“Rogue”…or following an unofficial government policy of terror? MH
The Sunday Times
Sat, 01 Aug 2020
documentary evidence has emerged in a British court in which allegations are made about a “rogue” SAS unit accused of executing civilians in Afghanistan.
The evidence had been withheld from earlier proceedings of the legal case, prompting a judge to demand a full explanation from Ben Wallace, the defence secretary.
The cache of emails, notes and reports from inside the SAS — the like of which has never been seen before — reveal that special forces commanders were highly concerned about the killing of more than 33 people in the space of three months during night raids on their homes.
There was a particular pattern in which men were captured and then killed when the SAS sent them back into their houses at gunpoint. The Sunday Times has pieced together the disturbing evidence, which raises serious questions about whether war crimes have been covered up.
It is a trail that begins in the dead of night.
The helicopters were deafening as they swooped down over Gawahargin village in southern Helmand province. Shrieks of fear rang through the building below as the inhabitants woke to find themselves surrounded by dim figures emerging from the dark. Red and blue laser gunsights probed the openings of the mud-built home and a booming megaphone ordered the family to come out into their courtyard. One by one, family members tentatively stepped out into the open with their hands in the air.
The soldiers placed black hoods over the heads of the men of the house and bound their hands with plastic ties. The women and children, including 19-year-old Saifullah Yar, were ushered to a guest room on the outer wall of the family’s compound. While they were being detained, they heard bursts of gunfire.
When the helicopters flew off, Saifullah headed back to the house in search of his father, whom he had last seen being handcuffed and hooded by the soldiers. He found his father — a farmer — slumped against his bedroom wall with eight to 10 bullets holes in his head.
His cousin had been killed in his own bedroom in the adjoining compound. So many bullets had ripped through his neck that his head was hanging loose from his shoulders. Saifullah’s two brothers were later discovered dead. Their bodies were riddled with bullet holes and lying outside the compound.
Within a couple of hours, the Chinook helicopters had offloaded the Special Air Service (SAS) troops at their secret base in Afghanistan, where news soon began circulating about yet another “kinetic” — military slang for lethal force — raid by the crack special forces regiment. When a computer link to the mission report was circulated early that morning, an SAS troop sergeant-major inquired by email at 6.56am: “Is this about . . . latest massacre! I’ve heard a couple of rumours.”
The events of that early morning on February 16, 2011 were first reported in 2017, when we wrote a series of stories revealing the SAS was being investigated for committing war crimes during the 13-year Afghanistan campaign. It was alleged innocent civilians were killed in cold blood and weapons planted beside their bodies to make it look as if they had put up a fight.
The Ministry of Defence refused to comment on the killing of Saifullah’s family when we approached it three years ago. But last month a cache of extraordinary secret documents from inside the special forces was disclosed in the High Court, giving eye-opening new details that appear to support allegations this was a quadruple murder by UK troops. It is rare that such highly confidential communications between troops and senior members of the special forces are released.
They record the fears among senior officers that there may have been a pattern of behaviour by a “rogue” SAS unit that had killed 33 people on 11 night raids on homes in the first three months of 2011. They included 10 near-identical killings that had happened after the SAS had captured a male family member and sent him back into his empty home to clear the way for a search of the premises.
The secret review of the raids found that in each of the incidents the SAS unit claimed the captured man had conjured up a weapon from inside the building despite having the special unit’s guns trained on his head. He was then shot dead. The officer conducting the review concluded: “We are getting some things wrong right now.”
One email shows that one of the most senior commanders in special forces headquarters in Britain had become deeply concerned about the killings and his misgivings were reported to the special forces directorate in central London.
He wrote that the actions had been reported to him as “possibly a deliberate policy among the current unit [name redacted] to engage and kill fighting-aged males on target even when they did not pose a threat”. He said the “disturbing” allegations could be “explosive” because it suggested SAS troops had “strayed into indefensible” behaviour that could be “criminal”.
Later every one of the dozens of SAS soldiers and servicemen involved in the operation who were interviewed by military police claimed they had no memory of their actions on the night of the killings. A judge questioned the plausibility of this “collective amnesia”.
The new information emerged only after the government’s lawyers misled a High Court hearing in a case that had been brought seeking a proper independent investigation into the killings on behalf of Saifullah, who is now in his late twenties and still lives in Afghanistan. The lawyers had argued there had been no complaints about the killings at the time, but the documents they were then forced to disclose contradict that claim.
