Soldier breaks ranks to defend elite unit from witch-hunt but says illegal killings were ‘unwritten rule of our job’
- A former SAS soldier has admitted to The Mail on Sunday that illegal killings were ‘an unwritten rule of our job’ but strongly defended the regiment’s actions
- His account comes after claims emerged that SAS members killed unarmed civilians in cold blood and falsified mission reports
- He revealed how he took part in 200 night raids between 2010 and 2013, many investigated as potential war crimes by the RMP
An SAS soldier has sensationally lifted the lid on the elite regiment’s controversial shoot-to-kill policy in Afghanistan – the subject of a multi-million pound investigation by military police.
In the first media interview with any SAS member to take part in operations included in the war crimes probe, the former trooper admitted to The Mail on Sunday that illegal killings were ‘an unwritten rule of our job’ but strongly defended the regiment’s actions.
His gripping account of top-secret night operations in Afghanistan comes after claims emerged that SAS members had killed unarmed civilians in cold blood and falsified mission reports.
The shocking allegations emerged as part of an investigation by the Royal Military Police (RMP) codenamed Operation Northmoor.
The battled-hardened soldier told how the central claims levelled against the SAS were flawed. He said:
- Unarmed Afghans were routinely killed but only after high-level intelligence confirmed their identity as Taliban commanders rather than civilians;
- Over a single year, the SAS’s D and G squadrons killed more than 600 enemy fighters, some of whom could have been captured. The soldier insisted there was no point taking prisoners because they would be released days after being handed over to the Afghan police;
- In exceptional circumstances SAS troops did plant weapons on the bodies of unarmed Taliban commanders who had been killed – one of the central accusations levelled at the SAS – but said it was the only way they would be believed, even after gathering huge amounts of high-tech evidence to prove they were terrorists;
- The SAS has also been accused of falsifying reports to make it appear friendly Afghan troops had shot Taliban fighters, rather than Special Forces soldiers. He admitted this happened but said it was because they had been ordered to exaggerate the involvement of the Afghan National Army for political reasons.
Speaking exclusively to this newspaper on condition of anonymity, the soldier revealed how he took part in 200 night raids between 2010 and 2013, many investigated as potential war crimes by the RMP.
He also admitted civilians, including children, had died when operations went wrong but said: ‘Our accusers say that some of the killings which took place were unlawful but we only targeted those responsible for orchestrating the campaign of violence directed towards British troops across Helmand Province.
‘We went in hard and I admit the tactics do sound gruesome, but these were bad men. We hunted them down only after their guilt had been established by a network of local informants as well as our various high-tech assets.’
He also told how Taliban fighters went to great lengths to avoid being identified. ‘They wouldn’t be seen waving rifles around. Similarly, they wouldn’t make mobile phone calls. They would employ another Afghan to make them on their behalf because they knew we were listening to what they were saying.
‘So when someone is that careful to cover their tracks, what do you do? Arresting them was pretty pointless because they would only be held for a few days before being released. So for me, the end justified the means.’
How the Mail on Sunday led the way
The Mail on Sunday exclusively revealed the investigation into claims of SAS war crimes in April.
We uncovered how military detectives led a ‘witch-hunt’ against Special Forces troops, using a computer program to check photos to establish if there had been repeated use of the ‘drop weapon’ tactic of shooting an unarmed man and then placing a gun by his side to justify the killing.
The story was reported by other newspapers only last week.
As part of Operation Northmoor, the RMP has apparently gathered credible evidence of illegal SAS operations, including unlawful killings, false imprisonment and assault – but the MoS understands no soldiers have been formerly questioned. The £6 million inquiry had been expected to run until 2021 but the Ministry of Defence recently told investigators to finish their work this summer, raising fears the Government was seeking to cover up war crimes.
At its peak, the RMP was looking at 52 allegedly suspicious killings by United Kingdom Special Forces units. But it is understood this has been scaled down to just one incident in Helmand Province in 2011 when four members of the same family were shot dead by the SAS in a night raid on a village.
The investigation also found SAS commanders doctored official battle reports to make it look as if Afghan troops they were mentoring had shot dead the Taliban.
