Briefing:

UK Special Forces War Crimes: The Key Documents

These documents, disclosed during the Saifullah judicial review in July 2020, and by the Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan from December 2023 onwards, make clear the extent to which senior officers in UK Special Forces were aware – at the time – of potential extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan during 2010-11. They also show that investigating officers from the Royal Military Police later believed that evidence of these potential crimes may have been subsequently covered up through the deliberate deletion of data.

These documents begin with a UK Special Forces (UKSF) operational report from a night raid on 16 February 2011, in which events from the operation are described in increasingly implausible ways. This document is an example of what appears to have been a systematic practice of fabricating the post-operational paperwork in an attempt to hide criminal activity. This document is followed by multiple contemporaneous emails from UKSF officers disputing the narrative of this and other similar operations. These emails refer to ‘the latest massacre, ‘assassination’ and ‘indefensible ethical and legal behaviour’, demonstrating how widespread the concerns were at the time. Further documents include emails and memos from very senior UKSF officers to Director Special Forces, Jacko Page, reporting on these concerns.

Project Archive
100s documents relating to allegations of SF war crimes

Despite how widespread and serious these concerns were, they were not reported to the Service Police, despite the duty to do so under the Armed Forces Act 2006. Instead, Director Special Forces ordered an internal review into the ‘tactics, techniques and procedures’ (TTPs) being deployed on night raids. The Terms of Reference for this review, provided here in redacted form, took these highly-implausible narratives at face value, and did not direct officers to investigate whether the post-operational paperwork was correct, or whether the reports were hiding evidence of criminality.

The documents also show that during Operation Northmoor, the Royal Military Police (RMP) investigation into allegations of extrajudicial killings by UKSF in Afghanistan, a UKSF server containing crucial data pertaining to these suspicious operations was wiped prior to it being seized by the RMP. This deletion followed months of negotiations between the RMP and UKSF in which UKSF had repeatedly blocked and delayed access to the server. As one RMP investigator wrote at the time, ‘deletion of evidence immediately prior to recovery by RMP is coincidental at best; at worst, this may be deemed suspicious.’

UK Special Forces

First Impression Report, Feb 2011: Objective Tyburn

First Impression Report: Objective Tyburn
UK Special Forces, 5 pages, 20 Feb 2011

An operational report for the night raid on 16 February 2011 in Gawahargin, Nawa, in which four people from the same family were killed. The report was signed off by the UKSF Chief of Staff four days later. The apparent target for the operation, Sadam Hussain, was said to be an ‘enabler and facilitator for an attack cell’ using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to target ISAF and Afghan Government forces. According to the report, once the unit had conducted a ‘call out’ of the first building, and two men, four women and two children had come peacefully under UKSF control, one detainee was ‘escorted back into the house to help in the clearance’:

On entry into the third room he is instructed to pull down one of the curtains. As he does so, 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. The ‘B’ [male] is confirmed as EKIA [Enemy Killed in Action].

Remarkably, the same sequence of events is reported to have happened at a second building, where two men, five women and three children come peacefully under UKSF control. At this point, just 15 minutes after the first detainee had been killed after apparently arming himself with a grenade, a second detainee is taken back into this second building ‘to facilitate the search. As he enters the first room he moves behind a table, picks up an AK-47, and attempts to engage the call sign [unit]. He poses an immediate threat to life and is engaged by the [redacted] with aimed shots resulting in one EKIA.’

The reported events continued to unfold in implausible ways, as the unit attempted to track down the two men who had run away. The first of these was heard ‘moving under a bush. When he comes into view, his hands are hidden under his body and as the call sign approaches, he moves them revealing a grenade. He poses an immediate threat to life and is engaged with aimed shots resulting in one EKIA.’ The last man later ‘emerges from under a blanket by the compound wall. He is armed with an AK47 and moves to engage the call sign. He is engaged with aimed shots resulting in one EKIA.’

