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Militarism examinedKilling in the Shadows

How the RMP Failed to Properly Investigate the EJK

“Ultimately, I would have expected more (and more concrete) progress, given the time for which the investigation had already run.”
Sir Jonathan Murphy, decorated detective brought in to review Operation Northmoor

Despite the considerable contemporaneous evidence and the establishment of the so-called Operation Northmoor, a dedicated team within the RMP to look into extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan, none of these incidents have led to a prosecution. 

Sir Jonathan Murphy, a highly distinguished investigator, was brought in as an advisor to Operation Northmoor in July 2016. After auditing the two-and-a-half-year investigation, he formed the damning view “that the investigation strategy then being followed in respect of the extrajudicial killing allegations was: 

  1. flawed and consequently ineffective; 
  2. likely to fail in its stated aims; 
  3. and far too slow.” 

His summary was one of many, often heavily redacted, documents that the MOD was forced to release as part of the judicial review process in relation to Objective TYBURN and the death of Saifullah’s four family members. 

These documents, key excerpts of which have been seen by AOAV, reveal an investigation riddled with seemingly inexplicable oversights and a lack of drive from investigators to establish the truth. 

First, there was the issue of a lack of scope. Only three of the 11 deadly night raids that were originally highlighted in the 2011 TTP review were ever ‘fully’ investigated. 

As Colonel Morris described in his statement to the judicial review process: “In light of the outcome of the investigations into Objectives 1 and 2 (as well as the investigation into Objective TYBURN) it was decided that further investigation of the other eight operations that had formed part of the analysis that led to the TTP review was not warranted.”

The three investigations that were conducted were so flawed that the argument that the failure of these investigations to lead to prosecutions was justification for not pursuing other cases is also of concern. 

The three night-raids that were investigated were:

  • 7th February 2011 – Nine killed, Nad Ali district (‘Objective 1’) 
  • 9th February 2011 – Eight killed, one detained, Musa Qala district (‘Objective 2’)
  • 16th February 2011 – Four killed, one detained, Nawa District (‘Objective TYBURN’). (this was the case that launched a judicial review application). 

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Suspects

The soldiers involved in the first two night-raids looked at belonged to the same unit; the majority were also present during Objective TYBURN. 

Two of the soldiers involved in these raids were designated as suspects in February and May 2016, respectively. The latter was the commander of the sub-unit thought responsible for the deaths that occurred during the three examined night raids. The former was a member of a sub-unit and was believed to be the individual who told an officer about the deliberate practice of executing civilians, who then reported it to the Operations Chief of Staff. 

Despite this, in January 2017, the Operation Northmoor Independent Review Team recommended these two men be dropped as suspects. The Provost Marshall accepted this recommendation and instructed his Northmoor investigators to do so. 

And although two suspects were identified for 7-11 months, documents from legal proceedings reveal that, between March 2014 and December 2017, “only 1 witness who was present at the scene had been spoken to”.

Two other key figures in this story, the “very senior officer in the higher headquarters of the UK forces unit concerned” who ordered the TTP review and “the in-theatre commanding officer of the unit involved” who conducted it, were not interviewed by Operation Northmoor’s detectives. This despite them having direct knowledge of the suspected extrajudicial killings and choosing not to report them. 

As the legal team pushing for the judicial review argued: 

“Since the 2011 TTP Review played such an important role in influencing the focus of the Operation Northmoor investigations, and since the failure by very senior officers to report suspected EJK to the Service Police is consistent with an orchestrated cover up of those EJK, it is extremely surprising that Northmoor investigators deliberately decided not to interview either of those officers about the 2011 TTP Review. The decision is difficult to reconcile with the Defendant’s [MOD’s] contention that the ‘cover-up’ issue was fully and effectively investigated.”

Claimant, Saifullah v Secretary of State for Defence

Similarly overlooked by the investigations was Gulab Mangal, the former Governor of Helmand from 2008-12. As we know, Mangal was made aware of a number of these incidents and had warned senior British officers at the time that he would go to the press to decry the innocent loss of life. 

Northmoor detectives “considered whether to seek further information” but ultimately decided not to. The reason given was a pre-emptive belief that Mangal would only provide information that was already obtainable from other sources. The duty of an investigator to pursue all lines of enquiry appears unfulfilled in this instance. 

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Evidence
The same lack of investigative intent appears to be seen in a number of cases in the handling of crucial pieces of evidence. 

In regards to Objective Tyburn, aerially recorded footage of the night raid may even exist.  Despite this, this footage was never viewed by Northmoor detectives.

Initially, the videos were unavailable to be viewed due to “compatibility issues”. The company UTC Aerospace, however, “established that they had the capability to trawl the server and if necessary extract the required data to disc which will enable the OP NM investigators to view the footage.” Despite this, within Northmoor, “direction was given that it was no longer appropriate or proportionate to continue with this LOE [Line of Enquiry].”

