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AOAV: all our reportsIndependent Inquiry relating to AfghanistanUK Special ForcesMilitarism examined

What is going wrong with the SAS?

Earlier this month, Prince William attended a memorial service at Hereford Cathedral. He was there to honour Major Mike Sadler, the last of the wartime Special Air Service (SAS) ‘originals’.

Sadler, who died aged 103, was a celebrated figure in British military special forces history. Recruited by David Stirling, the founder of the SAS, in 1941, Sadler’s military career included night-time raids on Axis airfields in Libya and parachuting into Nazi-occupied France. His valour earned him the Military Cross and the Legion d’honneur from France. 

His was the service of legends – immortalised by Tom Glynn-Carney in the BBC series ‘Rogue Heroes’.

But would this highest of military praise – a future king attending your funeral – be warranted for those serving today? After all, members of the UK’s special forces stand accused of war crimes in Syria, extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan, drug-running in Herefordshire and the systemic and purposeful hiding or withholding of evidence from the courts seeking to hold it to account.

Such a litany of accusations raises the question: is the SAS of today more rogue than hero?

Arrests of war crimes in Syria
In March of this year, it was reported that five members of the SAS had either been placed under investigation or arrested (accounts differ) for allegedly committing war crimes during operations in Syria. The allegations stem from a 2022 incident where these soldiers reportedly killed an unarmed suspected militant. The suspect was said to have been found near a primed suicide vest, although he was not wearing it at the time he was shot. The soldiers have defended their actions, saying the individual posed an imminent threat.

Allegations of extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan
Of course, this might seem a reasonable act.  How else to stop a militant intent on suicidal murder?  But such arrests come against the backdrop of broader investigations into the conduct of SAS personnel, including accusations of multiple unlawful killings during counterinsurgency arrests in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. 

The allegations cover at least 26 operations leading to the deaths of 84 Afghan males under questionable circumstances, particularly the targeting of unarmed individuals identified as ‘fighting-aged males’, and the shooting of sleeping Afghans.

These operations, which span from May 2010 through May 2013, form the focus of an ongoing judge-led inquiry, tasked with answering the question as to the veracity of the claim and if they amounted to war crimes. Witness accounts describe the victims in many instances as non-combatants, unarmed or handcuffed.

On the day after one raid in February 2011, where eight people were killed, one Special Forces officer even wrote in an email: “Whilst murder and the [SAS] have oft been regular bed-fellows, this is beginning to look bone!” 

The reply came back: “I find it depressing that it has come to this… Ultimately a massive failure of leadership… and when the next Wikileaks occurs then we will be dragged down with them.”

Accusations of obstructing justice
The inquiry itself is overshadowed by other accusations, including the destruction of evidence. The root of this lies in Operation Northmoor, a prior investigation into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan started in 2015 by the Royal Military Police (RMP). In that review, much was made of an MOD “ITS1 server”, which contained potentially crucial SAS emails and documents. The MOD initially refused to surrender this server, citing operational concerns. When the server was eventually transferred, it was found crucial data had been deleted.

As this deletion is exposed, the BBC has also reported that General Gwyn Jenkins, during his time as a colonel in the Herefordshire-based special forces regiment, was aware of SAS soldiers executing handcuffed detainees but failed to report these incidents to military police. Instead, he put the evidence in a classified dossier and locked it in his safe, potentially breaching the Armed Forces Act 2006, which mandates reporting such crimes. The Defence Serious Crime Command (DSCC) or the Royal Military Police have yet to investigate the accusations raised against Jenkins.

The SAS also stands accused of blocking a number of applications to relocate to the UK made by the Afghan troops who they had fought alongside. Despite being significantly at risk of Taliban reprisals, hundreds of applications from Afghan Special Forces units CF 333 and ATF 444 under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme were reportedly rejected by SAS officers.

Northern Ireland
As all of this is unfolding, questions are also being asked when the MOD first became aware of a video that allegedly showed the 1986 killing of Francis Bradley, a 20-year-old from Co Derry, by a member of the SAS. This video is pivotal to the ongoing inquest into Bradley’s death, which took place near an arms dump in Toome, County Antrim, and is suspected to be a result of the alleged “shoot-to-kill” policy of the British Army in Northern Ireland. Bradley was later honoured by the IRA.

The video’s existence was revealed during the inquest by a former SAS member known as Soldier U, who claimed to have seen footage from a helicopter-mounted camera showing the moment leading up to Bradley’s death. This disclosure prompted Karen Quinlivan KC, representing the Bradley family, to question the MoD’s transparency and timeline concerning their knowledge of the video. Coroner Peter Irvine said he was informed about the video just days before the inquiry – again raising questions as to the handling of crucial evidence.

Drug running
This is not all.

Last December, a major law enforcement operation involving armed officers led to the arrest of two members of the SAS and a soldier’s spouse. This operation, executed in a coordinated effort between military and civil law enforcement agencies, targeted a rural farm where substances suspected to be illicit drugs were discovered and confiscated for analysis. The suspects were subsequently released on bail, pending charges for Class A drug offences.

Secrecy and D Notices
But, if the answer to such concerns is for greater investigation and transparency, think again.

The British government has recently issued a “D Notice” to various media outlets, asking them to refrain from publishing details about SAS operations in the Middle East, particularly their reported training in Lebanon and Cyprus with aims to enter Gaza. The Defense and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) Committee was reported to say that the publication of the details of these missions could compromise the safety of UK personnel involved in sensitive operations. 

The British Government has an often-stated “no comment” policy when it comes to Special Forces. No parliamentary select committee currently has oversight of the elite force.

Chief of General Staff
And, if this litany of concerns has had any real life impact on senior military personnel in the British army, think again. 

Lieutenant General Sir Charles Walker, described by the Telegraph as an “ex-SAS war hero”, is due to take up the post of Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the British Army, in June 2024. Mark Carleton-Smith, until recently the Chief of the General Staff, was also in the SAS.

Have such high commands had real life consequences in the application of justice? As Frank Ledwidge noted in the Guardian, “if senior military officers don’t want ministers to know something about special forces because it is embarrassing or reflects badly upon them, they can stonewall or gaslight and expect no further action or scrutiny.”

It is small wonder, then, that Johnny Mercer, the Veterans Minister and MP for Plymouth Moor View, is challenging a legal order requiring him to disclose the names of informants who reported alleged war crimes by British special forces in Afghanistan. 

Mercer was given a deadline to submit a witness statement with these names to the inquiry, failing which he could face imprisonment or a fine. He has applied to contest this order. The inquiry has assured that the names will be kept confidential, but Mercer, who previously served with the Special Boat Service in Afghanistan, has defended his refusal to disclose the names, citing the protection of his informants’ integrity. 

Rogues or Heroes?
In summary, the accusations that are levied at the UK’s SAS stand in stark contrast with the revered legacy of its founding heroes. From war crimes and obstruction of justice to misconduct and a lack of transparency, a troubling picture of a unit once synonymous with bravery and integrity emerges.

As the SAS grapples with these accusations and the resulting public and legal scrutiny, the need for comprehensive oversight and reform becomes increasingly apparent. 

The honour and respect commanded by figures like Major Mike Sadler remind us of the standards to which today’s forces must still aspire. It is essential that their actions are guided by accountability and justice – only with this can the SAS reclaim the distinguished reputation it once held.