Emails, Feb 2011: ‘Assassination on Target’

Emails: Turton and Tyburn
UK Special Forces, N1791, N889 (Chief of Staff, UKSF headquarters, Afghanistan) and N1141, 10 pages, 16 Feb 2011

A chain of emails between UKSF officers, sent after the night raid in Gawahargin (see above). According to the operational paperwork from the unit concerned, two of the four men were in the custody of UK forces at the time they were shot, apparently because – in totally separate incidents in different buildings – they had somehow managed to arm themselves by reaching ‘behind the curtains’ and ‘behind a table’.

These emails include reports from an officer who was liaising with Afghan partner units after the operation. According to this officer, the existing tensions in relation to a different operation (which had taken place the previous night) had ‘escalated considerably over night.’ There had been, during a liaison meeting, ‘an exceptionally hostile atmosphere, with a pistol drawn at one stage.’ The Commanding Officer of the Afghan unit was clear that those killed were ‘teachers and farmers’, and said 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.’ According to members of the Afghan unit reporting to the Commander, ‘no one was firing at the [redacted] but… they were shot anyway – he sees this as confirmation that innocents were killed.’

Emails, Feb 2011: ‘The Latest Massacre’

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

Emails between two UKSF officers on 16 February 2011, discussing the same operation as in the chain above. The officers had clearly been keeping eyes on a series of reports from the unit on the ground, and were clearly concerned at what they had been reading. As one officer wrote: ‘Is this about [redacted] latest massacre! I’ve heard a couple of rumours.’ In response, his colleague emailed:

Yeah mate… Basically, for what must be the 10th time in the last two weeks, when they sent a B [male detainee] back into the A [building] to open the curtains(??) he re-appeared with an AK. Then when they walked back in to a different A with another B to open the curtains he grabbed a grenade from behind a curtain and threw it at the c/s [unit]. Fortunately, it didn’t go off… this is the 8th time this has happened. 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!

In additional emails sent on the same day by officers reading the paperwork, clearly sceptical at the account provided, one asked whether anyone had ‘come up with an explanation as to why all TB [Taliban] are beginning to adopt the previously unobserved [tactic] 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?’

Memo, Apr 2011: ‘The Implications are Clearly Stark’

Memo: Allegations of EJK by UKSF
UK Special Forces, Gwyn Jenkins (Commanding Officer, Special Boat Service) to Jonathan 'Jacko' Page (Director Special Forces), 2 pages, 5 Apr 2011

A memo from N1785, the Commanding Officer of the UKSF unit referred to by the Inquiry as UKAF3, to his superior Jacko Page, Director Special Forces. In this memo he makes clear that ‘I have some time been aware of rumours [that UKSF units in Afghanistan] have been conducting summary executions of supposed Taliban affiliates on target in AFG.’ Although he had initially treated these rumours as ‘malicious speculation’, recent conversations with officers under his command gave N1785 the motivation to write formally to DSF:

I have now been given more information of a nature which makes me seriously concerned for the reputation of UKSF. One of my team, an officer, has been told by an individual from [UKSF1] that there is in effect an unofficial policy amongst the [units in Afghanistan] to kill wherever possible fighting aged males on target, regardless of the immediate threat they pose to our troops. In some instances this has involved the deliberate killing [of] individuals after they have been restrained by [SU1] and the subsequent fabrication of evidence to suggest a lawful killing in self defence.

N1785 was clear that, ‘if UKSF individuals are conducting EJK’s (sic) then the implications are clearly stark’, and let Page know that ‘I feel most strongly that thorough appropriate investigation is warranted.’

