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N1466: how a senior British army officer blew the whistle, alleging war crimes by SAS in Afghanistan

In the judge-led inquiry into extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan, one senior officer within the British Special Air Service (SAS) – known only by the cipher N1466 – has emerged at the forefront of having brought to light disturbing allegations of war crimes committed by SAS forces during operations in Afghanistan.

As the Assistant Chief of Staff (Operations) at UK Special Forces headquarters from 2010 to 2011, N1466 was under the command of Major General Jacko Page, working as No 3 in the special forces directorate, based in central London. N1466 was tasked with oversight of all Special Forces operations both domestically and overseas. His role included reviewing all post-operational paperwork generated by UKSF units active in conflict zones.

During his tenure, N1466 began to notice a troubling pattern in the operational reports coming from Afghanistan. The data he had eyes on revealed a disproportionate number of enemy killed in action (EKIA) compared to the number of weapons recovered, which did not align with typical engagement outcomes. This disparity raised initial suspicions about the conduct of the operations. The credibility of the SAS’s post-mission reports became increasingly doubtful to N1466, especially as the descriptions of encounters with supposed insurgents often defied logical military tactics and outcomes.

By February 2011, N1466 and other senior commanders were deeply concerned about an SAS squadron that was nine weeks into a six-month deployment in Afghanistan. Their post-mission reports indicated a high number of Afghan citizens were being killed instead of captured.

A complaint from Afghan President Hamid Karzai had been lodged concerning a particular incident—the fatal shooting of Mohammed Ibrahim, a civilian and former district governor, in Nawroz, Helmand province. Ibrahim, 55, had previously collaborated with British forces and wasn’t the intended target of the operation. The SAS reported that Ibrahim reached for a grenade behind a curtain while being coerced at gunpoint to assist in searching his home. He was killed at close range before he could detonate it, according to the soldiers.

This incident was among several that raised red flags for N1466, as revealed by newly disclosed MoD documents. The concerns deepened after two subsequent incidents.

On the nights of February 7 and February 9, the squadron killed 17 people—including two children—during raids on their homes, recovering only seven weapons. N1466, responsible for overseeing the SAS, found the death toll “disproportionate” and evidence that the unit was “out of control.” An email from a concerned lieutenant colonel, a director of special forces operations, echoed these worries.

The chief of staff, the second highest-ranking special forces commander, responded by lamenting what he saw as a “massive failure of leadership.” He doubted the SAS’s rationale for the killings, stating, “If we don’t believe this, then no one else will and when the next WikiLeaks occurs then we will be dragged down with them.”

On February 14, 2011, the operations director noted in an email that the SAS seemed to be deliberately “setting the conditions for the Afghans’ execution” by sending detainees back into their homes to aid in searches.

The chief of staff’s reply highlighted a “casual disregard for life, [military] principles and credible reporting.”

On February 16, during another raid, two Afghan prisoners were shot dead after allegedly grabbing weapons from behind a curtain and a table. That day, emails between commanders no longer referred to the unit’s victims as EKIA (enemy killed in action), but rather EJK, an acronym for extra-judicial killings, signalling concern over the legality of their actions.

Alarmed by these discussions, N1466 sought legal counsel within the military framework. He consulted the Senior Legal Advisor to UK Special Forces, N2108, on the obligation of commanding officers to report potential war crimes to the Service Police. The advice he received was clear: the accumulation of similar incidents and emerging suspicions from the operational reports likely necessitated a formal investigation. This was the catalyst for N1466 to take action.

Armed with this legal perspective, N1466 drafted a formal communication to the Director of Special Forces. In this communication, he detailed his observations and the underlying concerns about the potential unethical and illegal behaviour of SAS units in Afghanistan. He advocated for a deeper investigation, hoping initially to clarify the legality of the actions reported but also prepared to expose and halt any criminal activities.

N1466’s top-secret message to Major General Jacko Page

Subsequently, N1466 arranged a meeting where he presented his findings and concerns in person to the Director of Special Forces. He outlined the troubling pattern of high casualty reports paired with low weapon recoveries and highlighted specific incidents that seemed to suggest a pattern of unlawful killings. As a result of these meetings, an internal review was ordered, which N1466 hoped would address and rectify the issues.

However, the internal review process did not lead to significant changes or acknowledgments of wrongdoing. Despite N1466’s efforts to instigate a thorough and impartial investigation, the initial responses from higher command levels were dismissive, and the actions taken appear to have been grossly insufficient to address the gravity of the allegations.

These events and the lack of adequate response from the military hierarchy eventually compelled N1466 to take his concerns to a broader audience, leading to one of the biggest inquiries into British military conduct in recent history. His revelations were later picked up by The Sunday Times and the BBC’s Panorama, which conducted their own investigation, bringing the issue into public awareness and sparking widespread debate and further investigation into the conduct of British forces abroad. In early May, the Sunday Times dedicated an entire report to N1466’s role.

The courage shown by N1466 to challenge the conduct within his own ranks and seek accountability highlights the critical role of whistleblowers in upholding the laws of war and ethical standards within military operations.

His actions not only exposed potential war crimes but also initiated a dialogue on the necessity for transparency and strict adherence to international law in conflict zones.

It appears in large part down to him that the current inquiry into SAS extra-judicial killings in Afghanistan is underway. For this he should be commended, for if the war in Afghanistan was not to uphold the rule of law, then what was it for?