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Britain’s Special Forces on service in at least 19 countries since 2011

Executive Summary: This analysis of credible English-language news reports reveals that Britain’s Special Forces, UKSF, have been deployed operationally in at least 19 countries, regions or territories and involved in missions in several others in the past decade, raising questions over the level of transparency and democratic oversight these shadowy units operate under. The UKSF operates distinctively from the rest of the British military, and despite being accountable to the Defence Secretary and Prime Minister, there is no parliamentary oversight or mechanism to conduct retrospective reviews. There have been several controversies associated with the UKSF, including assassinations, alleged cover-ups, deniability outsourcing, fighting alongside child soldiers, and friendly fire incidents. Calls have been made for greater transparency and oversight by various MPs and committees.

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 of national and international credible newspapers, undertaken by research charity Action on Armed Violence, shows that, since 2011,  UK Special Forces (UKSF) have been primed to contact or surveil hostile forces in Algeria, Estonia, France, Iran/Oman (Strait of Hormuz), Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mediterranean (Cyprus), Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.

There are a further six sites where UKSF have trained foreign forces or where they have based themselves before launching into another country. These are: Burkina Faso, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Djibouti. There are also another seven locations, not included in the above lists, known to be used by UKSF for their own exercises and engagements. These are: Albania, Falklands, Gibraltar, Belize, Brunei, Malaysia, and Canada, although there are likely to be far more.

In addition, the UKSF operate in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These four countries are not included.

If all countries where the UK SF were reported operational (including training and in the UK itself) were added together, there would be 36 nations where such troops have been sent.

Reported UK Special Forces (UKSF) missions in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman and Libya demonstrate that British soldiers are regularly sent to engage in international conflicts without any parliamentary approval around UK involvement beforehand.

In the case of Syria, parliament explicitly voted against sending in troops in 2013. Yet there have been dozens of UKSF missions reported in the press in the past decade.

A decade of operations around the globe has thrown up some controversies.

Amongst triumphs and tragedies, it’s been reported that units like the Special Air Service (SAS) have been behind: the deliberate assassination of British citizens in Iraq and Syria, the alleged cover-up of multiple killings of innocent Afghan civilians, including children, outsourcing UKSF operatives to MI6 to ensure deniability of kill-or-capture missions in Yemen, fighting in conflicts where child soldiers have been coerced by allied Yemeni tribal leaders, and even a tragic friendly fire incident in Syria.

Made up primarily of the SAS, Special Boat Service (SBS) and Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), and supported by the multi-tiered Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), the UKSF operate distinctly from the rest of the British military and has 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 (ISC).

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 current Chair of the ISC, Julian Lewis MP, has previously called for his committee to fill the gap in oversight. Similar appeals for greater UKSF transparency have been made by MPs such as Crispin Blunt (former Foreign Affairs Committee Chair), David Davis (former SAS reservist) as well as former ISC Chair Malcolm Rifkind and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve.

In 2022, after years of legal battles, a public inquiry into alleged misconduct by British Special Forces during the Afghanistan war has moved closer to becoming a reality. The inquiry, led by Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, aims to investigate claims of unlawful killings and mistreatment of detainees and recommend measures to prevent similar incidents in future conflicts. This inquiry is a crucial step towards accountability and transparency in British military operations overseas, ensuring the protection of human rights. The findings could have broader implications, triggering compensation claims, discussions about the military’s role in foreign conflicts, and the need for oversight and accountability of Special Forces regiments.

Dr Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV, said of the report: “The extensive deployment of Britain’s Special Forces in numerous countries over the past decade raises serious concerns about transparency and democratic oversight. The lack of parliamentary approval and retrospective reviews for these missions is deeply troubling. Controversies surrounding the UKSF, including assassinations and alleged cover-ups, highlight the urgent need for greater transparency and accountability. The ongoing public inquiry into misconduct by British Special Forces in Afghanistan is a crucial step towards ensuring justice and preventing future incidents. It is high time we address the role and operations of Special Forces, emphasising transparency, oversight, and the protection of human rights.”

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List of countries

1. Afghanistan: Even after the official end of the war in 2014, the SAS and SBS continued to fight the Taliban and ISIS insurgents, engaging in lethal night raids. There have been serious allegations of misconduct, including the killing of civilians and a possible cover-up of war crimes. The Special Forces’ presence in Afghanistan has fluctuated over the years, with increased deployments in response to changes in the situation and requests for assistance from the United States. The recent withdrawal of NATO forces and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban have led to further special operations, including the evacuation of personnel and rescue missions.

