Britain’s Special Forces deployed operationally in at least 19 countries in a decade, research reveals

Britain’s Special Forces have been deployed operationally in at least 19 countries in the past decade, new analysis reveals, raising questions over the degree of transparency and democratic consent these shadowy units operate under.

Mapping, undertaken by research charity Action on Armed Violence, shows that, since 2011,  UK’ Special Forces (UKSF) have been primed to contact or surveil hostile forces in Afghanistan, Algeria, Estonia, Mediterranean (Cyprus), France, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Strait of Hormuz (Iran/Oman), Syria, UK, Ukraine and Yemen.[1]

There are a further six sites where UKSF have trained foreign forces or where they have based themselves before launching into another country. These are: Burkina Faso, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Djibouti.

And there are another seven locations known to be used by UKSF for their own exercises. These are: Albania, Falklands, Gibraltar, Belize, Brunei, Malaysia, and Canada, although there are likely to be far more.

Reported UK Special Forces (UKSF) missions in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman and Libya demonstrate that British soldiers are regularly sent to fight in international conflicts without any parliamentary approval around UK involvement beforehand.

In the case of Syria, parliament explicitly voted against sending in troops in 2013. Yet there have been dozens of UKSF missions reported in the press in the past decade.

A decade of operations around the globe has thrown up some controversies.

Amongst triumphs and tragedies, it’s been reported that units like the Special Air Service (SAS) have been behind: the deliberate assassination of British citizens in Iraq and Syria, the alleged cover-up of multiple killings of innocent Afghan civilians, including children, outsourcing UKSF operatives to MI6 to ensure deniability of kill-or-capture missions in Yemen, fighting alongside child soldiers coerced by allied Yemeni tribal leaders, and even a tragic friendly fire incident in Syria.

Made up primarily of the SAS, Special Boat Service (SBS) and Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), and supported by the multi-tiered Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), the UKSF operate distinctly from the rest of the British military and has been bestowed a privileged level of secrecy across all branches of government.

The most senior UKSF officer, the Director Special Forces, is only accountable to the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister.

There is no parliamentary oversight. There is not even a mechanism to conduct retrospective reviews, as there is for MI6 via the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).

As Ben Wallace said in September 2020: “They [UKSF] are accountable to me and to the law, and where we see any issues, Ministers will of course intervene.”

However, the current Chair of the ISC, Julian Lewis MP, has previously called for his committee to fill the gap in oversight. Similar appeals for greater UKSF transparency have been made by MPs such as Crispin Blunt (former Foreign Affairs Committee Chair), David Davis (former SAS reservist) as well as former ISC Chair Malcolm Rifkind and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve.

To read A Decade of UK Special Forces Ops go here:


[1] Whilst all the details relayed in the press cannot be believed, as an aggregate these leaked reports to the media offer up a reasonable guide as to where the UKSF have been, when, and for what purpose.

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