AOAV: all our reportsMilitarism examinedKilling in the Shadows

Killing in the Shadows: Introduction

“Whatever we do, though, I can tell you the Brits and the US are far, far worse.”
Australian Special Air Service (SAS) whistleblower

“We’re the only country in the Five Eyes who has not prosecuted someone for doing something wrong in Afghanistan. Do we therefore think: ‘hmmm, all of our blokes didn’t succumb to the pressure that other countries did?’ or do we think ‘we might have a bit of a problem with our investigatory standards?’”
Johnny Mercer MP


The British military and government insist that the rules of war apply to them and that it is in everyone’s interest to ensure any wrongdoing is punished and stamped out. But righteous words must be followed up with determined action. This report sets out in detail how the military’s actions, or lack thereof, demonstrate a systemic unwillingness to prosecute Special Forces personnel, reinforcing what many of them appeared to believe on the ground – that they were and are, at least in conflict zones, above the law.

Working in collaboration with BBC Panorama, whilst maintaining editorial independence, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has unearthed new evidence of multiple extrajudicial killings carried out by British Special Forces in Afghanistan. A special hour-long documentary has been broadcast, coinciding with the publication of this report.

In the programme, eyewitnesses described how they’d seen their loved ones surrender to the British forces, before they were handcuffed and shot.

These incidents were suspected to be extrajudicial killings at the time and were flagged as of deep concern by senior officers within UK Special Forces (UKSF). Official accounts from soldiers justifying such lethal violence were not deemed credible. Partnering Afghan troops even ceased to accompany certain UKSF units because they refused to be part of “assassination” squads. And UKSF members joked over email about “the latest massacre” and the barefaced implausibility of their official stories. Military reports indicate that one SAS unit may have unlawfully killed 54 people in one six-month tour.

The official reports of these killings all followed a similar narrative. During a night raid of a compound, the narrative went: an adult Afghan male – a man who had already been detained – was led back inside a building to ensure the house was clear of explosives or other combatants. The detainee, who would’ve been unarmed and with guns pointing at him, would then reach for a weapon, usually from behind a “curtain” or a “mattress”, in an apparent suicidal last-ditch attempt to kill his captors. His life was ended.

Such a story of a death played out across numerous reports and repeated with little in terms of variation or alteration. Such stories also formed a huge departure from previous behaviour by Taliban detainees and made little sense. It was common knowledge, much to the frustration of UKSF troopers, that many of those captured would be released in a few weeks’ time once they were handed over to Afghan authorities. Living to fight another day was far more preferable in such circumstances, not to die in a futile assault.

Faced with concerns over these deaths, alongside the hard-to-explain changes in detainee behaviour, a very senior UKSF officer was to launch a review of the procedure. The findings were to detail a concerning pattern, one where the number of those killed exceeded the number of weapons discovered. Crucially, it was to become clear that those who raised a red flag internally within UKSF did not push their concerns outside the hallowed walls of the Special Forces, such as to the Service Police. Such inertia constituted a passive form of concealment that almost certainly allowed additional preventable deaths to occur.

Despite all the contemporaneous evidence, the subsequent historical inquiry into these alleged extrajudicial killings, Operation Northmoor, was one beset by a litany of failures. Basic investigatory practices were inexplicably skipped. Key witnesses were never interviewed, relevant data was recovered from deletion and then ignored. Even aerial video footage, potentially of some of the fatal shootings, wasn’t viewed by detectives. Experts told us this could not have been down to collective ineptitude by the dozens of detectives but rather “interference from above”.

The latter sections of this report dive into the broader questions of how this culture of murderous impunity could ever have arisen. We ask: what is it about UKSF that could have allowed this to happen? We discuss the cultures of impunity and competitiveness, the raised frequency of night raids, based on increasingly shaky intelligence, and the emotional and physical strain that would drive troopers to exhaustion. Then we consider the profound privilege and influence that UKSF leaders have within the military and political world that put them beyond the normal boundaries of scrutiny.

We demonstrate how the Service Police are often hamstrung in attempts to investigate wrongdoing, particularly of the “blue-eyed boys” of UKSF. We examine the data of Service Police investigations to find a shockingly low rate of allegations that were actually investigated and even fewer that led to prosecutions. Recent scandals and reforms suggest this problem will only get worse.

We then consider the Special Forces of other nations, particularly the other members of the “tribe” in Afghanistan, the US and Australia, to compare their alleged misconduct but also their systems of oversight and reform.

We find that the UK’s problems are certainly not unique. But what sets Britain apart is the total lack of recognition of systemic problems and a failure to properly seek justice for those harmed by the Special Forces.

Our investigation has spanned over 18 months. Sparked by the revelations of systemic cover-ups of extrajudicial killings and a toxic culture within Australian Special Forces, we set out to find as many relevant sources who knew the world of UK Special Forces. This led to a collaboration with the BBC Panorama team, combining our resources to chase every available lead.

AOAV identified and contacted more than 330 relevant people. We knew we were playing a numbers game. Typically, we were met by a wall of silence. Some responded threateningly, others cited the Official Secrets Act. But over time, we managed to develop relationships and conduct conversations with more than 75 confidential sources. These included: former UKSF commandos that were in Afghanistan during the peak of fighting, members of the Special Forces Support Group, those who worked with both UKSF and Afghan civil society, as part of the Provisional Reconstruction Team and Stabilisation Unit, Afghan commandos that went with UKSF on night raids, interpreters that worked with UKSF, RMP officers who were in Afghanistan, former military legal advisors and diplomats, those who specialised in investigating civilian casualties in Afghanistan, former District Governors in Helmand and experts on the conduct of Australian and US special forces, among others.

The Panorama programme itself is the culmination of a four-year investigation. The team has spoken to dozens of military insiders, including eyewitnesses and military police investigators, and obtained hundreds of operational accounts and Special Forces internal documents.

Our investigation concludes with a call for more independent oversight of the UK’s Special Forces and a thorough inquiry into the failures of Operation Northmoor. We do so in the belief that Britain’s criticism of war criminals – such as in Russia – can only retain international potency if its own alleged crimes are fully investigated.