The evidence laid out in this report highlights two clear issues: that Special Forces retain a privileged position within the military and the wider political world, and that this position means they are immune from adequate legal scrutiny.
The basic and numerous failures seen in the investigations, or lack thereof, of 54 alleged extrajudicial killings by UK Special Forces in Afghanistan all point to a series of interference from senior military officers or potentially even ministers.
This is concerning. Special Forces occupy an anomalous position within the UK’s constitutional makeup. The most senior UKSF officer, the Director Special Forces, is only accountable to the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister. Those who command the SAS or are Director SF, more often than not reach three-star rank or higher, a position of significant influence within the military. Parliamentary oversight of UKSF is de facto impossible, due to the blanket policy of ministers to not comment on their activities. There is not even a mechanism to conduct retrospective reviews of UKSF activity, as there is for MI6 via the Intelligence and Security Committee.
In practical terms, UKSF receives little to no journalistic scrutiny, with a few notable exceptions. The little that is leaked relies on whistle-blowers risking serious criminal charges. UKSF-related freedom of information requests are legally exempt. As laid out in this report, UKSF have in recent history appeared to skirt any credible police investigation and military prosecutors seem reluctant to take on their cases.
A central idea in the theory of liberal democratic politics is that an executive branch in possession of an area of unchecked power will inevitably seek to enlarge that area. As expected, then, successive Prime Ministers have expanded the size and remit of Special Forces. The partiality for UKSF inside No.10 and Whitehall bucks the trend of nearly every other area of the forces that have seen diminishing numbers.
Significant funding boosts for UKSF were implemented by Prime Ministers Blair, Cameron, May and Johnson. Cameron was said to be particularly fond of SAS raids, reportedly he had given ‘carte blanche’ for UKSF to launch raids against IS in Iraq, Syria and north Africa, including killing targets that were radicalised Britons. The legality of this extrajudicial procedure has been contested. This move coincided with a doubling of investment in UKSF, amounting to £2billion cash injection in the 2015 Spending Review, specifically to bolster “the capability of UK Special Forces to strike terrorists wherever they are in the world.”
The capability of a Prime Minister to order British troops into combat to any location in the world, with little to no oversight and without democratic consent, constitutes a grave risk for the UK’s security, particularly considering the geopolitical tinderbox that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created.
- AOAV calls for the creation of a privileged parliamentary committee to scrutinise the deployment of Britain’s Special Forces. Whilst maintaining the necessary secrecy during ongoing operations, both to protect the integrity of missions and the safety of military personnel, this measure would nonetheless act as a necessary check on any potential abuses of executive power involving Special Forces.
- AOAV also calls for an independent review into Operation Northmoor, in order to hold accountable those who interfered with or deliberately scuppered the investigations. This report has shown that the Service Police, primarily the Royal Military Police, have failed in their duty to sufficiently investigate the alleged extrajudicial killings by UKSF in Afghanistan: basic oversights were repeatedly made that cannot be put down to individual incompetence. AOAV believes a review of Northmoor would highlight any potential systemic flaws in the military chain of command that currently exists within the Service Police and would offer up recommendations for reform in a direction that protects the integrity and independence of investigations.
- AOAV, finally, recommends that all civilian deaths following UK military engagement at home and abroad be publicly listed in a detailed annual report – including civilian deaths following UKSF raids – so that the dead can be remembered, compensation paid and justice served. Without properly acknowledging that, at the very least, civilians are killed when nations go to war, the UK military exsanguinates war and falls short of the very democratic accountability it professes to be protecting.
This report has taken over 18 months of research. Thanks goes to BBC Panorama for working alongside us, albeit independently and at editorial distance, towards the same goal of accountability and transparency. Thanks, too, to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, whose generous funding made this possible. And thanks, finally, to the men and women who took AOAV into their confidence to express concerns about UKSF activities in Afghanistan and beyond. Without their trust, this report would not have been possible.