The judge in the second hearing — held by video conference 10 days ago — has demanded a witness statement from Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, to explain why the government withheld this crucial information. “What has happened in this litigation is out of the ordinary,” Mr Justice Swift told the hearing.
While Saifullah and his family were mourning the deaths of their relatives at dawn on the day of the shootings — Wednesday, February 16, 2011 — the documents show that British special forces soldiers at base camp were becoming increasingly incredulous about the nature of the killings by the SAS unit.
The emails, notes and mission reports have been redacted by the government to conceal names, and contain military terms, but their meaning is clear.
The troop sergeant-major had asked about the “latest massacre” that morning because he could not open the link to the mission report on his computer. A colleague, a senior non-commissioned officer, wrote back to fill him in on the events hours earlier. He began by describing the death of Saifullah’s cousin Ahmad Shah in the adjoining compound. “Basically, for what must be the 10th time in the last two weeks, when they sent a B [Afghan man] back into the A [a building], to open the curtains(??) he re-appered [sic] with an AK [AK-47 assault rifle],” he wrote.
He went on to describe what the SAS unit claimed had happened to Saifullah’s father, Abdul Khaliq, aged about 55. “Then when they walked back in to a different A [building] with another B [Afghan] to open the curtains he grabbed a grenade from behind a curtain and threw it at the c/s [call sign ie: SAS soldier]. Fortunately, it didn’t go off . . . this is the 8th time this has happened.’
The email ends with a reference to the shooting outside the compound of one of Saifullah’s two brothers, Saddam. “And finally they shot a guy who was hiding in a bush who had a grenade in his hands. You couldn’t MAKE IT UP!”
Eyebrows were also being raised further up the chain. There was an email exchange about the incident between some of the most senior officers in the special forces command in Afghanistan that day. One senior commander made clear that he had doubts about the way the SAS unit had been reporting incidents in which Afghan men had been captured before being killed. “If accurate,” he said of the reports, then “TB [Taliban] appear to have become more militant and less careful of life than previously”.
He asked his colleagues for their “thoughts”. Another senior special forces officer quickly replied with a tone of disbelief. “Has anybody come up with an explanation as to why all TB are beginning to adopt the previously unobserved TTPs [tactical practice] of: 1. re-entering buildings during the search phase and coming back out with a weapon against an overwhelming force 2. keeping grenades in their pockets?” he wrote.
The SAS unit’s official version of the night’s mission was set out more fully in a “first impression report” produced by the army a few days later. It states the raid on Saifullah’s house was part of a search for his brother Saddam, who was suspected of being a member of an enemy gang that was planting roadside bombs. Saddam was the only target for the raid.
The report says that Saifullah’s father was escorted back into his house after capture and was instructed to open the curtains in the third room they entered. “As he does so,” the report continues, “he pulls a grenade from behind the curtains and moves to throw it at the team. He poses an immediate threat to life and is engaged with aimed shots. The assault team members take cover. The grenade malfunctions and does not detonate.”
Saifullah’s cousin moved behind a table and picked up an AK-47 assault rifle when he was taken back into his house, according to the SAS unit’s account. He was shot instantly.
Saddam was killed after the soldiers allegedly found him outside the compound with a grenade in his hands, and the other brother, Atta Ullah, is said to have died after emerging from under a blanket with an AK-47 near a compound about 300 yards away.
The SAS troops took photographs of the family’s weapons to show they had acted in self-defence. The two assault rifles and two grenades were, however, the only weapons recorded as being found in the two adjoining compounds, which made it all the more remarkable that four family members had managed to get their hands on one during the surprise raid in the middle of the night.
Contrary to the claims made by the British government’s lawyers in court, the documents show the SAS unit’s version of events came under question immediately on the morning of the shootings in angry exchanges with the troops’ coalition partners.
As was common on night raids, the Afghan partner unit (APU), consisting of special forces, had been supporting the SAS troops when they surrounded Saifullah’s home and the adjoining compound. One note shows that soldiers who were present had told their commanding officer four innocent civilians had been murdered that night.
The job of placating the APU fell upon a senior officer from the Special Boat Service (SBS) — the SAS’s maritime sister regiment. The SBS had close relations with the APU because it had been deployed to do mentoring and training work with the Afghans.
In a note written on the day of the killings, the officer said he had just had a “very difficult” meeting with the colonel in charge of the APU. The colonel brought along nine of his soldiers, one of whom was a relative of Saifullah’s family and who gave assurances that the dead men were teachers and farmers, not Taliban supporters.
