British soldiers load into a Chinook helicopter delivering supplies as they camp in a location in the desert to conduct counter-Taliban operations May 25, 2007, in southern Helmand province, Afghanistan. Photo by Marco Di Lauro via Getty Images.
A scathing report from the BBC alleges British Special Forces may have illegally killed 54 people during one six-month stint in Afghanistan, prompting criticism from the country’s Ministry of Defence and some veterans.
The documentary SAS Death Squads Exposed: A British War Crime? debuted Tuesday, July 12, after a lengthy investigation by the BBC’s Panorama investigative team. Journalists reviewed hundreds of pages of operational reports from the British Army’s Special Air Service (SAS), including reports regarding more than a dozen “kill or capture” raids carried out by a single squadron in Helmand province during a six-month deployment in 2010 and 2011.
The “kill or capture” raids were designed to disrupt bomb-making networks and capture Taliban commanders during a time when ambushes and roadside bombs were resulting in heavy losses for British forces. Sources involved with selecting targets for such operations told the BBC the process was often rushed, with flawed intelligence sending soldiers into action with flimsy evidence. As a result, targets were frequently misidentified, they said.
“It didn’t necessarily translate into let’s kill them all, but certainly there was a pressure to up the game, which basically meant passing out judgements on these people quickly,” one anonymous source told the news outlet.
The BBC visited several locations raided by the SAS squadron, including the town of Gereshk. Late on the night of Nov. 29, 2010, the squadron targeted one home in the village, bringing all of the inhabitants into the courtyard outside, survivors told the BBC. Special Forces troops allegedly bound all the men’s hands before taking one man, Haji Ibrahim, back inside the home. Then a shot rang out.
The squadron’s report said soldiers shot and killed Ibrahim when he “demonstrated hostile intent by brandishing a hand grenade,” according to the BBC. But Ibrahim’s son said his father’s hands were still bound when he found his body and that there were no weapons in the house. The BBC said a UN report also concluded Ibrahim was an unarmed civilian.
“Once somebody is detained, they shouldn’t end up dead,” a senior officer who worked at UK Special Forces headquarters told the BBC.
Such incidents were routine during the SAS deployment, according to the BBC, with a March 2011 statement from an officer describing how a member of the squadron said fighting-age males were being executed after they had been restrained.
An April 2011 email from a senior officer to the director of Special Forces echoed those sentiments, adding that allegations of “fabrication of evidence to suggest a lawful killing in self-defence” had also been reported, according to the BBC.
Staff at a local hospital told journalists they saw large numbers of civilians showing up with severe dog bites following late-night raids. The patients allegedly told doctors their doors had been kicked in during the middle of the night and military dogs set loose inside the home.
British soldiers from the B Squadron of the Light Dragoons Regiment await a Chinook helicopter to land with supplies as they camp in a location in the desert to conduct counter-Taliban operations May 25, 2007, in southern Helmand province, Afghanistan. British soldiers from the Light Dragoons are on the front line of the efforts to suppress Taliban insurgents, while living most of their six-month tours in Afghanistan out of their tanks, in harsh conditions. Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images.
Anonymous military sources told the BBC that SAS members competed to see who could get the highest kill counts, recording the number of deaths for scorekeeping.
Col. Oliver Lee, who was commander of the Royal Marines in Afghanistan in 2011, called the allegations of misconduct raised by the BBC’s investigation “incredibly shocking” and said they merited a public inquiry.
Evidence reviewed by the BBC suggested the former head of UK Special Forces had been briefed about the alleged unlawful killings but did not pass the evidence on to the Royal Military Police.
The British Ministry of Defence (MOD) slammed the program ahead of its release, saying in a statement that the BBC “jumps to unjustified conclusions from allegations that have already been fully investigated” and puts service members at risk “both in the field and reputationally.”
In another statement, the MOD said the Royal Military Police had written to Panorama to request that they share any evidence of alleged crimes for the military police to review. In a follow-up article, the BBC said it would “engage with the military police and considered all requests for un-broadcast material in accordance with its editorial guidelines.”
Young Afghan girls giggle as a British soldier from 16 Air Assault Brigade walks past during a patrol in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, May 16, 2006. British forces took over the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) earlier in the month, as well as taking over security in the volatile province of Helmand, southern Afghanistan. Photo by John D. McHugh/AFP via Getty Images.
Some SAS veterans have criticized the report, particularly for its heavy use of Australian SAS headcam video and interviews with a former Australian SAS member. One of the most shocking clips in the documentary appears to show an Australian SAS soldier shooting and killing an unarmed Afghan man as he cowered in a field.
“Take that footage/hearsay away and it’s a reporter’s interpretation/opinion at best,” former British SAS Sgt. Chris Ryan said, according to The Daily Mail.
Rusty Firmin, who served in the SAS from 1977-1992, wrote that he thought the BBC investigation and its reliance on unidentified sources was “bullshit,” in an op-ed in the British newspaper The Times.
“The SAS do not go around executing detainees or anybody else. They are far too professional for that,” Firmin wrote. “We’ve seen allegations of war crimes before and they have turned out to be baseless.”
Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.
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