BBC investigation finds SAS killed Afghan detainees and unarmed men in suspicious circumstances
A BBC Panorama investigation has uncovered evidence that the British SAS executed detainees and murdered unarmed people on operations in Afghanistan.
It reveals disturbing new evidence of scores of secret killings by the SAS, and efforts by some of the most senior figures in UK Special Forces to conceal evidence of war crimes.
Panorama has identified 54 people shot dead in suspicious circumstances by one SAS unit during one six month tour of Afghanistan. The youngest was described as just 15 years old when he was killed.
The programme has also discovered that senior officers, including General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, failed to report the alleged murders and did not disclose the evidence held by UK Special Forces to the military police.
Special Forces deployed to Afghanistan had been tasked with targeting Taliban leaders and the bomb-making networks causing frequent causalities using IEDs.
From 2009 onwards, the SAS took on responsibility for counter insurgency operations, conducting hundreds of raids on suspected Taliban targets. The aim was to arrest key insurgency leaders and those involved in bomb making networks. Many of these raids were carried out at night, and became known among Special Forces as ‘Kill/Capture’ missions.
However, intelligence flaws meant innocent civilians were also being caught up in these operations, and the UN concluded hundreds of unarmed civilians, including women and children, were killed by coalition Special Forces between 2009 and 2014.
Panorama travelled to Afghanistan to interview key eyewitnesses and examine the evidence left at the sites of some of the shootings.
Sources from within UK Special Forces told Panorama senior officers at Special Forces headquarters in London were worried about the number of people being killed on the raids at the time. Internal documents seen by Panorama show that the SAS accounts of killings were also causing alarm.
A senior officer, who worked at Special Forces HQ, told the programme there was real concern about the SAS accounts of these killings coming back from Afghanistan.
“Too many people were being killed on night raids and the explanations didn’t make sense. Once somebody is detained, they shouldn’t end up dead. For it to happen over and over again was causing alarm at HQ. It was clear at the time that something was wrong.”
The evidence obtained by Panorama shows that the then director Special Forces was repeatedly warned in 2011 that executions were taking place. But the Royal Military Police was not informed.
Special Forces leaders collected statements from their own men in a folder they had created for ‘anecdotal evidence of extra-judicial killings’. It was then locked away in a secret restricted-access classified file.
General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith took over as Director Special Forces – the highest ranking UKSF officer in the country – in February 2012.
Panorama has uncovered evidence that he was briefed about the alleged executions by the SAS squadron. Despite this, General Carleton-Smith allowed the squadron to redeploy to Afghanistan at the end of 2012 – a tour that was to end in a murder inquiry.
An investigation was launched after a member of the squadron killed a man in suspicious circumstances during a night raid in Helmand, in May 2013. The same man had been on some of the deadliest raids on the SAS unit’s previous tour in 2010/11.
BBC Panorama has discovered General Carleton-Smith failed to tell the military police that the same SAS unit had earlier been suspected of carrying out dozens of executions and unlawful killings.
Under the Armed Forces Act, it is a criminal offence for a commanding officer to fail to inform the military police if they become aware of potential war crimes.
General Carleton-Smith, who stepped down as the UK’s Chief of the General Staff last month, declined to comment for the BBC.
The MoD said it could not comment on any allegations for legal reasons, but that should not be taken as acceptance of their factual accuracy.
The Royal Military Police (RMP) did not find out about the evidence held by Special Forces headquarters until four years later, in 2015. They were conducting a wider investigation, called Operation Northmoor, into the way British troops behaved in Afghanistan.
In 2017, the government announced Northmoor was to be shut down without anyone being charged. The MoD stated at the time: “They [the RMP] have found no evidence of criminal behaviour by the Armed Forces in Afghanistan.”
The Ministry of Defence said extensive and independent investigations into the conduct of UK forces in Afghanistan found insufficient evidence to bring charges:
“The UK Armed Forces served with courage and professionalism in Afghanistan and we will always hold them to the highest standards. No new evidence has been presented, but the Service Police will consider any allegations should new evidence come to light.”
Panorama SAS Deaths Squads Exposed: A British War Crime? will be broadcast tonight at 9pm on BBC One.