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Militarism examinedKilling in the Shadows

How Extrajudicial Killings Took Place

Analysis of official ISAF accounts, contact with military, NGO and medical workers working in Helmand at the time and visits made by BBC Panorama journalists to sites of killings in Helmand, including interviews with eyewitnesses, have unearthed new evidence of multiple extrajudicial killings carried out by British Special Forces in Afghanistan.

At least nine incidents of concern, all involving the same SAS squadron on the same tour, have been identified. That squadron has been linked to the unlawful killing of 54 people.

Here we contrast the incidents of each night raid, as described by Panorama, with the official ISAF record at the time.

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29th NOV 2010 – ONE KILLED, SEVERAL DETAINED

Nahr-e Saraj district, Helmand

On 29th November 2010, the SAS squadron conducted a night raid in Nawroz village, Gereshk District (also known as Nahr-e Saraj). They detained and handcuffed Haji Ibrahim – a former district governor and deputy police chief who had worked alongside the British. Haji Ibrahim was then sent back into the building, ostensibly to help with the search. An official military report of the operation states that he was shot and killed after he pulled out a hand grenade.

His family say there were no weapons at the property and that Haji Ibrahim was executed. They describe how he was found with his hand still bound by plasticuffs, with bullet injuries to his face and chest. He had also suffered numerous significant dog bites to his upper body. 

Several members of the family who were detained that night were subsequently released without charge. The youngest was 15 years old. Serious concerns were raised by the Provincial Governor and President at the time. 

We understand this incident was one of the first of a pattern of incidents that were later reviewed, and one that bore a number of hallmarks of implausible accounts that were to become a cause for suspicion and concern. The alleged grenade the justified the killing of a detainee by Special Forces; the detainee made to go back inside supposedly to aid a search only to then grab a weapon; the arrestee who chose to die in a suicidal lunge rather than live to fight another day. 

Abdul Ali, a nephew of Haji Ibrahim, was also detained as part of the operation. He was to give his version of events to Panorama as to what took place: “They handcuffed us and stood us against the wall. They handcuffed Haji Ibrahim too. They told Haji Ibrahim to go into the room because they wanted to search it. They told Haji Ibrahim to lift up the curtain. When he entered the room, there were shots. So we knew Haji Ibrahim had been killed.”

Haji Ibrahim’s son, Abdul Wali, described finding his father’s body the following day: “His hands were tied at the front. He’d been killed. They had shot him in the corner of his eye, and later they had fired a shot at my father’s chest.” 

When asked whether there were any weapons in their home, Abdul Wali responded: “No, we did not have anything like that at home. And nothing was found. A couple of nights before, they came and searched the whole house, but they did not find anything.”  

ISAF public record: After surrounding the compound, the joint security force called-out to the compound’s inhabitants, allowing them to exit peacefully. Eight women and eight children responded to the call-out and were protected for the duration of the operation. As the security force began to search the compound, an insurgent attempted to engage the force with a grenade and was killed. During the search of the compound, the security force found several men who were suspected to be insurgents. Also found in the compound were IED components and explosive detonators which were safely destroyed by the joint force prior to departing. After initial questioning, Afghan authorities detained the suspected insurgents and they were taken by Afghan authorities for further questioning.”

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15th JAN 2011 – ONE KILLED

Sangin district, Helmand

On 15th January 2011, the squadron killed another detainee in Sangin district after he was sent back inside, ostensibly to help clear a building. An operational report states the man in question reached behind a mattress and pulled out a grenade, and that the ‘insurgent’ was fatally shot as he threw the grenade. Again, the grenade caused no injuries to the forces present. 

Military experts and those who’ve served with UKSF told Panorama and this investigation this seems a deeply suspect version of events, and that any British officer signing off such a report would have known that. 

ISAF public record: “Upon arrival and securing of the compound, Afghan security forces conducted a call-out allowing the occupants to exit peacefully. This resulted in two women and four children exiting peacefully and being protected during the operation. Two men also exited during the call-out. One man was detained and the other led the joint force into a building. As he led the force into one of the rooms, he reached behind a mattress, pulled out a hand grenade, and attempted to throw it in the direction of the joint force. The insurgent was shot and killed as he threw the grenade. The joint force took cover as the grenade exploded. No injuries were reported. After initial questioning, the detainee was taken by Afghan authorities for processing and further questioning.”

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7th FEB 2011 – TWO KILLED

Kajaki district, Helmand

On 7th February 2011, during an operation in Kajaki district another detainee was sent back inside, supposedly to check a building. The official report of the operation states that, when he emerged from the building, he attempted to engage the patrol with an AK rifle. He was shot dead as a result.