The colonel said his soldiers had reported that nobody had fired at the coalition forces, but the men “were shot anyway”. The note added: “He suggests that 2 men were shot trying to run away, and that the other 2 men were ‘assassinated’ on target after they had already been detained and searched.”
As the meeting became more heated, one of the Afghan soldiers drew his pistol and asked permission to shoot his SBS mentors. The SBS officer wrote: “He [the colonel] repeatedly asked me to explain to the officer (present in the room) why his family had been first detained, and then killed by the British, particularly as there was no evidence.”
In an email note of a second meeting, the APU colonel made clear his troops would no longer work with the SAS until the issue was resolved and said he was going to raise the matter with a special unit of the Afghan police that deals with serious crime.
The matter was already being taken up on the day of the shootings by a security adviser to Gulab Mangal, then governor of Helmand province, who phoned a general in command of coalition forces in the region to inquire about the civilian casualties, according to an army report. The general assured the adviser the matter had been taken care of by the British.
However, the governor was still not satisfied with the answer three days later, the first impression report produced by UK special forces shows. “On the 19 Feb Gov Mangal indicated through Col [colonel’s name redacted] that during the operation in the early hours of the 16 Feb, four innocent civilians were killed by CF [coalition forces].”
The alarm bells were ringing at special forces headquarters in the UK about a pattern of behaviour by the SAS unit. A long note has been disclosed from one of the most senior figures in special forces, containing incendiary information.
The note states that in April that year a senior commander had been to a dinner and had been taken to one side for a private chat by a fellow high-ranking officer. He had heard disturbing reports from Afghanistan from his men.
The men reported that there appeared to be a deliberate policy by the current SAS unit on tour in Afghanistan of killing “fighting age males . . . even when they did not pose a threat”. The senior commander told the officer he had heard “similar unease” and headquarters had noticed an upward trend in the numbers of enemies being killed.
The commander’s note went on to explain that in February he had been forced to raise two particular issues “that are fuelling our concern”. The first was the disparity between the number of weapons recovered from the enemy and the number of bodies.
The second concern was “the number of instances where the ‘head of family’ Bs [Afghan men] were being invited to lead the compound clearance and were subsequently being engaged and killed”. He said that after a period of restraint since the February incident, there had been another case on April 2 when two Afghan men had been captured and then killed when they were asked to help clear their homes.
The officer he talked to had previously been on a special forces tour in Afghanistan. The commander wrote that the officer “recounts that during his [team’s] tour there was not a single incident when the B [Afghan man] chose to take aggressive action against what were clearly impossible odds. He is therefore surprised that there have been multiple examples of this happening during the current [redacted] tour.”
The commander said he found the information “very disturbing” even if the reports were second-hand. He said it might be a new enemy tactic but it did not seem to be necessary, as the Taliban understood the “limitations” of the UK’s detention system.
The Insight team has previously been told by an SAS officer that the regiment’s soldiers had at times adopted “a shoot to kill” policy, which may have been caused by frustration that people caught in night raids were often released after a few days without yielding useful intelligence.
The commander’s note ends with his concern that the incidents threatened to damage the plan to hand over power to the Afghans and to sour British relations with the ministry of the interior.
A judge questioned the ‘collective amnesia’ of more than 40 SAS soldiers
Getting things wrong
On the same day — April 7, 2011 — a special forces major was finishing a review for his superior of all the raids carried out by the SAS unit since December 2010. He set out his findings in an email to his superior that afternoon, and they were startling.
He wrote: “I counted 10 separate incidents (spanning eight separate operations) in which the TTP [tactic] of sending a B [Afghan man] back into a building to assist with clearing it resulted in that same B getting killed (‘reaching for an AK-47 behind a blanket’ etc being the sort of comment in the OPSUM [operational summary ]).”
These incidents happened between January 8 and April 2, 2011. The major highlighted five other incidents during the same period when the number of people killed was far higher than the number of guns the SAS unit said it had found at the scene. While noting that there could be many explanations for the mismatch, his review showed that in just three of those operations 23 people were killed and only 10 guns recovered.
The major concluded his email that “in my view there is enough here to convince me that we are getting some things wrong right now”.
Four days later, instructions were emailed to the commander of special forces in Afghanistan to carry out a review of the tactic of sending the head of the household back into the building. The email — marked “Secret UK Eyes Only” — said “there have been several instances in which [redacted name of unit] have been forced to engage and kill the nominated Afghan male because he had reached for a concealed weapon in the accommodation area, either as he returned into the compound or during the clearance phase. This is a relatively new trend.”
