“I find it depressing that it has come to this… Ultimately 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.”
Operations Chief of Staff within UKSF in an email to another officer, 9th February 2011
“The guys appear to be beyond reproach. Astonishing.”
Commanding Officer of a sub-unit within UKSF, in an email to another officer, 16th February 2011
As we now know, there was a flurry of UKSF deadly night raids in Helmand over a relatively short period between late 2010 and early 2011. This did not go unnoticed at the time.
Confidential emails between senior officers within UKSF show there was immediate concern, confusion and then disbelief in relation to the repeated circumstances reported over multiple raids that were leading to the shooting of detained suspects.
As highlighted in the previous section, on repeated occasions a suspected Taliban member, who had already been detained, was then led back inside a building to ensure the house was clear of explosives or other combatants. The detainee, who would’ve been unarmed and with guns pointed at him, would then reach for a weapon, in some cases from behind a “curtain” or a “mattress” in an apparent suicidal last-ditch attempt to kill his captors.
Due to the large number of deaths that this practice, or tactical technique/procedure (TTP), was leading to, a review of its efficacy was ordered in early April 2011. This TTP Review would prove to be a critical piece of contemporaneous evidence gathering. But two months before this internal review was launched, concerns were being raised about the number of fatalities (or EKIAs – enemies killed in action) resulting from these night raids.
These concerns, however, were not raised or received with enough urgency to potentially prevent subsequent deaths in February, March and April 2011.
This section, analysing documents the MOD was forced to disclose as part of the Saifullah judicial review application, will attempt to outline who knew what when – when concerns were raised by different actors in and around the UKSF hierarchy and what action, if any, was taken.
Concerns were raised during this bloody period
On the 9th of February 2011, a Lieutenant Colonel, who received daily Situation Reports (SITREPs) and Significant Incident Reports (SIRs) from UKSF raids, noted in an email that it was “quite incredible” the number of detainees that the SF unit “send back into a building who then decide to the weapons/grenades and engage the [redacted] knowing that it will achieve nothing.”
To which the Operations Chief of Staff, who had oversight and management of all the unit’s operations and reports directly to this officer, replied: “stats from [redacted] proudly comparing the [redacted] EKIA rate to [redacted] and claiming that they kill more insurgents.”
He added: “I find it depressing that it has come to this… Ultimately 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.”
His emotional reaction to this pattern of death is understandable when we consider its implications: that UKSF troopers were proudly and competitively comparing kill counts of targets they were, by all official accounts, supposed to be detaining.
It is worth reiterating here that these missions were not officially intended to result in the death of the targets. These night raids were “High Risk Arrest” [HRA] operations or “Deliberate Detention Operations” [DDO]. Lethal force was never to be the first resort. Arguably, a kill count is an effective metric to measure how poorly the High Risk Arrest missions are going. But the Chief of Staff’s emails strongly suggest that this was not how troopers within UKSF saw it at the time.
Five days on from the first email, the 14th February, the Lieutenant Colonel forwarded on a ‘storyboard’ (a chronological description) of a recent fatal night raid. This time, he was theorising about how the TTP method of returning into a building might actually be a setup to provide the necessary legal grounds for shooting a suspect.
He wrote: “Yet another B [Afghan civilian] 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 Chief of Staff replied: “It’s a good point. There appears to be a causal disregard for life, COIN [counter-insurgency] principles and credible reporting.”
So, at this stage, officers within UKSF were struggling to believe the credibility of these accounts, particularly when it came to the motivation of the detainees. They were described as “executions”. Yet, at this juncture, nothing was reported further up the chain or referred to the military police.
The case of 16th February was immediately regarded as a potential extrajudicial killing by UKSF officers
Two days later and just hours after the four members of Saifullah’s family were shot dead, one British officer remarked in an email chain, where a soldier had asked for the summary and storyboard of the operation: “Is this about [redacted] latest massacre!”
A senior officer expressed incredulity at the official description of events and noted the extreme similarity between the operation on the 16th and other recent night raids.
“Basically, for what must be the 10th time in the last two weeks when they sent a B [civilian] back into the A [building] to open the curtains(??) he re-appeared with an AK. Then when they walked back into 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 [call sign – i.e. UKSF soldier]. 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!”