Video footage obtained by the RMP clearly revealed British soldiers had done the killing. By discovering this inconsistency, investigators thought they had exposed a cover-up.
But the SAS soldier told the MoS there was a political motive behind their misrepresentation of real events in the war zone. ‘From 2010 to 2013, we were under strict instructions from the top of the MoD to do everything possible to suggest the Afghans were improving militarily and would be capable of stemming the Taliban tide after our departure,’ he said.
‘So, yes, they were given undue credit for successful operations. You would then get generals and Defence Ministers boasting about how well the Afghan forces were doing, which used to make us laugh. We knew how bad they were and we only took them along to “put an Afghan face” on a mission.
‘It is pretty rich for the RMP to accuse us of war crimes on that basis because they were as familiar with this political drive as we were. Afghan troops were to be made to look good.’
The SAS soldier also acknowledged that after he and his colleagues killed unarmed Taliban, they occasionally planted weapons on the corpses. He insisted this was not part of a cover-up, but said that only by producing a pistol or rifle and placing it by the body could they convince Afghan police the dead had been actively involved in the insurgency.
He said: ‘The RMP got the wrong idea about this. We were forced to take such steps because the Afghan police and courts didn’t work on phone intercepts or fingerprints. Any high-tech evidence against the Taliban immediately went out the window. They would only access possession of a weapon or drugs as proof of guilt, or Taliban activity.
‘So yes, we carried weapons to give us that [legal] protection and the local police would note the serial numbers and we would think no more of it. I don’t think we did wrong. We adapted our tactics to deal with the enemy.
‘The RMP knew at the time how we operated, so why come after us now? RMP officers attended the same briefings before missions when senior officers told us “kill or capture” – that was kill as a first option, capture as a second option, not the other way around. Before, when we did arrest Taliban commanders, they spent just a few days in custody being served tea before being released. We got fed up with that and got smart.’
The SAS’s tactics led to huge numbers of Taliban being recorded as Killed In Action. The soldier said over a 12-month period, D and G Squadrons killed a combined total of more than 600. Victims included some of the Taliban’s leading bomb-makers, weapons smugglers and potential suicide bombers.
The soldier said: ‘We killed two Taliban who were preparing to launch a suicide attack on a British base near Kajaki, in northern Helmand. Their suicide belts were good to go and I remember seeing piles of human hair beside them because they’d shaved themselves to prepare for their entry into the afterlife. I also saw the Afghan police uniforms they were going to wear, so British troops wouldn’t have known they were enemy fighters.
‘These men were shot dead at close range and their bodies were dumped in the back of an Afghan pick-up truck. This vehicle, and the bodies, were discovered the following day by other British forces, who got quite a shock.’
But there were occasions when missions ended in the loss of innocent lives and devastating injuries to children. The sights and sounds still haunt the SAS soldier, who like many of his colleagues later sought psychiatric help.
He said: ‘We’d been tracking a senior Taliban guy who was gun-running either side of the Pakistan border, bringing in weapons and explosives for the roadside bombs – a major player. We watched him coming into Afghanistan with his deadly cargo and found the cache in the desert.
‘We requested an air strike and a bomb was dropped. There was a huge blaze as the guns and a lot of ammunition were destroyed. A few hours later, we were dropped off in the desert by helicopter and marched 12km to the target to assess what remained of the site. The area was heavily defended and we killed at least five enemy fighters on the approach to the target.
‘When we eventually got there, we heard screaming coming from underneath a pile of carpets. We pulled them back to see children who had been horrifically wounded.Years later, I can’t get it entirely out of my head. While the incident was fully investigated by RMP and all UK personnel were cleared, it still leaves a terrible feeling.’
An MoD spokesman said: ‘Our military served with great courage and professionalism and we proudly hold them to the highest standards. Where credible allegations are raised, it is right they are effectively investigated by an independent police force like the Royal Military Police.
‘They have found no evidence of criminal behaviour by the Armed Forces in Afghanistan, have discontinued over 90 per cent of the 675 allegations made and less than ten investigations now remain.’