Email: [Redacted] Operations
UK Special Forces, N1466 (Assistant Chief of Staff (Operations), UKSF headquarters, London) to Jonathan 'Jacko' Page (Director Special Forces), 2 pages, 7 Apr 2011

An email from N1466, the Assistant Chief of Staff (Operations) at UKSF headquarters in London, to his superior Jacko Page, Director Special Forces. In this correspondence, he reports that he had been in conversation with N1785, the Commanding Officer of the UKSF unit referred to by the Inquiry as UKAF3, at a social event the week before. N1785 had voiced concerns to him about the conduct of so-called ‘high-value target’ operations in Afghanistan. As N1466 reported in the email:

[N1785] felt that this was not necessarily about ‘degrees of restraint’ but possibly a deliberate policy among the current [redacted] to engage and kill fighting-aged males on target even when they did not pose a threat. He had been approached by some of his men who recounted several conversations with badged members of [redacted] in which such suggestions had been made.

In this email, N1466 also reiterates the concerns at headquarters in relation to the ‘upward trend in statistics’ in relation to so-called ‘Enemies Killed in Action’ (EKIA), the disproportionate number of weapons found as compared to those killed (suggesting that at least some were unarmed), and the regularity with which ‘the “head of family” Bs [males] were being invited to lead the compound clearance and were subsequently being engaged and killed.’

N1466 was clear that ‘I find the coincidence of rumour (albeit second hand) and [reporting] very disturbing’, and that if the suspicions which were circulating were more than rumour, then ‘elements of [redacted] have strayed into indefensible ethical and legal behaviour.’

Email, Apr 2011: ‘We Are Getting Some Things Wrong Right Now’

Email: [Redacted] Stats
UK Special Forces, N2444 (SO2 Campaigns, UKSF headquarters, London) to N1788 (SO1 Campaigns, UKSF headquarters, London), 2 pages, 7 Apr 2011

Given the concerns expressed by N1466 to Director Special Forces over the ‘disturbing’ possibility of ‘indefensible ethical and legal behaviour’ amongst UKSF units in Afghanistan, he subsequently tasked N1788, the Senior Operational Advisor at UKSF headquarters, to conduct a review of the operational paperwork. The results of this brief desktop review, which took less than half a day, were presented in this email from N2444 to N1788. The officer had found ‘10 separate incidents (spanning 8 operations) in which the [procedure] of sending a B [male] back in to a building to assist with clearing it resulted in that same B getting killed (“reaching for an AK47 behind a blanket” etc. being the sort of comment in the OPSUM [paperwork]).’ He had also found ‘5 separate incidents in which the number of EKIA [Enemies Killed in Action] exceeded the number of wpns apparently found on target’, and that – for 8 of the 18 weeks of the current UKSF rotation – the number of those killed exceeded the number of detainees taken.

Having looked through the operational paperwork from the unit since December 2010, N2444 was clear that ‘in my view there is enough here to convince me that we are getting some things wrong right now.’

Terms of Reference, Apr 2011: Internal UKSF Review

Memo: Terms of Reference for a Review of [Redacted] TTPs
UK Special Forces, Jonathan Page (Director Special Forces, UKSF headquarters, London) to N1788 (SO1 Campaigns, UKSF headquarters, London), 2 pages, 8 Apr 2011

Having heard from several of his most senior officers in relation to the increasing suspicions that UKSF units in Afghanistan were involved in extrajudicial killings, Director Special Forces (DSF) Jacko Page did not order an investigation into the allegation, and did not inform the Service Police (as was his duty under the Armed Forces Act 2006). Instead, he commissioned the Commanding Officer in Afghanistan, N1786, and the Senior Operations Advisor in London, N1788, to conduct an internal review into the ‘tactics, techniques and procedures’ (TTPs) being deployed on night raids.

Memo: Terms of Reference for a Review of [Redacted] TTPs
UK Special Forces, Jonathan Page (Director Special Forces, UKSF headquarters, London) to N1786 (Commanding Officer, UKSF headquarters, Afghanistan), 2 pages, 11 Apr 2011

There were two separate memos prepared by DSF setting out the Terms of Reference for the review, one each to N1786 and N1788. Both were clear that the officers were not to investigate the veracity of the accounts provided in the post-operational paperwork that, night after night, detainees had managed to arm themselves post-capture and pose a threat to UK forces. Instead, these were to be taken at face value. As DSF made clear: ‘Between Dec 10 and Apr 11 there have been several instances in which [redacted] have been forced to engage and kill the nominated Afghan male, either as the individual returned into the compound or during the clearance phase, because he had reached for a concealed weapon in the accommodation area. This is a relatively new trend.’ As such, the review was to examine the drivers for this ‘change in the reaction by insurgents, as well as whether UKSF units should modify their response to ‘reduce the probability of the male heads-of-household taking action that results in them being engaged and killed.’