ISAF public record: “Acting on multiple intelligence reports and tips from local citizens, the force moved towards a compound associated with the target. They initiated an Afghan-led call-out to give the occupants of the compound a chance to exit safely. A man, several women and children exited the building while under protection of the patrol. During the call-out, the force noticed an insurgent inside the building aiming a rifle at them. The insurgent posed an immediate threat to the patrol and the women and children, and was killed with aimed shots. The male who exited the building was sent into another building to bring out anybody that might be inside. When he emerged from the building, he attempted to engage the patrol with a rifle. He was shot and killed by the patrol. During a search of the area, the patrol discovered two AK-47 rifles and associated ammunition.”

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7th FEB 2011 – NINE KILLED

Dasht, Nad Ali district, Helmand

Also on the 7th February 2011, the SF squadron killed nine people in a guesthouse during a raid on the village in the Dasht area of Nad Ali. An operational report says they were insurgents who were killed after opening fire, but only three AK-47 rifles were recovered. The family deny there were any weapons, and say the men were executed unarmed, positioned close to the floor. Military experts have told Panorama that far from a fire-fight, the bullet marks in the guesthouse are more consistent with a number of people being shot from above at close range, while they were lying down or kneeling. Royal Military Police investigators believed the location of the bullet marks undermined the version of events given by UKSF. 

Habibullah’s family live in the house which was raided that night. Two of Habibullah’s sons were killed during the raid, along with their seven guests. He described to the Panorama team how the troops had surrounded his home and approached the guest room: “The British men came through this way. They shot it here and shot the gate there. They came from both ways.”

Habibullah explained how he suffered abuses at the hands of the troops, when they entered the main house (where he was sleeping with the rest of his family): “They took me outside, blindfolded me and took off my shirt. They hit me with a gun and I fell down [unconscious]. When I woke up, I was naked. And there were so many English men here in this home.”

Habibullah showed where his sons were lying when he found them: “These are the bullet marks. He was shot lying here. Look at this, my elder son was lying there. This is the bullet mark.”

ISAF public record: Acting on multiple intelligence reports and tips from local citizens, the force moved towards a compound associated with Bahaar. Afghan forces initiated a call-out for the inhabitants to exit the compound safely. There was no response from the building. As the force entered the compound, several insurgents opened fire. The joint force returned fire killing several insurgents. A search of the compound led to the discovery of several AK-47 rifles, associated ammunition and IED components.”

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9th FEB 2011 – EIGHT KILLED

Khwaja Dad, Musa Qala district, Helmand

On 9th February 2011, eight Afghan men were killed during an SAS operation in the village of Khwaja Dad, Musa Qala. Seven of them were shot dead in the vicinity of the guesthouse, including a 15-year-old boy. The eighth was shot dead after being taken back inside the main building, reportedly to help with a search. 

Special Forces claimed to have recovered four AK-47 rifles from the scene. An operational report from the time explains this discrepancy by saying that four of the men were already dead when the force entered the guesthouse. The report further claimed that the eighth man had been detained and then sent back inside the building to move the curtain so the soldiers could see into the building. When the man exited the building, he attempted to engage the patrol with an AK rifle. As he posed a threat, he was shot and killed. 

Such squadron operational reporting was apparently met with disbelief by senior members of UKSF in the hours following the raid. The family themselves insist that none of the men in the guesthouse were armed; they do not believe that four were already dead when the SAS entered the guesthouse. 

Their testimony is further supported by the bullet marks, and their description of all seven bodies in the guesthouse lying inside the building with injuries to their head and chest. The family’s description is consistent with a Special Forces shooting at close range while all seven men were inside the guesthouse, and not with UKSF’s account that four of the seven men were shot in confusion by their own side. Royal Military Police investigators came to a similar conclusion based on the site photography. 

The family say the eighth man was executed after being told to open the curtain in a doorway of the main building. They say that he did not attempt to engage the force with a rifle, and they believe he posed no threat at the time of his shooting. The family say he was executed after confirming his name was Ahmad Shah. The squadron was tasked with targeting a man named Ahmad Shah, who ran a bomb-making cell operating in Helmand. However, the name is common in Afghanistan, and the family believe this to be a case of mistaken identity. 

The same squadron went on to target an Ahmad Shah on the 15th February, and kill another man by the name of Ahmad Shah on the 16th February, which would appear to support the family’s account. 

Daud’s family are tenant farmers, who rent the house that was raided that night. Daud lost three of his brothers in the operation. The youngest was 15. Daud told Panorama how he felt when heavily armed Special Forces descended on his home: “When I got up, I heard the gunshots which were firing at the room. It was a very terrifying situation. I was so afraid and was wondering what was happening.”