The same day, the aforementioned Lieutenant Colonel again emailed the Operations Chief of Staff with the subject line: “RE: 20110216-EJK-S” (EJK referring to the Extrajudicial Killings on that day). He asked: “Why are we the only one who see this bollocks for what it is?”
The case of 16th February was immediately regarded as a potential extrajudicial killing by Afghan Partner Forces
In the case of the 16th February, it wasn’t just dubious explanations of the night’s events that aroused the suspicion of British officers.
The Afghan Partner Units, highly trained troopers that would accompany select NATO missions, who were working with the UKSF at the time also immediately flagged Operation TYBURN as a major problem.
They raised serious questions about the:
- original intelligence in choosing the target,
- claim that those shot were armed,
- change in procedure (TTP) that minimised Afghan personnel’s involvement.
In a description of a meeting between a UKSF Officer and an Afghan Partner Unit Commanding Officer, the latter questioned the choice of target, as one of the victims of the shooting was a cousin of a member of the Afghan force and he was “a teacher in LKG [Lashkargah]” and a “respectable member of the village” and that the others were “farmers”, “but they are emphatically not TB [Taliban]”.
Tensions were already high between the Afghan and British units after four brothers were detained during a UKSF raid the night before (Objective TURTON). These brothers again had a familial connection and were considered innocent by the Afghan personnel.
In the dispute over the events of the 16th, the British Officer relayed that: “He [Afghan CO] suggests 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. He again spoke about his unhappiness with the way the APU are used on target and could not understand why these 3 men were killed.
“[They] have apparently complained to the CO that no one was firing at the [redacted] but that they were shot anyway – he sees this as confirmation that innocents were killed.”
The Afghan CO also questioned why this operation had been handled so differently to a mission the previous night, Objective TURTON, which “had more use of the APU for the arrrest [sic] and that was why there was no EKIA. He could not understand why last night had a different TTP with minimal APU involvement.”
In this heated meeting, an associate of the Afghan CO actually drew his pistol while he accused the UKSF of having no respect for Afghan life.
In the email where he relayed the details of this fractious exchange, the officer concluded: “The [Afghan] CO…because he has argued for a change of TTPs and more use of the APU many times over the past 2 months, he now longer wants to provide an APU at all. He says he will not support any operations until this is resolved.”
From the sources we have spoken to, we understand it was extremely unusual for an Afghan Partner Unit to withdraw their support for High Risk Arrest missions, yet during this period there were “several instances” of this happening according to senior officers.
In another correspondence, the same officer said the APU had raised a civilian casualty allegation and that “all in all our relationship and credibility, including [redacted] is suffering… the guys appear to be beyond reproach. Astonishing.”
By early April, these issues were still unresolved and deadly night rights resulting from a detained person re-entering a building were reoccurring. As a letter from an officer revealed that the cumulative effect of these incidents meant “associated families [of victims] are likely to believe that something nefarious is occurring and this view is certainly held by the [redacted] APU who have again this weekend refused to accompany the [redacted] on tgt [target].”
It is worth noting that in 2009, in a meeting with ISAF Commander David Petraeus, Afghan President Karzai raised concerns that Afghan Partner Units would be used as cover for the conduct of NATO Special Forces conducting night raids.
According to cables released by Wikileaks: “Karzai argued that 100 Afghans would not give Afghanistan meaningful control over the operation but would force them to take responsibility when a mistake was made.”
Two years after Karzai’s warning, Afghan personnel that were working with UKSF were feeling deliberately side-lined, which they felt was laying the ground for more unnecessary deaths. But publicly, the British and NATO could call all of these operations joint Afghan-ISAF missions, giving these heavy-handed night raids the veneer of domestic support.
The case of 16th February was immediately regarded as a potential extrajudicial killing Helmand’s Governor
The concerns about Objective TYBURN were raised immediately, not only by the Afghan CO but by senior members of the Afghan Government, including Helmand’s Provincial Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal.
The ‘First Impressions Report’ [FIR] of the night raid noted that: “On the 19 Feb Gov MANGAL indicated through Col [redacted] that during the operation in the early hours of the 16 Feb, four innocent civilians were killed by CF [Coalition Forces]. Further, that he would be going to the press to make a statement on the incident”.
