Britain’s Special Forces have been deployed operationally in at least 19 countries in the past decade, new analysis reveals, raising questions over the degree of transparency and democratic consent these shadowy units operate under.
Mapping, undertaken by research charity Action on Armed Violence, shows that, since 2011, UKSF have been primed to contact or surveil hostile forces in Afghanistan, Algeria, Estonia, Mediterranean (Cyprus), France, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Strait of Hormuz (Iran/Oman), Syria, UK, Ukraine and Yemen.
Here we examine, in brief, where the UK has sent its Special Forces over the last decade, and for what purpose.
Special Forces operations the world over are, by their very nature, secretive. Operationally, their success depends on taking the enemy by surprise. Politically, they can only sometimes be deemed a success if little or no attention is drawn to them. Such secrecy is largely the justification for the UK government’s blanket policy of consistently ‘no commenting’ on anything to do with Britain’s own Special Forces.
Despite such long-standing opacity, the UK Special Forces (UKSF) have a contradictory and sensational history of leaking details of their operations to a generally supportive British press. Such leaks often relay tales of derring-do and heroic rescues. They usually indulge the elite forces in their own myth-making as opposed to offering any robust critique from a press that should, in itself, seek to hold power to account.
Such holding to account should – this report believes – includes reporting on where the British Government deploys Special Forces on military operations, not least because if a civilian is killed in the fighting, there needs to be a measure of accountability.
As such, whilst all the details relayed in the press cannot be believed, as an aggregate these leaked reports offer up a reasonable guide as to where the UKSF have been, when, and for what purpose. There are likely to be far more operations in more locations that have never been discussed in the press. Aside from the official business of the UKSF, there are of course the more clandestine activities, known as ‘black ops’, that are officially deniable political operations.
This fact is like a political Rorschach Test. To some, it represents the globetrotting glamour of heroic Bond-esque British operatives. To others, it shows the uninhibited reach of a shadowy group of Government-trained killers.
There is a strong case for greater oversight and accountability for UK Special Forces operations. Currently the most senior UKSF officer, the Director Special Forces, is only accountable to the Defence Secretary and Prime Minister. There is no parliamentary oversight, not even a mechanism to conduct retrospective reviews, as there is for MI6 via the Intelligence and Security Committee.
Additionally, as in the case of Syria, UK Special Forces can be deployed into a conflict even when there has been a parliamentary vote explicitly rejecting deployment of combat troops to that location.
A simple first step toward transparency is knowing which countries the UK Special Forces have operated in over the past decade. Given the UK government would not supply such fundamental details, AOAV set out to gather all known reports of UKSF activity between 2011 and 2021, in order to map where the UK has deployed its Special Forces in the last decade.
In total, AOAV found 19 countries where the UK Special Forces have reportedly deployed operationally in this period (including in the UK). We have defined ‘deployed operationally’ as primed to contact or surveil hostile forces. We have not included another 13 countries only used for bases before launching into other nations, training of foreign forces or internal UKSF training.
These 19 countries are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Estonia, Mediterranean (Cyprus), France, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali (incl. Burkina Faso), Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Strait of Hormuz (Iran/Oman), Syria (incl. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey), UK, Ukraine and Yemen (incl. Djibouti)
The additional 13 countries, where either foreign forces have been trained by UKSF or have been used as a launchpad for operations in another country, are Burkina Faso, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Djibouti, Albania, Falklands, Gibraltar, Belize, Brunei, Malaysia and Canada.
The UKSF in this research refers to a directorate comprising the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, the Special Forces Support Group, 18 Signal Regiment and the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing, as well as the supporting No. 47 Squadron.
In UK law, “special forces” means those units of the armed forces of the Crown who come under the responsibility of the Director of Special Forces.
In 2020, two new ‘special forces’ units – the Army Special Operations Brigade and British Army Ranger Regiment – were formed. Though not part of UKSF, these units have a special operations remit, including Foreign Internal Defense (FID).
A decade of Special Ops
The UK Special Forces’ (UKSF) first major incident of the decade (2011-20) was in Libya. Unrest sparked by a violent crackdown on protesters by Muammar Gaddafi quickly developed into a civil war, with Britain backing the rebel forces. After the embarrassing capture of a UKSF/MI6 team by remote armed farmers manning a checkpoint caused a political storm back in Britain, at least 350 UKSF members were said to be in Libya leading the hunt for Col. Gaddafi by March 2011. The eventual overthrow of Gadaffi’s regime did not bring peace and stability to Libya. In fact, it foreshadowed the rise of Salafi jihadism in the region. By 2015, the UK was again sending in Special Forces to the city of Sirte to combat ISIL and train Libyan forces alongside US, French and Italian personnel. The last major reported incident came in 2019, when a Special Air Service (SAS) unit had to be evacuated out of Tripoli and Tobruk after an eruption of violence.
The Middle East has been the UK’s main theatre of war since 2001. The SAS were very active in the early months of the war in Afghanistan, reportedly killing “scores of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters”. Within hours of the parliamentary vote to approve the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, UKSF were engaging in covert operations in Iraq.
