with a pistol.”

All the anecdotal reports of unlawful killings were locked away in a top secret “controlled-access security compartment”, the court heard.

The court documents show the allegations were raised with a “very senior officer” at UK Special Forces headquarters.

The special forces leadership did not notify the RMP. Instead, the high-ranking officer ordered an internal review.

It examined 11 raids where the special forces unit had killed people in similar circumstances in the previous six months.

They had all been taken back inside buildings to help with the search after surrendering.

The final report was written by the commanding officer of the special forces unit accused of carrying out the executions. He accepted the version of events given in the official accounts of the raids.

Operation Northmoor

In 2014, the RMP started investigating the alleged executions after receiving reports from Afghan families and whistleblowers from the British military.

Its investigation, called Operation Northmoor, was closed in 2019 without resulting in any prosecutions.

The MoD claimed at the time the RMP had “found no evidence of criminal behaviour by the armed forces in Afghanistan”.

But the documents quoted in court suggest there were serious weaknesses in the investigation.

A summary of Operation Northmoor states it only investigated three of the original 11 incidents in detail and two senior officers identified as suspects were later dropped without being interviewed.

The summary also shows a decision was taken not to view video footage of special forces raids.

The MoD maintains the four members of Saifullah’s family were killed by British troops in self-defence.

It has previously said: “These documents were considered as part of the independent investigations, which concluded there was insufficient evidence to refer the case for prosecution.

“The Service Police and the Service Prosecuting Authority of course remain open to considering allegations should new evidence, intelligence or information come to light.”

Mr Justice Swift ordered the defence secretary to release additional documents related to the allegations.

The MoD had argued the defence secretary had adopted a duty of candour and that requests for documents should be proportionate.