Daud showed Panorama journalists the guesthouse, where seven people were killed, including two of his brothers: “They all were asleep inside this room. The bullets hit here on the head of the person [his brother] and on the wall too. One of my brothers was killed here, the others were killed where they were sleeping.”

The family dispute that anyone at the house that night had any weapons: “They had only an old motorcycle, apart from that they had nothing else like a weapon. They even didn’t have a knife. This wasn’t an ordinary event; it was a massacre.”

Each of the men were asked their name: “Then they asked my brother his name, and he said Ahmad Shah. They had the name of Ahmad Shah in a list. I told them that he is my brother and we are civilians. They didn’t let me talk and told me I had no right to talk.”

Daud’s brother Ahmad Shah was told to go inside a room, through the curtained doorway: “They told him to move the curtain. When he did that, they fired at him and killed him inside there at the door. They told him to move the curtain, then they fired at him.”

Daud thinks it was a case of mistaken identity: “So it came to my mind that my brother Ahmad Shah was killed instead of another Ahmad Shah.”

ISAF public record: “As they approached the site, an armed insurgent threatened the patrol and was killed with aimed shots. Immediately following the engagement, a long burst of automatic gunfire was heard coming from another building. As the patrol moved into the building, they saw four men who had been shot and killed sprawled on the floor and two armed men at the back of the room. When the men attempted to engage the patrol, they were killed with precise shots. It is unclear why the men were killed before the patrol entered the room. The joint force moved to another building inside the compound and the Afghan forces initiated a call-out. Three men, six women and nine children exited the building. The women and children were protected by the force while one of the men was sent back into the building to move the curtains so the force could see into the building. When the man exited, he attempted to engage the force with a rifle. As he posed a threat, he was shot and killed. During a search of the area, the patrol discovered four AK-47 rifles and associated ammunition. One man was detained during the operation. He was taken by Afghan authorities for processing and further questioning.”

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13th FEB 2011 – THREE KILLED

Musa Qala district, Helmand 

On 13th February 2011, the squadron killed another three men. An operational report says one of the men had been detained and was sent back inside the building to open the curtains. When he exited, he attempted to fire at the force with an AK rifle. He was fatally shot as a result. Again, the repeated description of the same circumstances which led to the death of a detainee used in the operational reporting raised suspicions with their Special Forces colleagues. 

ISAF public record: “After an Afghan-led call-out was unsuccessful, the force moved to search the buildings. They were met by two armed men who attempted to engage the patrol. They were killed with aimed shots. Later on, a number of women and children exited a building followed by two males. The women and children were protected while one of the men was sent back into the building to open the curtains. When he exited, he was carrying a rifle and attempted to fire at the force. He was killed with aimed shots. During a search of the compound, the force discovered three AK-47 rifles and associated ammunition. The detainee was taken by Afghan authorities for processing and further questioning. The weapons were safely destroyed on site.”

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16th FEB 2011 – FOUR KILLED

Gawragee, Nawa-I Barakzayi district, Helmand

On 16th February 2011, the squadron killed four men during a night raid in the village of Gawragee, Nawa-I Barakzayi district. An operational summary claimed two of the men were killed after being detained and sent back in to search buildings. Special Forces said one of them “reached behind a curtain and pulled out a hand grenade, which he attempted to throw at British forces. The grenade did not detonate. However, British forces shot him in self-defence as posing an immediate threat to life”. The second man “entered a room in the compound and picked up an AK-47 from behind a table. British forces shot him in self-defence as posing an immediate threat to life.” 

Saifullah’s uncle, Mohammed Bang, detained during the raid on the family home. Four of his relatives were shot and killed by UKSF. Image: BBC

The family dispute this version of events, and deny that there were any weapons at their home. They say two of the men ran away out of fear, and the other two had surrendered and posed no threat when they were shot. Multiple sources at the time confirmed the family were civilians and raised concerns about their deaths, including the Provincial Governor. The Afghan partner force also raised their concerns to UKSF in the strongest terms. They said that the two detainees had been assassinated and that the other two men had been shot while running away. This is supported by the family’s description of the men’s injuries. 

Mohammad Bang, the father of one of the detainees killed told Panorama in 2019: “They tied his hands in front of me. If you have tied someone’s hands, how can they fight.”

“My whole body was shaking because of the fear. Everyone was frightened. All the women and children were crying and screaming,” eyewitness and relative of deceased Saifullah told BBC Panorama in 2019.