Despite Britain’s combat operations officially ending in Iraq (2011) and Afghanistan (2014), UKSF have continued to be active in both war-torn countries.
By 2014, large parts of Iraq were under the control of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Parliament approved airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq in September 2014, with the explicit commitment by the government to not deploy ground troops. Yet by 2014, British boots were on the ground again, in the form of Special Forces (UKSF).
Their target was ISIL, with Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly giving UKSF a ‘carte blanche’ to launch raids against the terrorist group’s leaders. In fact, the first UKSF teams were deployed to northern Iraq weeks before the vote on airstrikes to collect intelligence. Throughout the latter half of the decade, UKSF have retained a presence in Iraq conducting manhunts of jihadists, particularly those who were British. There were reportedly a flurry of 100 killings of ISIL leaders in the summer of 2020, with huge amounts of operational detail leaked to the Daily Mail.
In Afghanistan, whilst nearly all ground troops had left by 2014, UK Special Forces (UKSF) stayed behind and continued to fight the Taliban and ISIL insurgents. Despite only being there to ‘train, advise or assist’ Afghan forces, there are numerous reports of the UKSF being involved in lethal night raids of suspected insurgent commanders, even reportedly venturing over the mountainous border into Pakistan.
In 2019, it was reported that the SAS would double its presence in Afghanistan from 50 to 100 men, their main role being to conduct kill-or-capture missions alongside US special forces.
To tackle ISIL, UKSF have also been involved in the protracted conflict in Syria for nearly a decade. Prime Minister David Cameron was pushing other nations to support Special Forces deployment as early as January 2012, according to his memoir (For the Record, p.279). According to European and Jordanian sources in 2013, UK Special Forces (UKSF) training of rebels had been going on for a year.
In August 2013, MPs rejected (by 285-272 votes) a proposal for military action in Syria after reports of chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime.
However, three days before this vote, UKSF and MI6 were reported to be on the ground actively hunting for Syrian missiles that might be used against RAF jets. And despite the proposed UK airstrikes never taking place, in October 2014, Special Forces were reported to be calling in US airstrikes to defend the town of Kobane. By December 2015, parliament had approved airstrikes explicitly against ISIL commanders but crucially had not given approval for deploying combat troops on the ground. Despite this, there are multiple reports of UKSF fighting on the Syrian frontline in al-Tanf, Raqqa or near the Turkey/Syria border.
In 2018, a rare SAS fatality was reported. Matt Tonroe was killed alongside a US commando in a friendly fire incident. The Americans originally blamed the deaths on a roadside bomb. A UKSF presence in Syria is likely to remain as the conflict continues.
In Yemen, where the majority of civilian fatalities have been caused by the British-backed Saudis, UKSF have also conducted a number of missions throughout the decade, often launching from Djibouti. A report in 2016 found that operators from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) had been seconded to MI6 (who report to the Foreign Office). This allowed the Ministry of Defence to remain compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights and enabled defence ministers to deny they were supporting American covert missions in the country. In reality, UKSF personnel have reportedly conducted assassinations near the capital Sana’a.
Meanwhile, in 2019, a joint UK/US team was tasked with locating drop zones for food and medical supplies to Yemenis suffering from the conflict in the government-held city of Marib. The UK unit, made up of 50 Special Boat Service (SBS) troops, suffered at least seven casualties by the Houthi rebels. A former British serviceman who had returned from Yemen in 2019 told the Mail on Sunday that the conflict meant UKSF were fighting on the same side as child soldiers: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bribed Yemeni tribal leaders with links to Al Qaeda to take their side in the conflict and up to 40% of their forces can be children.
UKSF deployments have also been approved throughout Africa to target Islamic extremism.
In nearby Somalia, up to 60 SAS operators were reportedly helping Kenyan forces track down al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab targets in March 2012. Further skirmishes were reported in 2013, 2016 and 2017.
Britain’s military has well-established ties to Kenya. Hundreds of troops are permanently based in the central BATUK camp in Nanyuki, with access to 18 more sites around the country. In January 2021, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced the opening of a new £70m training facility. The UK Special Forces presence has been similarly constant.
Just before this report’s period of observance, in November 2010, Michael Adebolajo, who killed Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of London in 2013, was captured by the SAS in Kenya and flown back to the UK as he attempted to join al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Since 2011, UKSF have been on hand to react to incidents in Kenya. In September 2011, they reportedly led the hunt for British hostage Judith Tebbutt, who was taken to Somalia by pirate captors. In 2013, the SAS were said to be on the ground advising Kenyan authorities who were trying to free hostages at the Westgate shopping centre. A report in 2019 alleged that the SAS were still “combing the ground for intelligence” that could lead them to capture leaders of al-Shabaab.
In January 2013, a small number of UKSF personnel were sent to Algeria, in response to the massacre at a gas plant in Amenas. It was reported that British personnel would work alongside Algerians on their counter-terrorism operations. Whilst the deployment was ostensibly for training purposes, if UKSF went out on counter-terrorism operations they would almost certainly be armed and authorised to fire at hostile forces.
