Britain’s Special Forces have been deployed operationally in at least 19 overseas countries in the past decade, new analysis reveals, raising questions over the degree of transparency and democratic consent these shadowy units operate under. The countries where there have been active operations are: Algeria, Estonia, France, Iran/Oman (Strait of Hormuz), Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mediterranean (Cyprus), Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen.
This section outlines the extent of UKSF’s operations in Libya.
The UKSF’s decade began in Libya. Unrest sparked by a violent crackdown on protesters by Muammar Gaddafi soon developed into a civil war. Special Forces troops were first used to rescue British and foreign oil workers. But then a combined SAS/MI6 team were captured by armed farmers at a checkpoint in eastern Libya. This caused a huge embarrassment at home, with calls for Foreign Secretary William Hague to resign. There was confusion over the covert nature of the mission since rebels had already reached out for British support. As the war went on at least 350 UKSF members, across SAS, SBS and SRR, were reportedly in Libya, leading the hunt, along with their French counterparts, for Col. Gaddafi and his loyalists.
One of the results of the civil war was a rise in Salafi jihadism in Libya. By 2015, the UK was again sending in commandos to the city of Sirte to combat ISIS. Knowledge of the UKSF presence was bizarrely revealed by King Abdullah of Jordan in his briefing to the US Congress. Despite protests by Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Crispin Blunt, the Foreign Minister Philip Hammond confirmed there was no need for parliamentary approval for even deploying regular British soldiers on the ground.
Troops continued to train Libyan forces whilst fighting ISIS. In 2017, an 80-strong SBS team was deployed with US, French and Italian forces to deny ISIS any opportunity to establish a base in Libya after ‘hundreds’ were pouring in after defeats in Raqqa and Mosul. The force was also targeting smuggling cartels. In April 2019, an SAS unit had to be evacuated out of Tripoli and Tobruk after an eruption of violence.
February, 26-27: 150 – 300 British and other foreign oil workers were rescued from the Libyan desert by RAF Special Forces Hercules aircraft and SAS/SBS troops over five flights. (Telegraph)
March: First confirmation that UKSF were on the ground in Libyaafter a combined MI6 / UKSF team were arrested then eventually released by rebels in eastern Libya. Libya’s rebel commanders have freed two MI6 officers and six SAS soldiers captured by farm guards on Thursday morning, after the British government vouched for their identities. [Guardian] They were delivering a £4m ‘hacker-proof’ communications system when they were caught. (Daily Star Sunday).
Confusion over whether it was SAS or SBS: Independent . This is London: The SAS, based in Herefordshire, are furious that they have taken the blame for the mission, which is said to have involved the Special Boat Service
Subsequent reports appeared to confirm that UKSF were active in Libya. Daily Mail reported 350 UKSF troops were deployed in Libya with more to come. And confirmed that all SAS, SBS and SRR were all active.
(Guardian) They were advising, training and working alongside rebel groups, attempting to pinpoint and destroy Gaddafi’s weapons, such as long-range surface-to-air missiles, while also engaging in intelligence gathering operations.
June: Images of suspected armed SF and MI6 in Libya in Al Jazeera footage.
August: SAS troops reportedly led the hunt for Colonel Gaddafi. Since the fall of Tripoli in late August, British special forces have concentrated in assisting the rebels in mopping up remaining pockets of Gaddafi loyalists, such as those in Sirte, as well as hunting for Colonel Gaddafi himself.(Telegraph, Metro)
August: Reports that the killers of PC Yvonne Fletcher in Libyan embassy shooting 1984 were being hunted by SAS teams. (Guardian)
October: source told the Sunday Express: “A team of around eight men from British and French special forces had been tracking Gaddafi right up to the point where his convoy was attacked and he was subsequently killed. “It was immediately turned round to track down his son, Saif al-Islam.” – who was fleeing to Niger.
November: Both the UK and US have secretly sent in commandos to Libya, with special focus on the city of Sirte, amid fears that ISIS may even move its main base there. Likely SAS. (Mail)
January: Leaked memo froma confidential briefing confirmed that UKSF had been engaged on the ground as part of an offensive against IS. They were reportedly working alongside Jordanian forces in western Libya. (Guardian)
March: British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Philip Hammond, confirmed that ‘military advisers’ had been deployed to Libya but didn’t provide further details on number or in what capacity. [Ministerial statement]
April: UNCONFIRMED: 100 British special forces were said to be operating in Libya in early 2016, helping to protect government officials while also advising Libyan forces on fighting the Islamic State. The Libyan Express reported that ‘British and American intelligence officers “with suitcases full of cash” are bribing tribal leaders not to oppose an international ground force in the country’.
May: UKSF reportedly fired a missile to destroy a Daesh truck packed with explosives in Libya. A vehicle carrying an ISIS bomb across a bridge on a road to the town of Misrata was destroyed by a missile fired by British Special Forces on May 12th. (Telegraph)
June: UKSF are training local fighters to push out ISIS in Sirte. The psychological operations unit of JSOC intercepted the insurgent’s communications and blasted them with Bollywood chart music.In one incident the team – helped by Libyan troops – left two cars near checkpoints on the edge of Sirte and at dawn blasted Bollywood music by remote control through two huge speakers in the vehicles. (Mirror)
July: UKSF were engaged in fighting and directing assaults alongside Libyan forces against Islamic State, reportedly in Benghazi in a French-led multinational military operation supporting Libyan general Khalifa Haftar. (Middle East Eye)
July: Libyan brigades backed by British special forces flushed out Islamic State terrorists Sirte. The latest reported firefight, which took place in the city’s “700” district in mid-July, appears to have been the most prolonged frontline engagement involving British troops to have been disclosed. Soldiers used the precision weapon, nicknamed “the Punisher”, to fire a barrage of “air-burst” grenades above a suspected Isis position in the city of Sirte. According to the Libyan commander, when the Isis guns fell silent the British team got into waiting vehicles and withdrew, taking their empty ammunition casings with them to avoid being identified as foreign fighters.The Libyan fighter said the battle in July was the first time his unit had fought alongside British special forces who, he said, were dressed like Libyan troops. (Times)
August: 80 members of the Special Boat Service, supported by 40 British specialists, were deployed with US, French and Italian forces in a top-secret operation to deny IS any opportunity to establish a base in Libya after ‘hundreds’ were pouring in after defeats in Raqqa and Mosul. The force was also targeting smuggling cartels. [Express]
April: An SAS unit was evacuated by RAF Hercules as conflict erupted in the cities of Tobruk and Tripoli. The SAS unit had to be evacuated by the RAF following the rapid advance of rogue general Khalifa Haftar and his forces. (Express)
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