Special Forces War Crimes in Afghanistan

Unredacted’s Special Forces War Crimes project is investigating what appears to have been the systematic mistreatment and unlawful killing of Afghan boys and men by UK Special Forces units deployed to Afghanistan, and the subsequent coverup of this criminality by multiple agencies and institutions of the British state. We are bringing together the largest collection of publicly available documents relating to the apparent widespread practice of deliberate extrajudicial killings during Special Forces night raids in Afghanistan. We are tracking the commission of these war crimes by units on the ground, the contemporaneous knowledge of these practices at a very senior level within UK Special Forces, and the wider coverup in the years since.

Mounting evidence suggests that, from at least 2010, UK Special Forces (UKSF) units deployed to Afghanistan engaged in a practice of deliberately killing unarmed boys and men across Helmand Province, many of whom had been detained during UK-led ‘night raids’. Overall, scores of people were killed in suspicious circumstances during these operations. 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. These killings appear to have been systematic, stretching across operations and UKSF rotations, and forming part of a deliberate, if unofficial, policy amongst units to execute all ‘fighting age males’ found on operations. This included those who were unarmed and thus not posing a threat to UK forces. Such actions would have been in clear violation of international humanitarian law, and as such they would have been war crimes.

Across these operations, ‘drop weapons’ appear to have been used routinely in order to dress the scene for photographic evidence and suggest that those killed were armed. Likewise, post-operational paperwork was often fabricated, providing a false account of how the operation developed and suggesting that those killed had posed an immediate threat to the lives of UK forces. These accounts were described as ‘logic defying’ by the senior officers who read them at the time, including those in overall command at the UKSF headquarters in London. They also contradicted eyewitness evidence from those on the ground – relayed to those same senior officers – which described firsthand accounts of routine unlawful killings by units in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, these senior officers with clear knowledge of what appeared to be widespread criminality – up to and including Director Special Forces – failed to refer any of these matters to the Service Police. Instead, these officers stored written evidence of what appeared to be systematic murder in a top-secret ‘security compartment’, and worked in coordinated fashion to ‘nip in the bud’ the building allegations of wrongdoing.

The War Crimes

Overall, the evidence strongly suggests that, between at least 2010 and 2013, UKSF units in Afghanistan were engaged in the systematic killing of unarmed boys and men across Helmand Province, many of whom had been detained during so-called ‘night raids’. There is, to date, evidence of 26 separate UKSF operations which led to suspicious deaths, and which may have involved the commission of war crimes. 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.

Across these operations at least 84 Afghan boys and men were killed in suspicious circumstances. Many of these were people who had emerged peacefully from their houses during a UKSF night raid and had been detained by British forces. Once in custody, individual men were then selected to be taken back inside the building, ostensibly to assist with its clearance. It is at this point that they appear to have been executed. In other instances, evidence suggests that the UKSF unit undertaking the raid would enter the guesthouse (which commonly existed alongside the main residence) and kill everyone in the room where they were sleeping. At times, eight or nine boys and men, from multiple families, were shot dead in the same room. 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).

Related Briefing
UK Special Forces War Crimes: Operations, 2010-13

The families of many of those killed are clear that their loved ones were not insurgents. They also say that those killed were not posing a threat to the forces who had led the assault on their homes. Instead, 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. Many aspects of these eyewitness accounts are strikingly similar to each other and suggest a particular modus operandi on behalf of the UKSF units involved.

Fabricating the Post-Operational Paperwork

The units carrying out these killings also appear to have engaged in a systematic practice of fabrication in an attempt to hide their criminal activity. UK military procedure required the completion of post-operational narratives for each operation, via First Impression Reports (FIRs), Significant Incident Reports (SINCREPs), Shooting Incident Reviews (SIRs) and other so-called ‘consequence management’ processes. In the cases where the unit had killed unarmed boys and men who posed no threat, these narratives were clearly fabricated, were often strikingly similar to one another, and often invoked a wholly implausible chain of events to explain the deaths.

In each case, those killed were described as ‘insurgents’, or ‘EKIA’ (Enemy Killed in Action), shot due to being armed and posing an immediate threat to the lives of those within the UKSF unit. Even where detainees had been taken back into the building and subsequently killed, this was apparently due to the fact that they had – each time – managed to arm themselves and present an immediate threat to the unit. Accounts describe repeated instances of detainees reaching behind a curtain, or behind a mattress, or under a table to produce a weapon in the most unlikely of circumstances. Often this was said to occur on operations which were just days apart, and even sometimes more than once during the same raid. Similarly, where large groups of boys and men had been killed in the guesthouse, this was claimed to have been the result of either a fierce firefight with UKSF, or else as a result of fratricide (where ‘insurgents’ had somehow managed to kill large numbers of each other by accident.) Overall, according to one of the most senior officers in UKSF when later interviewed by Royal Military Police (RMP) investigators, there were ‘layers of implausibilities’ in the accounts provided, and ‘the aggregate coincident of such events on multiple targets seemed especially surprising and logic defying.’