Mali is seen as Britain’s potential next major foreign conflict. In fact, in October 2021, the UN Peacekeeping mission saw UK troops come under fire for the first time since combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, according to the MOD.
Right at the beginning of the French intervention (Jan 2013), one source told The Guardian that UKSF personnel, alongside MI6 agents, were providing support to French commanders.
Not much is known about UKSF involvement in the interim but in July 2020 it was reported that a 45-strong SAS unit was deployed to the French base in Gao to conduct “intelligence threat assessment”.
Iran has long been a geopolitical adversary of Britain. In May 2019, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reported explosive sabotage attacks on multiple commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz. In response, two SBS teams were reportedly dispatched to protect UK registered oil tankers transiting through the Persian Gulf, and were tasked with monitoring Iranian naval activity around the island of Qeshm, which is home to the country’s Navy. Once the tankers passed through the Strait the teams were to be airlifted out by Royal Navy helicopters operating out of Oman.
Similar maritime monitoring has taken place in the Mediterranean from UK bases in Cyprus. In 2016, the establishment of a Special Purpose Task Group, composed of 150 Royal Marines, led by members of the SAS was first reported. The SAS, aboard the RFA Fort Victoria, would be able to act as “first responders” to any terror incidents in the region, akin to the attack on tourists on a beach resort in Tunisia in 2015.
As part of the NATO mission in the Baltic states to deter Russian encroachment, SAS reservists were reportedly deployed to Estonia in late 2018. The highly-trained but part-time troops, from 21 & 23 SAS (Reserves), were reported to be conducting Human Environment, Reconnaissance and Analysis (HERA) missions to monitor Russian military movement over the border. It is part of the wider Operation Cabrit, in which around 4,000 regular British troops were deployed to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in 2017.
Most recently, in April 2021, a “small team of UK special forces” was deployed to Ukraine in an apparent intelligence-gathering mission, as Russian troops gathered at the 1,500 mile border. A ‘senior UK military source’ told The Mirror: “The team is there to listen and collate information, nothing more. Our Special Forces are operating with US counterparts and identifying areas in the east of the country for [the spy plane] to fly over. The picture across the region is very chaotic and confused by propaganda generated by the Russians.”
Closer to home, UKSF troops have gone to both France and Russia during major sporting tournaments (Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 and France’s Euro 2016) for counter-terrorism purposes. We have chosen to include these locations as UKSF operators were sent to the territories primed to engage potential hostile forces.
At the time of writing, a team of SRR are also reportedly poised to go undercover in Calais. The mission to infiltrate smuggling gangs is in response to the recent deaths of 27 people crossing the Channel.
Then of course, it must not be forgotten that UKSF personnel have been deployed repeatedly within the UK over the past decade. In February 2011, Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) members were tracking members of the Real IRA around key sites of the 2012 Olympics. In April that year, SAS snipers were positioned on rooftops around London, the SBS were deployed on the Thames and the SRR were undercover in crowds during the Royal wedding.
In October 2020, SBS commandos boarded an oil tanker circling near the Isle of Wight. The crew had taken refuge after a group of seven stowaways began making verbal threats when the crew tried to lock them up in preparation for handing them over to UK authorities. It was later revealed the suspected ‘hijacking’ did not happen and the crew were not in danger, with all charges being dropped against the stowaways.
In Scotland, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment tracked a 26 year old man in April 2011, thought to be behind the car bombing that killed Northern Irish police officer PC Kerr. Eventually he was arrested in Renton, West Dunbartonshire.
And in Northern Ireland between 2014 and 2017, a squadron of SAS and SRR troopers secretly worked to disrupt Republican dissidents after violent attacks began to escalate in 2013. It was reported that around 50 troops were operating mostly in Andersonstown, a Republican area in West Belfast. It was later revealed that SRR members were using unmarked cars to monitor the activities of suspects as they traveled around the city.
The UKSF operate distinctly from the rest of the British military and have been bestowed a privileged level of secrecy across all branches of government.
The most senior UKSF officer, the Director Special Forces, is only accountable to the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister.
There is no parliamentary oversight. There is not even a mechanism to conduct retrospective reviews, as there is for MI6 via the Intelligence and Security Committee.
As Ben Wallace said in September 2020: “They [UKSF] are accountable to me and to the law, and where we see any issues, Ministers will of course intervene.”
However, the military judicial system has struggled with UKSF wrongdoing, due to the elite unit’s level of security clearance. Even when enough evidence is gathered for a prosecution, a source told The Sunday Times that “it was difficult to find a court martial military jury with the required security clearance that was properly independent of the SAS and that this could have influenced the SPA’s [Service Prosecuting Authority] decision not to prosecute.
Combining a greater remit for UKSF global operations without any potential for oversight, whether from parliament, the judiciary or the media, represents a significant circumvention of the checks and balances needed in a democratic society.
For more reports on this investigation, please see:
Did you find this story interesting? Please support AOAV's work and donate.