As far as we know, this approach to the media never happened, at least not through public channels. The FIR indicates that he may have reconsidered following a call with a General, whose name has been redacted from documents.
And despite all the contemporaneous evidence and the numerous personnel who suspected foul play, these four deaths were not referred to the Service Police for investigation.
An internal review found more suspicious incidents
The regularity at which night raids were ending in multiple fatal shootings did, however, trigger some action.
A “very senior officer” ordered a review of the so-called ‘compound call out’ TTP (Tactics, Techniques & Procedures). This was the procedure in which a detained male household member would re-enter a building to deter potential hidden insurgents from attacking and to identify any IEDs inside. These could be tripwires or victim-operated IEDS, or IEDs detonated from external firing points, such as command wire (CWIEDs) or radio-controlled explosives (RCIEDs).
It was this TTP that had repeatedly foreshadowed a detained unarmed Afghan attempting to grab a weapon and then being shot dead.
It is worth noting that this was completely out of step with the previous behaviour of targets when they were led back into buildings.
One correspondence reveals that another UKSF officer had “recounted that during his Sqn tour there was not a single incident when the B chose to take aggressive action against what were clearly impossible odds. He is therefore surprised that there have been multiple examples of this happening during the current tour.”
This suicidal attempt to take a British soldier’s life might strike the layman in the West as in keeping with extremist Islamist behaviour. However, ex-military sources we spoke to said this was not the normal response of Taliban members who were detained. In fact, as already noted in this report, those captured would often be confident that they would be released once they were passed over into the Afghan justice system.
Nonetheless, the terms of reference for this review make it clear that the Staff Officer 1 [SO1] was only to consider the impact the TTP was having on the current tour [Nov 2010-April 2011] and whether it is working. It was very much established with the premise that the unit’s self-reportage of the incident is to be believed.
This narrow scope of the review came just a day after the ‘very senior’ officer who had commissioned it was warned that there was “possibly a deliberate policy amount the current [redacted] Squadron to engage and kill fighting-aged males on target even when they did not pose a threat.”
The author of that email, the Assistant Chief of Staff Operations, also told the SO1 conducting the review that he “believed the matter should be referred to the SIB [Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police] because [he] had strong suspicions that some of the actions of the Callsign’s on the ground might not fall within the ROE [Rules of Engagement]. Furthermore, some of the EKIA were detainees. These were strong suspicions.” He also passed these suspicions onto another Chief of Staff and a Legal Advisor within UKSF.
He would later tell investigators in 2018 that he found the official account of Objective TYBURN “implausible”, and that “the layers of implausibilities” made the official account “especially surprising and logic defying”.
These features “combined in causing alarm at the [redacted] Ops Room, leading me to raise concerns with [the ‘very senior’ who ordered the TTP review].”
He also reviewed photographs of other incidents of fatal night raids involving the same unit and identified six different features that “reinforce, rather than contradict, the concerns I raised with [‘very senior’ officer]”.
In the end, the focused April 2011 review highlighted a number of noteworthy cases based on three criteria:
- The number of EKIAs exceeded the number of detainees (eight occasions);
- The number of EKIAs exceeded the number of weapons found (five occasions);
- Raids that caused “the relationship between the [redacted – presumably the UKSF Squadron] and our Afghan partners had diminished due to an increase in kinetic activity” (two occasions).
The review found 10 separate incidents “in which the TTP of sending a B back into 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 [Operation Summary].”
The author highlighted one mission, the name of which is redacted, “as one that in my personal opinion does not read well.”
When it came to enemies killed versus weapons found, some stark figures were found.
- One raid on 24 Jan 2011, resulted in six EKIA but only three AK-47s were found;
- Another, 7th January [a written error, event relates to 7 February 2011], saw nine killed but only three AK-47s recovered;
- On February 9th, eight were killed but only had four AK-47s between them.
The number of these killed versus weapons found incidents would double to 10 if “one were not to include grenades as a wpn (controversial)”, wrote the officer.
He also pointed out that using the first two criteria would still overlook two operations that “have caused most angst with the APU”. These were Objective TURTON on 15th February (see above) and an incident on 4th April where there was “a suspicion that he was engaged very quickly in light of having only a pistol.”