RAF doorgunner overlooking Kajaki Dam, Helmand, 2012. Credit: Defence Images

It seems self-evident that a series of video recordings of UKSF night raids during a period where a number of suspected unlawful killings took place is a relevant piece of evidence worth pursuing, and the “direction” given to detectives to cease acquiring these videos raises serious questions about the integrity of the RMP’s investigation into the loss of life on the night of the 16th February 2011.

Similarly overlooked was a tranche of what was described by “a very senior officer in the higher headquarters of the UK forces unit concerned” as “relevant data” to the investigation. First identified in March 2017, it was stored within a system in Whitehall. That system, however, “was in the process of decommissioning” which resulted “in the loss of all the data”. 

Despite this, data covering the crucial years of 2010, 2011 and 2012 was recovered for Operation Northmoor. Yet, for reasons the court documents don’t stipulate, that data has never officially been looked at by investigators.

Sir Jonathan Murphy, whose many honours include a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Police Federation National Detective Forum, concluded that the Northmoor investigators had: “generally, not follow[ed] a conventional, reactive strategy from the events and evidence already established. 

“Ultimately, I would have expected more (and more concrete) progress, given the time for which the investigation had already run.”

Responding to some of the key failures, Reverend Nicholas Mercer, a former Command Legal Adviser for the HQ 1st (UK) Armoured Division and Lieutenant Colonel, told AOAV: “The Military Police, in my experience, investigate without fear or favour. They are always regarded as being disloyal to the rank and file of the army whatever they are investigating and so being unpopular goes with the territory from the outset. 

“What I do detect, however, is the possibility of interference from above. Whilst I do not know for certain, the facts you describe about Afghanistan are incomprehensible. In my experience, no policeman would fail to investigate drone footage in such circumstances or follow up other allegations of possible extrajudicial killings. 

“The Military Police will have inevitably sought direction or have been directed by their superiors and I can only surmise that there is where the problem lies.”

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Obstruction and amnesia
Even when RMP detectives were actively looking for data, it appears officers within the Special Forces were at best resistant – and at worst obstructive – in handing over documents. 

The same “very senior officer who had highlighted the ignored “relevant data”, also “wished to decommission and thereby permanently delete large amounts of potentially relevant data”. This officer was made aware of the allegations of extrajudicial killings at the time but never reported them and was identified as a potential criminal suspect for this failure. 

His desire to get rid of this data, in a case where his own criminal liability was under question, must surely have been considered suspicious by Northmoor detectives. 

Such reticence over the release of data by UKSF was a repeated occurrence during the investigation, according to the court documents. According to the executive summary of Op Northmoor: “a continuing theme that has been encountered are problems and significant delays in obtaining the release authority for the data owned by [redacted] and other [redacted]”.

It went on to state that getting evidence of the night raids “has required a greater amount of engagement and has been logically challenging and more effort in compliance has been expended than would normally be expected.”

Even then – if and when officers at the RMP did get hold of contemporaneous documentation – the evidence may not have been particularly accurate. The executive summary of Operation Northmoor highlights how eyebrows were raised at the practice of “cutting and pasting” descriptions of the night raid operations in the official incident reporting.

Similarly, there were suggestions of “coaching of witnesses by former [redacted] personnel”, which created the impression of “regimental amnesia” to investigators. 

It is hard not to conclude that there was a systematic and purposeful attempt to hinder any investigation by the military institutions under scrutiny.

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Summary
The Operation Northmoor investigation into the alleged systemic problem of extrajudicial killings by UKSF in Afghanistan circa 2010-2011 reviewed less than a third of the cases it knew about. When these were investigated, key suspects were dropped without being interviewed, crucial witnesses who had scrutinised the allegations at the time were never interviewed, video footage, potentially of some of the fatal shootings, wasn’t collected and key data was ignored.

On top of this, it appears potential accessories to crimes were known to be attempting to make highly restrictive, or to even delete, evidence, and that suspects and/or witnesses delivered similar and seemingly-coached responses to investigators. 

There was clearly considerable material worthy of consideration when it came to the “systemic issues” around these alleged unlawful killings. Indeed, this was a requirement in the original Operation Northmoor ‘Terms of Reference’ document. Yet, on 15th November 2016, it was amended to remove any reference to “systemic issues”. 

Overall, the picture painted is of a system that was more than reluctant to investigate its own. Where the scope of investigations was reduced before the evidence was truly examined, where key witnesses and evidence were ignored, where crucial data was withheld, it appears the military’s priority was not the pursuit of justice. 

The connection between the military’s top command and Special Forces must be considered here. General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, who was Commanding Officer (CO) of the SAS and then Director SF, served as Chief of the General Staff from June 2018 to June 2022. 

Carleton-Smith was the ninth of sixteen former SAS commanders and Director Special Forces to reach three-star rank or higher. Former Director SF Roland Walker has since become a Lieutenant-General (3-star). 

If, as has been suggested, there was “interference from above” in regards to these Northmoor cases, was it instigated by a senior officer who was already aware of the evidence of these allegations? And does the military police, one that resides in an institution that seems to promote ex-SF commanders to the highest level, have the independence of spirit to investigate potential SF abuses without fear or favour?