Related Briefing
UK Special Forces War Crimes: Senior Officers, 2010-13

These fabricated narratives were often supplemented with photographs taken after the operation which appear to have been ‘dressed’, and which in some instances clearly contradicted the accounts provided. There were often fewer weapons than bodies, and some of the weapons in the photographs appear to have been placed next to the deceased after their deaths (suggesting the use of so-called ‘dropped weapons’ by UKSF units.) In some cases, bodies in the guesthouse were photographed under duvets and blankets, with clean ‘head shots’, thus pointing to execution-style killings rather than the supposed long bursts of automatic weapons. As RMP investigators reviewing the photographs later found, there was an ‘absence of material (blood) where you would expect to see it’, which ‘raises questions given in the accounts in the EXSUM’ and which shows ‘fighting aged males executed on target… not holding weapons.’

Contemporaneous Knowledge of Unlawful Killings Within UK Special Forces

Numerous officers from within UKSF were aware, at the time, that the official accounts provided by the unit were possibly covering up unlawful killings. Contemporaneous emails between officers who had read the accounts talk openly about ‘execution’, ‘massacres’, ‘assassinations’ and a ‘casual disregard for life, COIN principles and credible reporting.’ Officers were clear that ‘you couldn’t MAKE IT UP!’, and that this was ‘a massive failure of leadership. If we don’t believe this, then no one else will and when the next Wikileaks occurs then we will be dragged down with them.’ Others questioned ‘why are we the only ones who see this bollocks for what it is?’ and noted that ‘murder and the [UKSF unit] have oft been regular bed-fellows.’

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

Senior officers based at UKSF headquarters in London, up to and including Director Special Forces, were also clearly aware of the emerging evidence of extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan and the practice of fabricated reporting. An ‘incident tracker’ was established at headquarters in September 2010, specifically in response to a noted upswing in killings on operations. In the months that followed, senior officers reading the post-operational accounts were becoming concerned at the ‘disproportionate number of Enemy Killed in Action (EKIA) versus the number of weapons recovered’ and the ‘logic defying’ accounts provided. They were also made aware of several whistleblowers from within UKSF units, who had reported that ‘all fighting age males’ were now being ‘killed on target regardless of the threat they posed,’ and that this included ‘being executed on target inside compounds using a variety of methods after they had been restrained.’

It is now clear that, from at least early 2011, Director Special Forces, the Chief of Staff (second-in-command), the Assistant Chief of Staff (Operations), the Assistant Chief of Staff (Policy), the Senior Campaigns Officer and the Senior Legal Advisor were all aware of the mounting evidence of possible war crimes, and all discussed it explicitly between themselves. The senior lawyer in particular was clear that ‘it is arguable that when all these cases are taken together and there is an identification of similar trends and suspicion over the credibility of the accounts given in the [post-operational paperwork] then the circumstances are such that a reasonable person would consider that service offences may have been committed.’ In other words, it was made clear at the time to the senior officers at headquarters that there was evidence of systematic unlawful killings by members of UKSF in Afghanistan, and therefore a legal duty to refer matters to the Service Police.

The Wider Coverup

Notwithstanding this contemporaneous knowledge at the highest levels of UKSF headquarters, and notwithstanding the advice provided by the Senior Legal Advisor, it appears that no one from within the chain of command referred these matters to the Service Police at the time. Instead, information from whistleblowers was stored away in a top-secret ‘security compartment’, with strict limitations on who could access and discuss the material. A brief internal review into some of the operations was conducted, but this was led by an officer who had commanded an earlier rotation of the UKSF unit deployed to Afghanistan, and had terms of reference – signed off by Director Special Forces himself – which took at face value the accounts provided by the unit in the operational paperwork. Meanwhile, these same senior officers appear to have worked in a coordinated fashion throughout the period to ‘nip in the bud’ the serious external concerns being raised by reputable international organisations in relation to UKSF night raids, and to ensure that Service Police were not made aware of the mounting allegations. As the Senior Legal Advisor made clear in an email, in relation to one external allegation of unlawful killing, ‘if this particular complaint gets elevated to a higher level then we will lose control of it – and our political masters could knee-jerk and apply pressure of a [Royal Military Police] investigation.’ As such, he was clear that the ‘aspiration’ was to ‘deal with the complaint informally at the lowest level without it being raised unnecessarily’ at a higher level.

