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Killing in the Shadows: the Report

Investigating allegations of British Special Forces extra-judicial killings in Afghanistan

Killing in the Shadows

Shocking new evidence of multiple SAS killings of detainees and unarmed men in suspicious circumstances in Afghanistan, with the subsequent investigation into extrajudicial killings characterised by basic failures, has been revealed. 

For the past 20 months, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has been examining allegations of extrajudicial killings by British Special Forces (UKSF), alongside a long-running BBC Panorama investigation

The research, in part based on newly-obtained military reports, revealed concerns that one unit may have been behind the unlawful killing of 54 people in one six-month tour. The BBC also found evidence suggesting that a former head of special forces had failed to pass on evidence to a murder inquiry.

As well as listing the shocking details of the killings themselves, AOAV’s report sets out in detail how official accounts from troopers justifying lethal violence were not deemed credible. 

Senior UKSF officers were also made aware of the events at the time but no formal complaint was made to the Service Police. 

In an unprecedented move, partnering Afghan troops ceased to accompany certain UKSF units because they refused to be part of “assassination” squads. UKSF members joked over email about “the latest massacre” and the barefaced implausibility of their official stories. 

This was because they told a similar narrative. During a night raid of a compound, an adult Afghan male, who had already been detained, was then 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 pointed at them, would then reach for a gun or a grenade, from behind a “curtain” or a “mattress” in an apparent suicidal last-ditch attempt to kill his captors. They never succeeded or injured the SAS troopers.

Despite all the contemporaneous evidence, our report sets out how the subsequent historical enquiry into these alleged extra-judicial killings, Operation Northmoor, was defined by a litany of failures. 

Basic investigatory practices were inexplicably skipped. Key witnesses were never interviewed, and relevant data was recovered from deletion and then ignored. Even aerial footage of areas where UKSF raids were being conducted wasn’t viewed by detectives. 

Experts told AOAV this couldn’t have been down to collective ineptitude by the dozens of detectives but rather “interference from above”. 

We also examine what it was about the culture of UKSF and the context of Helmand that allowed this to happen. 

Our enquiries revealed how the culture of impunity and competitiveness, the raised frequency of night raids, based on increasingly shaky intelligence, and the emotional and physical strain that would drive soldiers to exhaustion all laid the ground for ill-discipline to take place. 

We show how the Royal Military Police were hamstrung in their attempt to investigate wrongdoing, particularly of the “blue-eyed boys” of UKSF. The BBC also reports that General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the former head of UK Special Forces, was briefed about the alleged unlawful killings but did not pass on the evidence to the Royal Military Police, even after the RMP began a murder investigation into the SAS squadron.

In our report, AOAV looks further up the hierarchical chain – to see how Ministers and Prime Ministers have a particular partiality for deploying Special Forces. We outline how repeated political pressure against investigations into alleged war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan may have played their part in shutting down Northmoor. 

Parliamentary oversight of UKSF is de facto impossible, due to the blanket policy of ministers to not comment on their activities. There is not even a mechanism to conduct retrospective reviews of UKSF activity, as there is for MI6 via the Intelligence and Security Committee.

In the penultimate chapter, we consider the scandals and oversight of other nations’ special forces. We find that, despite similar behaviour, the UK stands alone amongst its allies in its lack of public review or redress of such misconduct.

In practical terms, UKSF receives little to no journalistic scrutiny, with a few notable exceptions. Since UKSF-related freedom of information requests are legally exempt, the little that is leaked comes from whistleblowers, who are risking serious criminal charges.

We hope that this report sheds some much-needed light on a deeply unaccountable institution.