ISAF public record: “During the operation four men were killed when they each presented a separate and immediate threat to members of the joint patrol. During a search of the compound the force discovered two AK-47 rifles, associated ammunition and two grenades. The detainee was taken by Afghan authorities for processing and further questioning. The weapons were safely destroyed on site.”

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12th MARCH 2011 – EIGHT KILLED

Khanano, Sangin district, Helmand

On 12th March 2011, the squadron killed eight members of the same family in the village of Khanano, Sangin district. Special Forces claimed a small number of small arms and grenades had been recovered from the scene. The family say several of the men had been detained by the troops before being taken back inside and shot. They say two of the men killed were found with their hands still bound in plasticuffs and that none of the men were armed. 

Eight of Haji Sadiquallah’s relatives were killed during the operation. He told us: “When they knocked at the door, I told them that I was coming. Someone shouted and they blasted the door of our house. They hid the boys from me and took them to the house. 

“Then the soldiers told them that they wanted to search the house. They used it as an excuse to take the boys back inside. They killed my son in one room and my nephew in another.” 

In response to the military’s assertion that those killed were armed insurgents, Haji Sadiquallah said: “There was no AK-47, no grenade, no machine gun or any other weapon in our house. They just say to exonerate themselves. They say that to hide their violence – to legitimise what they did.”

Agha Bibi lost four of her brothers that night. She told Panorama: “I was their only sister.   

And I miss their smiles and jokes so much. It was very hard; it was like our whole world had collapsed. It has been long time, but whenever I sit alone, I cannot forget them.”

Haji Sadiquallah’s cousin, Haji Hamidullah, lost his son. He showed the Panorama team where his son was shot dead, and described finding his body: “It was early in the morning. I was the first to come into the room. When I walked inside, my son was lying in that place. He was shot and killed there. That was the place. This was where they had shot him, and he was lying like this. He was lying like this.”  

Haji Hamidullah described how the village would be forever changed by the events of that night: “Two or three families from there, ten families from there, they all left this village and never returned. There was such a sadness in this village because there were eight funerals in one home. It was a great tragedy.”

ISAF public record: “The combined forces made several call outs before entering and searching several buildings in the compound. The combined security forces were engaged with small arms fire and hand grenades. The combined forces engaged the threat killing several insurgents and detaining several others. Operational reports indicated multiple small arms weapons and ammunition were recovered by the combined security forces. There were no civilian casualties as result of this operation.”

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1st APRIL 2011 – TWO KILLED

Musa Qala district, Helmand

On 1st April 2011, the squadron killed two more detainees who had been sent back inside to search buildings. An operational report says one was shot when he raised an AK, the other when he tried to throw a grenade at the troops. This again caused concern among UKSF colleagues. 

ISAF public record: “During the detention operation, one insurgent was killed when he raised an AK-47 towards the combined forces and attempted to engage them. Another insurgent was killed when he tried to throw a grenade at the combined forces. The combined forces also detained several suspected insurgents that were taken by Afghan authorities for processing and further questioning.” 

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Analysis of more raids

AOAV reviewed the ISAF records containing details of more than 3,000 operations between December 2009 and September 2011. These were filtered down to 82 potential night raids that were conducted in Helmand between June 2010 and May 2011. During this period in Helmand, we felt the likelihood that these were British-led missions was high.

The press releases which were published by ISAF as ‘Daily Updates’ during the peak years of fighting used consistent stock phrases to describe certain situations. Analysing the language of the releases, we began to see patterns. 

For example, it was usually to the end of a report that you would find detail what weapons and drugs were found at the site. In many cases, the records consistently use the word ‘engage’ or ‘received fire’ to describe ISAF troopers being shot at with guns or targeted with explosives. Alternatively, insurgents “attempted to engage”, “showed hostile intent” or “threatened” security forces.

Given the set terminology for when shots are fired or explosives are detonated, the use of the above phrases suggests individuals were killed without firing a shot themselves but, officially, were attempting, intending or threatening to.

Extract from summary of 16th February 2011 raid. Credit: BBC

From such analysis, there are 44 incidents found where insurgents were killed after they “attempted to engage”, “showed hostile intent” or “threatened” security forces, totalling at least 100 deaths. In 18 of these cases, when it appears no insurgents fired and were killed, there was also no mention of guns or explosives being found. These cases resulted in at least 34 deaths. 

It is, of course, plausible that highly trained UKSF soldiers were able to kill combatants before they used their own weapons. And that in 18 cases, simple errors in reporting meant that the weapons that combatants attempted, intended or threatened to use against ISAF troopers were missed out from the report. However, considering the evidence laid out in this report in relation to extrajudicial killings, the incidence of which was justified in ISAF reports using the same language, the list of night raids that require further investigation is concerningly long. 

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