When Service Police investigations did eventually begin – for the most part several years after specific allegations of extrajudicial killings had first emerged – they appear to have failed to consider the evidence as a whole, thereby missing the systemic nature of the practices. Moreover, UKSF officers appear to have worked to block the police investigations at multiple levels. RMP officers found that crucial digital evidence from operations – such as bodycam and overhead footage – was missing, either because it was claimed not to have been gathered (in violation of standard protocol) or had since been deleted. Police were refused access to the weapons used on operations, which were then ‘recycled or sold for parts.’ Data held on a server at headquarters was deleted despite an express direction from senior investigating officers to preserve this as potential evidence of criminality. In one case, a laptop was forensically wiped the day before the RMP was due to recover it.

There is also evidence of the coaching of witnesses before their interview by the RMP, and of ‘cut and paste’ statements provided to the Service Police. Investigators were refused permission to interview either the overall commander, Director Special Forces, or the Commanding Officer in Afghanistan, thus leaving them without the ability to question command level responsibility. Moreover, the initial designation of two suspects at part of Operation Northmoor was removed after a change in senior leadership in the RMP and a dramatic curtailing of the scope of the investigation in 2017. Ultimately, no one was prosecuted as a result of the Service Police investigations.

Overall, the emerging evidence – much of which has been gathered over a number of years by investigative journalists and legal teams representing the families of those killed, and is currently being considered by the Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan – strongly suggests that UK Special Forces in Afghanistan were engaged in a practice of systematic unlawful killing, including of children as young as 12, between at least 2010 and 2013, as well as a coverup of these acts at the time. The emerging evidence also strongly suggests that senior officers had contemporaneous knowledge of these practices and worked to avoid – and then potentially to stymie – the subsequent police investigations into allegations of criminality of the most serious kind.

Briefings and Collections

project archive The Special Forces War Crimes Archive Updated: 25 June 2024 An archive of documents relating to UK Special Forces war crimes in Afghanistan. It includes documents from a wide range of sources, including those disclosed in the ongoing Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan; UNAMA civilian casualty reports; documents from the International Criminal Court investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan; documents from the Australian war crimes inquiry; multiple reviews of the UK’s service justice system; and relevant legislation, military doctrine, FOIA responses and NGO reports. Read more
collection UNAMA Reports Updated: 4 June 2024 A collection of United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reports on the protection of civilians and the treatment of conflict-related detainees in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2021. These reports are based on UNAMA investigations into reports of civilian casualties caused by all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan, including ‘Anti-Government Elements’ and ‘Pro-Government Forces’, as well as observations and interviews from within detention facilities. Particularly from 2009 to 2012, UNAMA highlight concerns around night raids and special forces. Read more
briefing UK Special Forces War Crimes: Operations, 2010-13 Updated: 3 June 2024 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. Read more
collection Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan Updated: 21 May 2024 A collection of all publicly available documents – including transcripts, submissions, rulings, witness statements and exhibits – produced by the ongoing Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan. Announced in December 2022, the Inquiry was set up to examine allegations of extrajudicial killings of civilians by UK Special Forces in Afghanistan, between mid-2010 and mid-2013, and the Ministry of Defence and Royal Military Police’s response to (and potential cover-up of) those allegations. Read more
briefing UK Special Forces War Crimes: The Key Documents Updated: 8 May 2024 Documents disclosed during the Saifullah judicial review in July 2020, and by the Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan from December 2023 onwards, which 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. Read more
briefing UK Special Forces War Crimes: Senior Officers, 2010-13 Updated: 30 April 2024 Senior UK Special Forces officers – up to and including Director Special Forces – were aware from at least 2010-11 of the mounting evidence of war crimes carried out by SAS units deployed to Afghanistan, as well as the fabricated reporting designed to cover up these crimes. This briefing provides an account of the key personnel who had contemporaneous knowledge of what appeared at the time to be systematic unlawful killings, and yet who universally failed to refer matters to the Service Police. Read more
collection The Australian War Crimes Inquiry Published: 19 February 2024 This collection includes documents relating to the official Inquiry into allegations of war crimes committed by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. The final report concluded that there had been at least 23 incidents involving 39 unlawful killings by 25 Australian personnel. It also found evidence of the use of ‘throwdowns’, where soldiers would carry weapons on operations in order to plant them on civilians or unarmed combatants they had murdered. Read more