The dossier noted that the UK’s Afghan partners believed that the SAS had been “overly kinetic” during these operations. This was weakening the relationship between the two governments and “if allowed to deteriorate, could undermine [redacted] the transition in Afghanistan”.
The commander was asked in the email to assess the “severity of concerns” and report any criminal act that might have been committed to the Royal Military Police (RMP). However, it appears that no crimes were reported and the matter might have ended there.
More than two years later Saifullah’s uncle made a claim against the UK government for unlawful detention and mistreatment, as he had been imprisoned for 20 days after the raid by the SAS and then released without charge.
As part of the litigation, the allegation about the four civilian killings was passed on to the special investigation branch of the RMP, who felt the claims were sufficiently serious to launch an investigation in March 2014.
It was the beginning of a large-scale war crimes inquiry, which was expanded to look at 52 suspected murders by British special forces in Afghanistan. By 2017 sources close to the inquiry told us that the RMP were seriously looking into allegations that the SAS killed unarmed Afghan civilians in cold blood, planted weapons on victims and falsified mission reports to cover its tracks.
While the RMP’s investigation, Operation Northmoor, was wound down under pressure from the government that year, inquiries into the deaths of Saifullah’s relatives continued until last summer, when the RMP concluded their work, admitting that they had not even been able to identify the alleged offenders who had carried out the shooting.
Saifullah’s law firm, Leigh Day, launched an application for judicial review in September, claiming that his right to a prompt and effective independent investigation had been breached. In initial submissions to the judge in November, it emerged that the RMP had interviewed almost all the 54 military personnel connected to the incident. “None of those personnel could specifically remember the operation under question,” the government’s lawyers said.
The request for a judicial review was denied and so an oral appeal hearing was held in March in front of Mr Justice Jay, who allowed the case to go forward. The judge found that Saifullah’s lawyer had a reasonable case to argue based on the allegations of a cover-up that had been previously made in a joint investigation in The Sunday Times and by the BBC’s Panorama, and the fact that soldiers had shown “collective amnesia” when asked about the shooting. A “wall of silence” that was “deeply suspicious” was another way it was described in court.
One of the key assertions was a claim by the government’s lawyers that the MoD was unaware of complaints about the killings until the claim by Saifullah’s uncle in late 2013.
This was misleading, as the government’s lawyers soon realised when they reviewed the paperwork that needed to be disclosed after the judge’s decision to allow the review to go ahead. It was then that they found the documents quoted in this article. Saifullah’s lawyer has expressed “grave concern” that it was almost shut out from bringing the case because the contents of the document had not been given to the court.
The defence secretary has until the autumn to write a witness statement explaining to the court how the error happened. There will also be fresh questions for the heads of Britain’s special forces as to why the killings were not investigated at the time, but covered up.
This weekend Lord Macdonald, a former director of public prosecutions and one of the country’s leading criminal lawyers, said: “The way a nation wages war tells you all you need to know about its attachment to the rule of law. It is bad enough if British soldiers were systematically murdering civilians in Afghanistan — making themselves liable to criminal proceedings in the UK.
“But this is compounded if their superior officers and government officials deliberately failed to investigate suspected war crimes, and then tried to conceal evidence that they had occurred from the courts.”
A former senior military officer with knowledge of such operations told this newspaper of his doubts about the SAS claims that many of those killed had single-handedly decided to take on the unit in their own homes after being captured. He said it “defied logic” for someone to launch an attack against impossible odds when their family is in the hands of the enemy just metres away.
“It’s just not going to happen. There could be retribution taken against your family. It’s just ridiculous,” he said. “The chance of somebody being aggressive against you when you have their family is minimal.”
He said the SAS’s mission reports were “highly incredible”. “There’s overwhelming force. Everyone’s been detained. You know you’re going to die if you do it. What advantage is there? There is no advantage. Even if you’re a member of the Taliban, your best chances are going into the detention system, get processed, no one knows who you are and you get released. It happens all the time. Why would you risk this? This is a thin veneer of an excuse.”
The MoD said: “This is not new evidence, and this historical case has already been independently investigated by the Royal Military Police as part of Operation Northmoor. It has also been subject to four reviews conducted by an independent review team.
“These documents were considered as part of the independent investigations, which concluded there was insufficient evidence to refer the case for prosecution. The Service Police and the Service Prosecuting Authority of course remain open to considering allegations should new evidence, intelligence or information come to light.”