Suggestions that some of these deadly raids were premeditated
If it was the case that troopers were engaged in deceptive practices around the true nature of these fatal shootings, it is reasonable to believe there would’ve been some forethought put in to ensure as few suspicions were raised as possible.
Raids would typically be supported by an aircraft that would likely be filming as events unfolded. In the aftermath, photographs would often be taken of those shot and any intelligence, light weapons, explosives, drugs or money that were found.
If unarmed fighting-aged males were being shot, as multiple UKSF officers suspected at the time, this would mean deaths would be recorded and bodies would be photographed but there would be no corresponding weapons.
This is the point where, it is believed, some UK troopers deployed ‘drop weapons’. This was a tactic repeatedly used by the Australian SAS in Afghanistan, as revealed by an ABC News investigation. They uncovered photos of an AK-47 with ‘teal-coloured tape wrapped around the stock’ that was laid next to two bodies in separate locations in 2012. Sources said these two were civilians, while 3 Squadron SAS claimed they were all legitimately killed insurgents.
Several members of the Australian SAS who served on that rotation said the use of drop weapons or “throwdowns”, as they were called, was common.
“Often people who had been killed had weapons placed on them and [they were] photographed with these weapons,” an Australian SAS patrol member, who served on that special forces rotation of Afghanistan, told ABC News. “That happened on numerous occasions.”
During our investigation into UKSF conduct, it has been suggested to AOAV that knowledge of drop weapons was widespread. This is supported by the written statement made on 24th March 2011, by “one of the newly qualified officers who had recently joined the [unnamed UKSF] unit”. He was asked to make a written statement after verbally telling his Operations Chief of Staff of “disturbing information” he’d heard. He wrote:
“During conversations with a [redacted] from [redacted] he stated that it was standard procedure to deploy regularly to hit Low and High Value Targets in the Helmand area. During these operations it was said that all fighting age males are killed on target regardless of the threat they posed. This included those not holding weapons.
It was also indicated that fighting age males were being executed on target inside compounds, using a variety of methods after they had been restrained. In one case it was mentioned a pillow was put over the head of an individual being killed with a pistol. It was implied that photos would be taken of the deceased alongside weapons that the fighting age male may not have had in their position when they were killed…”
In fact, AOAV understands that the use of drop weapons was investigated by the RMP at some point during Operation Northmoor. As part of our investigation, we requested documents, using freedom of information law, that a source had informed us were created to reflect on these enquiries.
The MOD confirmed that “information in scope of your request is held”. However, the request was rejected, with the following justification:
“A PIT [Public Interest Test] has been conducted and concluded that, although this investigation has been concluded by the RMP, legal proceedings concerning the investigations have not yet concluded. The release into the public domain of the Service Police investigation into allegations of mistreatment and suspicious deaths arising from UK operations in Afghanistan will likely prejudice the ongoing judicial review.”
The main area of contention of the judicial review is whether the MOD sufficiently investigated the deaths of February 16, 2011. These documents’ release, in AOAV’s view, would only serve to illuminate the issue further.
The MOD’s reticence to disclose documents in relation to this investigation earned them a reprimand during the judicial review hearings. Mr Justice Swift ordered them to fully comply with their ‘duty of candour’ as a public body and said that the MOD’s withholding of documents, whether intentional or not, was “obviously out of the ordinary.”
In April 2017, The Mail on Sunday reported from an unnamed MOD source that there was a ‘probe’ into the use of drop weapons but it was discontinued because the allegation couldn’t be ‘substantiated’. It added that ‘no SAS soldiers were formally interviewed by military police over the use of drop weapons’. As far as AOAV understands, that is still the case today.
The evidence laid out in this section makes it clear that at least three officers within UKSF did not believe the accounts of the night raids from February 9th, 2011. They made a very senior officer aware of their concerns, who commissioned an internal review with a very narrow scope. The concerns of officers and the conclusions to that internal report were never referred to the Service Police at the time.
It is not unreasonable to conclude that, had such a referral occurred, the numerous unlawful killings that apparently occurred after February 9th may have been prevented with the right institutional intervention.
This conclusion feels sadly similar, especially when compared to the formal investigation into suspected extrajudicial killings as part of Operation Northmoor – something the next chapter will outline.