At the height of the war in Afghanistan in 2011, two senior Special Forces officers met at a bar in Dorset to have a secret conversation. They feared that some of the UK’s most trained troops had adopted a “deliberate policy” of illegally killing unarmed men. Evidence is now emerging that suggests they were right.
The two senior officers were thousands of miles from the dust and danger of Helmand province in Afghanistan.
One of them had recently returned from the war, where his troops said they understood that a policy of execution-type murders was being pursued by special forces.
The other was at headquarters, reading the reports from the front line with growing concern. They showed a sharp increase in the number of “enemies killed in action” (EKIA) by British special forces.
Special Forces are the UK’s elite specialized troops, encompassing both the SAS (Special Air Service) and SBS (Special Boat Service).
After the conversation, a briefing note believed to have been written by one of Britain’s top Special Forces members was passed down the chain of command.
The message contained clear warnings for the highest levels of special forces and concluded that these “worrying” allegations deserved “further investigation” to “in the worst case put an end to the criminal behavior”.
The documents were disclosed to lawyers Leigh Day, in a case pending before the High Court, which will rule on whether the allegations of unlawful killings by British special forces were the subject of an appropriate investigation.
The man carrying the case is Saifullah Ghareb Yar. He says four members of his family were murdered in the early hours of February 16, 2011.
It follows a BBC Panorama program last year, which reported on the deaths. The program worked with the Sunday Times Insight team to uncover evidence of a pattern of illegal assassinations by British special forces.
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The government claims that all four of Saifullah’s family were killed in self-defense.
But now correspondence in recently released documents shows that some had serious concerns about the British special forces mission.
Just hours after the elite troops returned to the base, other British soldiers were exchanging emails describing the events of that night as the “last massacre”.
‘Trembling with fear’
At 1:00 a.m. in Nawa, rural Helmand, on February 16, 2011, Saifullah’s family were sleeping in their home.
They woke up suddenly to the sound of helicopter rotors, followed by screams through megaphones. Saifullah was still a teenager but he was about to find himself in the middle of a special forces ‘kill or capture’ mission.
These “night raids” were a common tactic at the time. They were generally conducted in partnership with Afghan forces under cover of darkness. Their aim was to target senior Taliban officials.
“My whole body was shaking with fear. Everyone was scared. All the women and children were crying and screaming, ”Saifullah told BBC Panorama.
He described how his hands were tied and he was placed in a waiting area with the women and children. He hadn’t been there long when he heard gunshots.
After the troops left, the bodies of his two brothers were found in the fields surrounding their house. Her cousin had been shot in a neighboring building.
Back in his house, Saifullah found his father lying face down on the ground.
“His head, the forehead area, was hit by many bullets and his leg was completely broken by the bullets,” he said.
Panorama last year revealed how often there is insufficient intelligence that identifies the targets of these raids.
Philip Alston, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on executions, told the program: “I have no doubt that overall there are many allegations [of innocent people being killed] are justified, and that we can conclude that a large number of civilians were killed in night raids, in a totally unjustifiable manner. ”
Saifullah believes his family was mis-targeted and then executed in cold blood.
In Nawa district, there was an outcry after the killings. The Governor of Helmand found the victims to be innocent civilians.
British military emails following the raid obtained by Panorama suggest eyewitnesses for the Afghan military supported Saifullah’s version of events.
A commander of the Afghan forces reportedly said that no one was shooting at the British but that the four family members had been shot anyway and “he takes this as confirmation that innocent people have been killed”.
The Afghan commander suggests that “two men were shot as they tried to escape and the other two men were” murdered “at the target after having already been arrested and searched.
Correspondence shows that these events sent shockwaves through the British Army from Helmand to London.
The emails raise concerns about the refusal of Afghan forces to accompany the British on nighttime raids because they did not believe the killings were justified. It was not the first time that the Afghan forces lodged this complaint.
A senior Special Forces officer said that this kind of quarrel “endangers the [redacted] transition plan and, more importantly, the prospects for lasting UK influence “in Afghanistan.”
“In addition to alienating our Afghan allies, the story of the murderous British forces played into the hands of the insurgents,” said Frank Ledwidge, a former military intelligence officer who served as legal adviser to Helmand.
“The actions of some special forces actively undermined the overall counterinsurgency mission, which was already difficult enough,” he said.
‘You couldn’t invent’
Among the documents disclosed to the court, there is a detailed summary marked “secret”.
It includes an excerpt from the Classified Operational Summary (OPSUM), which provides the official record of what the strike team did at Saifullah’s home.
British Special Forces reported that after initially securing the compound, they returned to search the rooms with one of the Afghan men they had detained.
While there, he says he suddenly grabbed a grenade behind a curtain.
“He represents an immediate threat to life and is engaged with directed fire. The members of the assault team take cover. The grenade is malfunctioning and does not explode, ”says OPSUM.
This man was Saifullah’s father.
After the shooting, OPSUM reports that another Afghan was transferred to the nearby compound to help search the buildings. They say he was also shot after picking up a gun.
This man was Saifullah’s cousin.
Saifullah’s two brothers reportedly fled when they spotted the arriving unit. One hid in a bush with a grenade and was shot dead when the explosive was spotted, OPSUM said.
The other was hiding a short distance away with a machine gun. When he emerged from a hiding place under a blanket with the gun, he was also shot.
This official account of the murders has been greeted with suspicion by some members of the British Army.
An internal email requests a copy of OPSUM within hours of the killings and asks, “Is this about [redacted] last massacre! ”
The response includes a summary of the unlikely events in the official report and ends by saying, “You couldn’t do it! ”
It appears that soldiers reading these reports feared they would be tampered with using almost identical blankets.
A spokesperson for the Defense Ministry said:
‘Corrupting the Course of Justice’
The suspicious pattern of similar incidents leading to the murder of Afghan men in nighttime Special Forces raids has attracted the attention of several at British Special Forces headquarters in England.
Court documents show that a review was ordered.
A special forces major then reviewed all official reports on killings committed by elite troops between December 2010 and April 2011.
He wrote to other senior officers to tell them that the number of murders had led him to conclude that “we are wrong right now”.
His report found 10 incidents in which the similarity of accounts in official documents raised his suspicions.
All involved shootings on men who had been arrested before they unexpectedly seized a weapon during a building search.
The major also found at least five separate incidents where more people were killed than weapons recovered. This means that the weapons are gone or that the people who were killed were not armed.
In one case, nine people were killed and only three weapons were recovered.
Newly released evidence appears to back up revelations from last year’s Panorama and Sunday Times investigation.
Panorama reported that a full-scale Royal Military Police (RMP) investigation called Operation Northmoor had linked dozens of suspicious killings during nighttime raids. Among them was the death of members of Saifullah’s family.
When the RMP interviewed the special forces troops who participated in the February 16, 2011 raid, they all said they did not remember the details of the mission that night.
Operation Northmoor investigated whether official operation reports had been tampered with. In one case, the RMP even brought charges against members of the British Special Forces for murder, falsifying a report and hijacking the course of justice.
But the charges were dropped, and the government shut down Operation Northmoor without pursuing a single case. Insiders said it was shut down too early for them to complete their investigation.
“It seems to be one of the unique characteristics of British special forces that they are not accountable to anyone,” said Frank Ledwidge.
“Accountability must apply to everyone and especially the senior commanders and politicians who have allowed, tolerated or ignored these alleged crimes and created the environment for them to occur.”
You can watch Panorama, War Crimes Scandal Exposed on BBC iPlayer