Royal Military Police (Operation Northmoor)

Secret Policy Decisions, Dec 2016: Data Recovery

Secret Policy Decision: Data Recovery
Royal Military Police (Operation Northmoor), Policy File Report S235/01 (PL672), 1 page, 16 Dec 2016

Written four days apart from one another, these two ‘secret policy decisions’ record the RMP’s attempts to secure access to a UKSF server, ciphered as ‘ITS1’, as part of their inquiry into allegations of extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan. In the first policy decision, dated 16 December 2016, the Senior Investigating Officer for Operation Northmoor’s Team 1 recorded that his team could finally have access to the ITS1 server but only to the ‘obvious’ areas relevant to Northmoor’s inquiry. Staff from the team were due to visit UKSF before Christmas in order to ‘assess the system, identify areas of immediate relevant and plan on how we can recover this in evidence.’

Secret Policy Decision: Data Recovery
Royal Military Police (Operation Northmoor), Policy File Report S241/01 (PL679), incorrect date on document, 1 page, 21 Dec 2016

However, by 21 December 2016, a second policy decision records that the team had visited UKSF only to discover that the material had been deleted from the server by UKSF headquarters and that ‘the deletion process has been conducted in such a way that it is irreversible and impossible to determine what has been deleted.’ This was, the SIO noted, ‘in direct disobeyance to our demands to preserve the data in its entirety and [headquarters’] agreement that they would do so. This is either unintentional and caused by error/communication breakdown within [headquarters] or an intentional act to prevent RMP from accessing that data.’

Major John Harvey, the Gold Commander of Northmoor, was informed ‘immediately’, and provided with a range of options, including ‘do nothing – accept deletion and recover remaining data’ and ‘pursue – an offence of perverting the Course of Public Justice – An intentional effort to prevent RMP access to relevant material.’ In the end, Harvey appears to have agreed for UKSF to conduct their own internal investigation into the deletion.

While the second policy decision is dated 12 December 2016, it was agreed during evidence hearings of the Independent Inquiry relating to Afghanistan that the note was more likely written 21 December 2016.

Memo, Jan 2017: Implications of the Delay to the Forensic Recovery of the ITS1 Server

Memo: Implications of the Delay to the Forensic Recovery of the [ITS1] Server
Royal Military Police (Operation Northmoor), SIO Team 1, 2 pages, 20 Jan 2017

This memo was written by the Senior Investigating Officer for Operation Northmoor’s Team 1, the team investigating allegations of extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan. Dated 20 January 2017, the memo noted that ‘full recovery [of ITS1] is the only course of action available to provide for an effective investigation, to do anything short of this risks not capturing key evidence.’ UKSF headquarters refused to hand over the server, given that it held ‘third party equity together with operational material not relevant to NORTHMOOR enquiries.’ As a result, RMP formally directed UKSF that they were ‘not to delete, amend, move or otherwise alter any of the data on the [ITS1] server’ while negotiations for recovery were ongoing.

The permanent deletion of data by UKSF in December 2016, in direct violation of the assurances provided to the RMP, was noted by the SIO as creating ‘significant risks to the evidential integrity of data created pertaining to operations in Afghanistan. Digital evidence by design is susceptible to deletion of data from both routine use and targeted deletion by individuals who may wish to conceal facts.’ In addition, he noted that a ‘similar deletion of evidence occurred’ during the RMP’s investigation under Operation Pavo, into alleged UKSF extrajudicial killings in September 2010, whereby UKSF headquarters staff ‘forensically wiped a laptop client machine the day before RMP had the opportunity to recover it in pursuance of the enquiry.’ This similar deletion of evidence immediately prior to RMP recovery was, he noted, ‘coincidental at best; at worst it may be deemed suspicious.’

