MoD hits out at BBC over ‘irresponsible’ SAS death squad claims | Military
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has taken the extraordinary step of accusing the BBC of engaging in “irresponsible, incorrect” journalism hours before a Panorama documentary that will accuse SAS soldiers of killing Afghan civilians in cold blood.
The product of a four-year investigation, the programme, due to be broadcast on BBC One on Tuesday night, concludes that 54 people were killed in suspicious circumstances by one SAS unit in Helmand province between 2010 and 2011.
Based on official British files, the BBC said there was a pattern of “strikingly similar reports” of SAS operations known as kill/capture missions, in which an Afghan man or men were shot dead by the elite soldiers on night raids.
Male detainees were frequently taken away from captured family groups and shot dead after they were said to have unexpectedly produced a hand grenade or an AK47 rifle, prompting the programme to ask whether the activities of the SAS squads amounted to a “British war crime”.
Concerns were raised about the pattern at the time, with internal emails describing one incident as the “latest massacre”, prompting a senior special forces officer to warn in a secret memo that there could be a “deliberate policy” of unlawful killing in operation.
But before the programme was broadcast, the MoD warned it could put British soldiers at risk because it “jumps to unjustified conclusions” from allegations that the department said had been subject to two investigations by military police, which resulted in no prosecutions.
“Neither investigation found sufficient evidence to prosecute. Insinuating otherwise is irresponsible, incorrect and puts our brave armed forces personnel at risk, both in the field and reputationally,” the MoD said.
In 2014, military police launched Operation Northmoor, an investigation into allegations of more than 600 alleged offences by British forces in Afghanistan, including the killing of civilians by the SAS. It was wound down in 2017 and closed in 2019, and the MoD said no evidence of criminality was found.
The files obtained by the BBC related to police investigations, and the broadcaster said members of the Northmoor team disputed the conclusion reached by the MoD that there was no case to answer.
One of those killed was a former district governor, Haji Ibrahim, who had worked with the British. The SAS report of events on the night of 29-30 November 2010 states that Ibrahim was detained, then sent to help with a search at a building – where he was shot dead “when he demonstrated hostile intent by brandishing a hand grenade”.
However, his family told the BBC that his hands were bound and he was summarily killed. His son described having to remove plastic handcuffs from his father’s wrists before the family were able to bury his body.
Similar incidents were noted by the BBC to have taken place on 15 January, 7 and 16 February, and 1 April.
Sources told the BBC that SAS units competed with each other to achieve the most kills on tour and the unit at the heart of the investigation was trying to achieve a higher body count than its predecessor.
In response to one of the incident reports, a sceptical operations officer emailed a colleague to describe what he had been told. An Afghan man who was killed had “grabbed a grenade from behind a curtain” – but the explosive did not go off, which was “the eighth time this has happened”. Writing the final three words in capitals, he said: “You couldn’t make it up.”
Labour said the allegations were disturbing and cast “a dark shadow” over the reputation of Britain’s armed forces. The party called on ministers to provide a full explanation to MPs.
John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, said his counterpart Ben Wallace “must urgently explain to parliament what action he’ll take to verify any truth to these claims and any possible cover-up”.
Ministers have sought to draw a line under historical prosecutions of members of the armed forces, after accusations that law firms have sought to bring vexatious cases against the military.
The Overseas Operations Act 2021 had sought to introduce a statutory presumption against prosecution of British soldiers for events that had taken place five or more years earlier. But during the passage of the legislation through parliament, ministers conceded that war crimes would be among the offences excluded from the five-year limit.
The MoD said it was willing to contemplate reopening the investigations. “The Ministry of Defence of course stands open to considering any new evidence, there would be no obstruction. But in the absence of this, we strongly object to this subjective reporting,” a spokesperson said.
Australian special forces were involved in the alleged murders of 39 Afghan civilians, killing prisoners to “blood” junior soldiers before inventing cover stories and planting weapons on bodies, a judge-led inquiry concluded in 2020.
However, the Australians served in a different Afghan province and the MoD said no British personnel were persons of interest to that inquiry.