2. Algeria: In January 2013, a small number of SAS counter-terrorism experts were flown to Algeria to provide advice and assistance in the aftermath of a gas plant massacre. The UK later offered training by British Special Forces to Algeria as part of a security partnership. British and French intelligence agencies were also reportedly in contact with Syrian dissidents based in northern Lebanon and Turkey, aiding in the unrest in Syria.

3. Estonia: UK Special Forces units, including troops from 21 and 23 SAS reserve battalions, were deployed on the Estonian border with Russia between November 2018 and April 2019 as part of Operation Cabrit. The aim was to prevent potential incursions into Europe by President Putin, with NATO commanders believing he may try to annex the Russian-speaking part of Estonia.

4. France: Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, SAS and SRR liaison teams were present. Special Forces also provided additional security in France after the Paris terror attacks.

5. Iran/Oman (Strait of Hormuz): UK Special Forces were involved in monitoring Iranian activity around Qeshm Island in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. They joined UK-registered oil tankers and provided assistance in training local troops in the region.

6. Iraq: UK Special Forces conducted operations in Iraq from 2014 to 2021, engaging in intelligence collection, targeting ISIS leaders, and supporting Iraqi and Kurdish forces. They also participated in covert parachute assaults and created a kill list of British jihadists.

7. Kenya: UK Special Forces were deployed in Kenya to carry out operations against the Al Shabaab militia, including search missions for British hostages and advisory roles during terrorist attacks. They also provided intelligence leading to the evacuation of holidaymakers prior to a double bombing.

8. Libya: UK Special Forces were actively involved in operations in Libya from 2011 to 2019. They conducted rescue missions, participated in the hunt for Colonel Gaddafi, and fought against ISIS in the city of Sirte. UKSF also trained Libyan forces and joined multinational operations to prevent ISIS from establishing a base in Libya.

9. Mali: UK Special Forces provided non-combat support during French military action against jihadi groups in Mali. They trained Nigerian, Moroccan, and Cameroonian soldiers and collated intelligence threat assessments in response to increasing instability in the Sahel region.

10.  Mediterranean: UK Special Forces operations in the Mediterranean included training Syrian rebels, combating people-smuggling operations, and providing security in the region. They were stationed in Cyprus to respond to potential jihadist attacks on UK tourists and monitor activities in the Mediterranean.

11.  Nigeria: UK Special Forces were involved in a failed hostage rescue attempt resulting in deaths. They later shifted their focus to aid in the rescue of kidnapped schoolgirls by Islamist militants.

12.  Pakistan: Special Boat Service (SBS) and Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) members from the UK participated in operations in Pakistan. They worked alongside American forces to locate and target high-value individuals linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

13.  Philippines: In the southern Philippines, UK Special Forces were involved in operations to rescue a British businessman and his Filipino wife who were abducted by Islamist militia. They provided assistance to Filipino Special Forces in the successful operation.

14.  Russia: UK Special Forces had a presence in Russia during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, where they were tasked with protecting athletes against potential Islamic terror attacks.

15.  Somalia: UK Special Forces conducted operations in Somalia, primarily targeting pirate groups and al-Shabaab militants. They engaged in covert surveillance along the Somali coastline, trained Kenyan forces to target al-Qaeda forces, and provided intelligence support for US operations in the region.

16.  Sudan: In 2023, UK Special Forces conducted a covert mission to evacuate British diplomats and their families from Sudan’s warzone capital, operating independently from their American counterparts and using local vehicles to reach the UK embassy in a volatile area of Khartoum, while Royal Air Force transport planes landed on a Sudanese airfield to coordinate the operation with French and US armed forces.

17.  Syria: UK Special Forces have been actively deployed in Syria for the past decade, training rebel forces, providing intelligence, and conducting covert missions. They engaged in direct combat against ISIS, often in collaboration with international forces, and continued their presence even after parliamentary restrictions on troop deployment. UK Special Forces were involved in various incidents and operations in Syria, demonstrating their ongoing involvement in the region.

18.  Ukraine: UK Special Forces conducted operations in Ukraine, including intelligence-gathering missions and joint training activities with Ukrainian and US Special Forces. Their deployments aimed to gather information and assess the security situation amidst escalating tensions with Russia.

19.  Yemen: UK Special Forces were involved in operations in Yemen, including conducting kill-or-capture missions against AQAP facilitators and participating in hostage rescue operations. They faced casualties and operated alongside Saudi Arabian and UAE forces in the conflict. UKSF also provided training and assistance to Yemeni security forces, despite the involvement of factions with links to child soldiers.

For more reports on this investigation, please see: