BRIEFING:

UK Special Forces War Crimes: Operations, 2010-13

Our ongoing investigation into extrajudicial killings committed by UK Special Forces (UKSF) in Afghanistan has, so far, identified 26 separate operations which involved the suspicious killings of scores of people, including children as young as 12. Many appear to have been executed, either while in custody of the UKSF unit (sometimes with their hands bound) or else shot where they were sleeping. Overall, the evidence strongly suggests that, between at least 2010-2013, UKSF units in Afghanistan were engaged in systematic war crimes and a subsequent attempt to cover these up.

Our ongoing investigation into extrajudicial killings committed by UKSF units in Afghanistan strongly suggests that there existed, from at least 2010, a systematic practice of killing unarmed ‘fighting aged males’ across Helmand Province. Many of these people had been detained by British forces and were in custody at the time. These killings appear to have been part of a deliberate, if unofficial, policy amongst UKSF units, and were in clear violation of international humanitarian law. As such, they were war crimes. To date, we have compiled evidence of 26 separate operations undertaken by UKSF units which resulted in suspicious deaths. Most of these were so-called ‘Deliberate Detention Operations’, or night raids. These were labelled as ‘intelligence-led’ and ostensibly designed to detain individuals which had been identified as posing a threat to coalition forces in Helmand.

Emails: [Redacted] Objective Tyburn
UK Special Forces, N5460 and N5459, 2 pages, 16 Feb 2011

Across these operations at least 84 Afghan boys and men were killed in suspicious circumstances. The families of many of those killed are clear that their loved ones were not insurgents and did not pose a threat to those who had led the assault on their homes. Indeed, family members describe finding their relatives with ‘execution style’ shots to the head, with their hands bound with plasticuffs, and with dog bites to the face. Others described finding bodies where they had been sleeping, often under bedding and with bullet holes low down on the walls. At times, children were amongst those killed (apparently executed), including Ahmed Shah (12 years old), Mohammed Tayeb (14 years old), Sami Ullah (14 years old), Mohammad Taher (15 years old) and Naik Mohammed (16 years old). Many aspects of the eyewitness accounts are strikingly similar to each other and suggest a particular modus operandi on behalf of the UKSF units involved which contrasted sharply with the official accounts provided in the post-operational paperwork.

These killings were not linked to one particular UKSF unit. Although some units – such as that deployed between November 2010 and May 2011 – appear to have engaged in the routine killing of unarmed Afghan boys and men during operations, the evidence compiled to date suggests that extrajudicial killings took place during each of the 6-month rotations of UKSF into Afghanistan between May 2010 and May 2013.

We are providing here an account of each of these operations and will be updating this as new information comes to light. The evidence in relation to each of these incidents comes from a range of sources, including documents disclosed and made public during the Saifullah judicial review, documents and information made public as part of the ongoing Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan and gathered by our team, contemporaneous military records of specific operations, as well as reporting by a number of investigative journalists, including most prominently the team at BBC Panorama and The Sunday Times.

The Incidents

6 September 2010 (at least 1 killed)

A night raid in Helmand Province in which at least two men were detained by the UKSF unit. One of the detainees was transferred to a temporary holding facility for ‘tactical questioning’, where he was shown photographs of those killed on the raid. The detainee identified one of these men as someone he had seen alive while in the custody of UKSF during the night raid, thus suggesting that he had been killed unlawfully. The incident was referred to the RMP by a UKSF legal advisor on 8 September 2010, and an investigation took place under the name Operation Pavo. This closed in 2012 with no referrals to the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA).

29-30 November 2010 (1 killed)

Mohammed Ibrahim was killed during a night raid in Nawroz, outside of Gereshk, after he had been detained by a UKSF unit. Operational reporting suggests that Ibrahim was taken back inside to assist with clearing the building, before he apparently ‘went behind a curtain on the left wall’ and attempted to ‘engage the force with a grenade’. His family say that Ibrahim was a civilian who had worked as Gereshk District Governor alongside British forces, and that had been shot in the head while his hands were still tied at the front. Complaints by Provincial Governor Mangal, and by President Karzai, were received by British forces, and internal review (SIR) was conducted within UKSF. This found that the killing was within the Rules of Engagement and the Laws of Armed Conflict, and no referral was made to the RMP.

28 December 2010 (1 killed)

One person was killed in suspicious circumstances during a night raid. No referral was made to the RMP.

8-9 January 2011 (2 killed)

Two people were killed in suspicious circumstances during a night raid, including at least one detainee who was sent back inside a building to ‘assist with clearing it’. No referral was made to the RMP.

15-16 January 2011 (1 killed)

One person was killed in suspicious circumstances during a night raid, after he had been detained, taken back inside the building, and shot dead when he ‘reached behind a mattress, pulled out a hand grenade, and attempted to throw it.’ No referral was made to the RMP.

19 January 2011 (3 killed)

Three people were killed in suspicious circumstances, including at least one detainee who was sent back inside a building to ‘assist with clearing it’. No referral was made to the RMP.

24 January 2011 (6 killed)

Six people were killed in suspicious circumstances, only three weapons recovered. No referral was made to the RMP.

7 February 2011 (9 killed)

Nine people (including a 14-year old boy, Sami Ullah, and his 18-year old brother Nisah Ahmad) were killed in a guesthouse which formed part of a residence in the area of Makati Dashta, Nad Ali. Only three weapons were recovered from the operation, and the layout of bullet holes in the room suggest that the men were lying down when shot. Indeed, Habib Alizai, the head of the family, has said that three families were staying with him in order to pay their respects at a wake, and were all killed while sleeping with ‘execution style’ shots to the head and chest. This contradicts the UKSF unit’s own account of a sustained gunfight in the room, and photographs of the deceased taken at the time appear to suggest that the weapons were placed by the bodies after the event. Indeed, only three weapons were ever recovered, despite the number of those killed.

An internal Shooting Incident Review (SIR) within UKSF found that the killings were all within the Rules of Engagement and the Laws of Armed Conflict, and no referral was made to the RMP. The killings were later investigated as part of Operation Northmoor, during which time the team identified the ‘disproportionate number of enemy dead to weapons recovered and the fact that official narrative did not match the imagery.’ Witness statements from UKSF personnel involved in the operation were said to be ‘cut and paste statements’ meaning that ‘investigators could not accept the veracity of the accounts.’ Ultimately, the RMP investigation was closed in July 2019, eight months after it was launched, with no referrals to the SPA.

7 February 2011 (1 killed)

In what appears to be a second raid on the same night, a detainee was killed after he had then somehow found himself able to ‘engage the patrol with a rifle.’ No referral was made to the RMP.

9 February 2011 (8 killed)

Eight people were killed in the village of Khanano, Musa Qala, including a 15-year old boy, Mohammad Taher. Only four weapons were recovered by the unit, and photographs taken at the scene show seven bodies in a guesthouse with clean shots to the head and chest. This imagery contradicts UKSF accounts that one man was shot while outside the building, and four were killed in a long burst of gunfire from within the guesthouse. Surviving family members insist that all were killed where they were sleeping. The eighth man was killed after being detained, when he was sent back into the building and apparently ‘reappeared with a weapon and moved to engage the call sign.

Despite concerns raised at the time by other UKSF officers reading the operational account provided by the unit, including senior officers in UKSF headquarters in London, no referral was made to the RMP at the time. The killings were later investigated as part of Operation Northmoor. The RMP identified the fact that the UKSF account ‘does not match the SSE [sensitive site exploitation]’. For example:

1) The absence of material (blood) where you would expect to see it, raises questions given the accounts in the EXSUM;

2) The position of the alleged EKIA 1 would appear to be at odds with the narrative – inside the house versus outside… To the ‘reasonable’ person the SSE are alarming.

The RMP also noted that an account provided by one of the soldiers present on the operation ‘would potential[ly] tie in with what can be seen in the SSE photos (Fighting aged males executed on target…not holding wpns).’ Ultimately, the RMP investigation was closed in July 2019, eight months after it was launched, with no referrals to the SPA.

14 February 2011 (3 killed)

Three people were killed in suspicious circumstances, including at least one detainee who was sent back inside to ‘assist with clearing the building’. UKSF officers reviewing the operational reporting immediately afterwards expressed their disbelief at what they were reading. One email noted that there was, ‘Yet another B [male] who after being sent back into the A [building] (and being fully aware of being outnumbered) returns with a weapon! Do you think that they ask the Bs to go in and bring any weapons they may have out… thereby setting the conditions for their execution?’ The reply noted that, ‘It’s a good point. There appears to be a casual disregard for life, COIN principles and credible reporting.’

Despite these concerns at the time, no referral was made to the RMP.

16 February 2011 (4 killed)

Four people from the same family were killed in Gawahargin, Nawa, including two detainees who – separately – managed to arm themselves ‘from behind the curtains’ and ‘from behind a table’. Two further men were shot while hiding outside, after apparently pulling out a rifle and a grenade. Members of Afghan Special Forces who were present on the raid complained of men being ‘assassinated on target’, while UKSF officers reading the reports spoke of the ‘latest massacre’, with the write-up by the unit referred to as ‘bollocks’. Senior UKSF officers in London were also aware, with the Chief of Staff emailing the Senior Legal Advisor: ‘4 EKIA – 2 weapons recovered. Worth a look?’ SO1 Legal replied that:

I share [Director Special Forces’] concerns about the recent spate of high EKIA and have noted the emerging TB [Taliban] TTP [Tactics, Techniques and Procedures] of supposedly hiding grenades behind curtains. This may be entirely appropriate but I get the sense that the way we are writing these up will not bear scrutiny in years to come – my comments are demonstrations of the kinds of things that Public Interest lawyers may undoubtedly raise in the inevitable public inquiries.”

Despite these concerns, no referral was made to the RMP by UKSF. Ultimately, family members complained to the RMP via a letter sent in October 2014, and this became the first unlawful killing investigation conducted under Operation Northmoor. Ultimately, the RMP investigation was closed in July 2019 with no referrals to the SPA.

5 March 2011 (1 killed)

A UKSF unit detained a number of Afghans, at least three of whom had been injured during the operation. They were flown to Camp Bastion, the British base in Lashkar Gah, where one man ‘succumbed to his injuries.’ The subsequent RMP investigation (083128/2011) ‘took evidence from a number of witnesses and a surviving detainee’ but determined that ‘there was no evidence of any criminality.’

12 March 2011 (8 killed)

Eight people from the same family were killed during a night raid in Khanano, Sangin. The family insist that all those killed were unarmed and were killed while sitting or lying down. One of the dead, Zabiullah, was found under duvets and bedding, and at least two men were shot while their hands were bound with plasticuffs. The operational paperwork from the UKSF unit relays the same story as in previous raids, and was met with the same incredulity at the time by other UKSF officers reading the accounts. In yet another instance, multiple detainees had apparently managed to arm themselves whilst inside the buildings and under the control of the highly-trained and heavily-armed UKSF unit. Only six weapons were said to have been recovered, one of which was a grenade, and no referral was made to the RMP at the time.

18 March 2011 (4 killed)

Four people were killed in suspicious circumstances. No referral was made to the RMP.

1-2 April 2011 (2 killed)

Two detainees were killed in suspicious circumstances, after being detained and sent back into the building before managing to somehow arm themselves with an AK-47 and a grenade. No referral was made to the RMP.

2 April 2011 (1 killed)

A UKSF unit detained at least one man who had been injured during an operation. He was flown to Camp Bastion, where he ‘succumbed to his injuries.’ The subsequent RMP investigation (083146/2011) determined that ‘there was no evidence to suggest a breach of the Rules of Engagement or other unlawful action.’

20 June 2011 (8 killed)

Eight individuals were killed during a UKSF night raid. According to an Afghan Special Forces officer deployed on the operation alongside the unit, one of those killed was an unarmed elderly man. The incident was not referred to the RMP at the time by UKSF; they uncovered it seven years later, in July 2019, when conducting interviews of Afghan officers in relation to other alleged unlawful killings by UKSF. The subsequent investigation was closed in March 2020 with no referrals to the SPA.

27 June 2011 (2 killed)

Two detainees were killed during a ‘kinetic engagement between a UKSF unit operating in Afghanistan and enemy insurgents.’ The incident was not referred to the RMP at the time by UKSF; the Senior Investigating Officer for Operation Northmoor discovered it in November 2019. The subsequent investigation, codenamed Operation Puchero concluded that the detainees had been killed ‘by enemy action whilst in the custody of UKSF,’ and referred two UKSF members to the SPA for gross negligence manslaughter. The SPA later decided not to prosecute.

26 July 2011 (1 killed)

In what appears to be a second operation in which a detainee was said to have been killed by enemy fire, UKSF engaged in an operation in which an individual was shot in the arm and detained (Operation Y). According to a subsequent email from the Senior Legal Advisor at UKSF headquarters in London, N2108, the unit then took the decision ‘to use [the] detainee/INS to do a call out to the tree line from where previous guinfire (sic) was coming from.’ The detainee, who was with three members of UKSF, was ‘wounded and clearly reluctant to engage in the process’. There was then ‘further gun fire and [the detainee] dropped like a stone.’ This was, according to N2108, a clear ‘failure to protect detainee from military operations’ and ‘demonstrates a failure to get the message through.’

12 December 2011 (4 killed)

Four people were killed during a UKSF raid, but only one weapon was reported as being found. Reading the operational account from the unit, the Senior Legal Advisor at UKSF headquarters in London, N2108, remarked that ‘this is a 4 EKIA with 1 pistol recovered scenario,’ and that ‘it is not for me to doubt the word of the [unit] but we may just need to keep a close eye on this.’ This was particularly the case given ‘how the top corridor view some of these.’

Early July 2012 (3 killed)

A contractor working on a Patrol Base in Afghanistan witnessed an incident in which members of UKSF shot and killed three unarmed men. The incident was not referred to the RMP at the time by UKSF, with the contractor providing the information himself on 12 August 2012. The subsequent investigation, codenamed Operation Shiverwood (083189/2012), identified and interviewed suspects, but concluded with no referrals to the SPA.

It seems likely that this incident was the same that that reported by The Sunday Times in July 2017, in relation to a UKSF night raid in Gereshk district in which three brothers were killed. When interviewed by The Sunday Times, the boys’ mother, Bebe Hazrata, claimed that they were all farmers, killed ‘after they walked into the courtyard at the centre of their house with their hands held high.’ The initial shots appear to have been taken by soldiers on the roof, although later they ‘arrived into the compound and opened fire again on the dead bodies.’

6-7 August 2012 (4 killed)

Four people were killed during a night raid across two properties in the village of Shesh Aba, Nimruz Province. The first property was raided while the family were sleeping outside in the courtyard. The parents, Hussain Uzbakzai and Ruqquia Haleem, were shot dead, while the two pre-school children (Imran and Bilal) were severely injured and later evacuated to a military facility to be treated for gunshot wounds. Two further men, brothers Mohammad Wali and Mohammad Juma, were shot dead at close range in the second property.

Despite the fact that very young children were casualties, and despite the fact that the operational report appears to show that only one weapon (a grenade) was recovered, no referral was made to the RMP. This was particularly surprising given that a UKSF internal review had been carried out, with the Commanding Officer deciding against referral to the RMP despite the clear evidence that a seriously questionable incident had taken place. Indeed, the RMP only found out about the incident years later, when interviewing a member of UKSF as part of Operation Northmoor. According to this officer, the UKSF unit ‘deployed on a [DDO] into a compound during a night operation. During the operation 4 or 5 Afghan adults were killed and 2 x children were injured. The children were subsequently evacuated for medical treatment. Only one grenade was recovered.’ Despite this revelation, it does not appear that the RMP opened an investigation into this set of killings until the BBC drew it to their attention in 2022. The current status of any investigation is unclear.

4 September 2012 (1 killed)

A member of Afghan Special Forces deployed alongside UKSF shot and killed an injured Afghan male in Helmand Province. The incident was not referred to the RMP, which discovered it through the viewing of UK video footage of the operation. The resulting RMP investigation recorded a number of witness statements from pilots and UKSF personnel, all of whom ‘stated that there were no ISAF personnel with the Afghan unit at the time of the incident.’ Despite the fact that UK assets were clearly deployed during the operation, it was decided that this did not fall within the remit of the Service Police, and the matter was passed to Afghan authorities.

18 October 2012 (4 killed)

A 12-year old boy and three teenagers were killed while drinking tea, as UKSF carried out a night raid in the village of Loy Bagh, near Nad Ali. The operational account by the unit described the Afghan Special Forces unit deployed on the operation as engaging ‘4 military aged males located in a guesthouse under Card A [self-defence],’ and finding one PKM, one AK-47 and a chest rig. This was not referred to the RMP at the time, and it was only after an article by the Guardian in December 2012, which in turn prompted a complaint to the RMP by the family, that an investigation was launched. Codenamed Operation Cestro (083235/2012), this found the soldiers’ initial account of who fired the shots to be false. Ultimately, three members of UKSF were referred to the SPA: Soldier A (misconduct in public office), Soldier B (four counts of murder) and Soldier C (obstructing the course of justice). In March 2015, the SPA decided not to take forward any of these cases for prosecution.

10 May 2013 (1 killed)

One man was killed in Helmand Province by a member of UKSF. An RMP officer deployed with the unit said that he had witnessed an unlawful killing, with a contravention of the Laws of Armed Conflict and the Rules of Engagement. As such, a Shooting Incident Review was conducted, and the matter was thereafter referred to the RMP. The subsequent investigation (83131/2013) was closed without referral to the SPA. The RMP officer who was eyewitness to the killing later complained that the investigation had not been conducted properly, that he had ‘more information to disclose,’ that ‘various individuals spoke to him in an attempt to dissuade him from pursuing the unlawful killing allegations,’ and that ‘the statement produced from his original interview had been altered.’ A new investigation was launched, this time by the Royal Navy Police (100015/2016), focusing on the allegations that the initial investigation had not be conducted properly. This investigation was also closed without establishing evidence of criminality.

Further reading