Johnny Mercer MP

Emails, 22 Aug 2019: TO4739, Meeting Readout, Introductory Call with Head DJEP

Emails: TO4739, Meeting Readout, Introductory Call With Head DJEP
Ministry of Defence (Directorate of Judicial Engagement Policy), document with attachment, 8 pages, 22 Aug 2019

This exchange of emails follows a meeting between Johnny Mercer, recently appointed Minister for Defence People and Veterans, and Peter Ryan, Director of Judicial Engagement Policy at the Ministry of Defence. The meeting had been set up to ‘clear the air with Mr Mercer’, who had been raising concerns about the decision to close down Operation Northmoor. What is significant about the emails is not only that they record the very real concerns Mercer had at this point about potential UK Special Forces criminality, but that the record made by Mercer’s private secretary was edited by Ryan so as to use more neutral language that downplayed the strength of Mercer’s feeling.

For example, in the version of the meeting recorded by Mercer’s private secretary, it is noted that the Minister informed Ryan that, ‘based on his own service and information provided to him privately, he was unconvinced that there had been no wrongdoing at all within Op Northmoor’ and he ‘expressed concern’ that it had been closed down. This was then edited to record simply that Mercer ‘expressed some surprise that the Northmoor investigations had ended.’ Mercer’s private secretary also noted that the Minister ‘was keen to understand how decisions had been arrived at, in order to satisfy himself he could defend them in public,’ a section Ryan deleted entirely from the record.

Justifying his edits in a cover email to his colleague, Ryan wrote that ‘I have taken the liberty of treating this as a draft record. The issues covered are incredibly complex, so don’t be surprised that I have made a lot of suggestions. Among the challenges that we share is a need to protect Ministers and the Department from the perils of disclosure. Given the ongoing and prospective legal challenges on a wide range of issues, it is quite possible that Ministerial records would be put into the public domain. So bland is often best.’

Giving evidence to the Inquiry, Mercer, who was seeing Ryan’s edits for the first time, said that this was, ‘in black and white’, evidence that he was ‘being gamed by the department’. ‘I said some pretty serious stuff there that’s been taken out of the record’, Mercer told the Inquiry, ‘For example, I don’t have any confident in Op Northmoor.’

Letter, Aug 2020: Concerns re: UK Special Forces Operations

Letter: Concerns re. UK Special Forces Operations
Ministry of Defence, Johnny Mercer (Minister for Defence People and Veterans) to Ben Wallace (Secretary of State for Defence), 1 page, undated [c. 5 Aug 2020]

This remarkable letter was sent by Johnny Mercer to Ben Wallace MP, then Secretary of State for Defence, shortly after the Sunday Times published internal UK Special Forces emails documenting concerns of what one officer described as a ‘deliberate policy among current [redacted] to engage and kill fighting-aged males on target even when they did not pose a threat.’ Seeing these documents now for the first time, Mercer told Wallace that it is ‘completely unacceptable’ that he had been allowed to read out statements in the House of Commons that his colleagues within the Ministry of Defence knew to be incorrect. He felt that he had ‘continually down-played these allegations in public too [sic] support [UKSF1] and the department [MOD]’, a decision he now felt ‘was clearly a mistake’.

Mercer also took the opportunity to formally record his other ‘long-held concerns’ about the inadequacies of Operation Northmoor and the challenges it faced. He committed to writing that he ‘did not think it was credible for [UKSF1] to state to investigators that there is no FMV [full motion video] footage’ on any of the ten operations the RMP had reviewed, and that ‘it was not credible that when questioned, almost [NG UKSF1] members of that unit suffered what the judge has described as “collective amnesia” when it came to these events.’