The 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) regiment occupies a distinctive position within the collective British consciousness, often perceived as an embodiment of elite valour and heroism shrouded in the mystique of state secrecy. Its unique status traces back to the Second World War, with the SAS ideal being re-imagined and reinvigorated at various junctures in military and national history. Despite its cultural impact, the 22 SAS is a small unit, with its activities overseen by a general holding the title “director special forces.” This essay will discuss the SAS’s origins, its operations and culture, the lack of transparency surrounding its actions, and the controversies and allegations involving the unit.
SAS Origins and Cultural Impact
The SAS’s founder, David Stirling, was an establishment loyalist deeply committed to Britain’s global ambitions. Stirling was a pioneer in the private military sector, and his company, Watchguard International, supplied military services and expertise in the Gulf and Africa. He also played a key role in arranging a mercenary force of ex-SAS men to support the Yemeni royalist regime in the 1960s.
The regiment has spawned a plethora of books, television series, and films that further solidify its cultural presence while obscuring its more controversial aspects. This military culture industry serves a similar role to the so-called ‘copaganda’ in TV police dramas, glorifying, humanising, and normalising war and military adventurism.
The UK Special Forces (UKSF) have played a critical role in global conflicts and counter-terrorism efforts over the past decade. From operations in Libya and the Middle East to tackling ISIL and supporting NATO missions, UKSF have been at the forefront of the UK’s military engagements. Additionally, they have conducted missions in Africa, such as Somalia and Mali, targeting Islamic extremism and providing support to allied forces.
In Yemen, UKSF have taken part in multiple missions, including support for American covert operations and assassinations. UKSF deployments in Africa have also targeted extremism, with ongoing involvement in countries like Kenya, where they have been engaged in hostage rescues and combating al-Shabaab.
Special Forces have been active in Syria, despite the lack of parliamentary approval for ground troop deployments. The UKSF presence in Syria has persisted, with forces engaging in frontline combat in Raqqa and elsewhere. In Iran/Oman/Straits of Hormuz, SBS teams have been dispatched to protect UK oil tankers and monitor Iranian naval activity. They have also participated in maritime monitoring in the Mediterranean, responding to potential terror incidents in the region.
UKSF personnel have also been active in Europe, such as during major sporting events in France and Russia, for counter-terrorism purposes. They have also been deployed within the UK, responding to the 2017 terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and assisting in domestic security operations.
Despite their significant role in global conflicts, though, the UKSF operate with a distinct level of secrecy, with little parliamentary oversight or accountability. This raises concerns about the balance between their activities and the democratic checks necessary in a transparent society.
Opacity and Lack of Oversight
Opacity and lack of oversight characterise British special forces’ activities, such as those of the Special Air Service (SAS). The “no comment” policy and exemption from Freedom of Information requests on national security grounds contribute to this opacity.
The lack of transparency in British special forces operations raises significant democratic concerns, as it hinders public scrutiny and accountability. This opacity makes it challenging to evaluate the effectiveness and legality of special forces missions, which could lead to potential human rights abuses, operational failures, or inefficient use of resources. Furthermore, as special forces’ use increases in recent years, the need for transparency becomes more urgent to ensure that their actions align with British values and international law.
Democratic oversight is essential in maintaining public trust in the military and ensuring that special forces operate within legal and ethical boundaries. This oversight includes parliamentary scrutiny, media coverage, and access to information for the public. Without transparency and accountability, special forces risk undermining the democratic principles they aim to protect, potentially damaging the reputation and credibility of the British military and government.
AOAV’s report, “Special Forces: Around the World – Conduct, Oversight, and Opacity,” examines the oversight and transparency of special forces in 20 countries, including the UK. The report identifies varying degrees of oversight and highlights the importance of transparency in maintaining democratic principles. While the UK has some mechanisms in place, such as the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which can scrutinise special forces activities, these measures are insufficient due to the overarching “no comment” policy and lack of access to information. In short, UKSF operations appear to fall between Defence and ISC Select Committee oversight. This has been the source of contention between the head of the Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood, and the Minister of Defence, Ben Wallace.
Based on the AOAV’s analysis of special forces oversight worldwide, several recommendations can be made to improve transparency and accountability within the British special forces. These include:
- Strengthening parliamentary oversight by providing select committees, such as the ISC or Defence, with greater access to information on special forces operations;
- Ensuring that any alleged misconduct or breaches of international law are thoroughly investigated and, where necessary, prosecuted;
- Implementing regular reporting on special forces activities to Parliament and the public, within the limits of national security, to maintain transparency and trust.
The lack of transparency and oversight of British special forces raises concerns about their compliance with democratic principles and international law. Improving oversight and encouraging a culture of openness are crucial steps in ensuring that special forces operations align with British values and maintain public trust. By learning from other countries’ oversight mechanisms and implementing recommended improvements, the UK can strike a balance between protecting national security and upholding democratic accountability.
Controversies and Allegations
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars produced a number of allegations of war crimes by British troops. Despite the passage of the Overseas Operations Act in 2021, which provides a significant degree of immunity from war crimes prosecutions for UK troops, the conduct of the SAS in southern Afghanistan continues to come up in the news.
In 2016, it was reported that army investigators were being obstructed by senior officers with links to the SAS. In 2021, BBC Panorama and AOAV produced a documentary and report respectively, based on internal SAS documents. These claimed that there were up to 54 extrajudicial killings by troops during a single operational tour in Afghanistan in 2010-2011. The allegations remain unresolved, and the Ministry of Defence has refused to comment beyond its standard statements about the courage and discipline of troops who served in Afghanistan. An inquiry into these allegations is underway.
The SAS, and British special forces more broadly, remain an opaque and heavily mythologised institution. It is essential to move past the mythologized public image of the British special forces that has conveniently filled the space created by a lack of transparency and a lack of political or military accountability. This becomes more urgent as unscrutinised interventions in the ‘grey zone’ below the conventional threshold of war become the norm, and greater public understanding and democratic oversight of what special forces and the British government are up to around the world is necessary.
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