Members of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) are alleged to have covered up evidence that they killed unarmed Afghan civilians in cold blood and falsified mission reports in a potential war crimes scandal that the government has tried to keep secret.

The allegations have emerged in a classified multimillion-pound Royal Military Police (RMP) investigation, Operation Northmoor, which has been run from a secure underground bunker in Cornwall for the past year and a half.
Senior military police and defence sources with a detailed knowledge of the investigation have said that evidence gathered of war crimes by the SAS is “credible”. Part of the inquiry is said to have focused on a particular SAS squadron, which has been described as a “rogue” unit.

A source close to Operation Northmoor says there is strong evidence that unarmed Afghan civilians, suspected of being Taliban insurgents, were murdered rather than captured during night raids on their homes.
In one 2011 case under investigation, special forces soldiers are alleged to have handcuffed and hooded some of the victims before later shooting them dead.
The detectives gathered evidence that appears to show top secret SAS mission reports had been doctored to make it look as if its Afghan special forces partners, rather than the British regiment’s soldiers, had carried out the shootings. This meant the killings were not investigated at the time.

Operation Northmoor is said to have acquired drone and other video footage — nicknamed “kill TV” — that shows British soldiers opening fire and contradicts the SAS account that their Afghan partners were responsible. An examination of bullets taken from some of the victims’ bodies revealed they were of a type used by the SAS.

Northmoor also acquired photographs, taken by the SAS, of shooting scenes in which the victims are holding a Makarov pistol — a weapon favoured by the Taliban leadership — that was allegedly planted by the special forces unit to give the false impression that the person they had shot was an armed Taliban commander rather than a civilian.

Operation Northmoor, set up in 2014, was investigating dozens of alleged unlawful killings between 2010 and 2013 by special forces and had become one of the largest military police investigations, with more than 100 RMP officers involved.
“Suspects would be plucked from their beds

The inquiry had been expected to take several more years with provision made for the work to continue until late 2021. But the Operation Northmoor team was instructed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to conclude the vast majority of cases by this summer. A military police source said this demand meant the team had been given insufficient time to investigate properly.

The source said there was a desire in the MoD “to just make it go away”. He believes officials were desperately trying to “avoid any of the detail of the accusations getting into the press and thereby undermining, in their view, national security, public trust, [and] work with allies”.

A senior Whitehall source revealed that the MoD and the army’s most senior generals had regarded the evidence of “mass executions” emerging from Operation Northmoor as “credible and extremely serious”. The source said it was “seen as a potential disaster for the government” so there were attempts “to keep it under control by reducing the scale of the investigation”.

In February, Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, publicly announced that the Operation Northmoor inquiry — which included lesser offences of false imprisonment and assault — would be reduced by 90% in a matter of months. Now the inquiry’s workload has been slashed from an initial investigation into 52 deaths to one case of unlawful killing. It is understood that the one case that has survived the cull is an investigation into the alleged shooting of four family members during a night raid on their homes in Qala-e-Bost, east of Lashkar Gah, southern Helmand province, in February 2011. It is the only case of the 52 alleged killings which is currently subject to a civil claim and the details were expected to become public.
In a series of Skype interviews, family members and local officials have claimed to this newspaper that at least two of the four victims had been held at gunpoint and handcuffed with plastic ties before being shot dead. The RMP is arranging to travel to Afghanistan to interview the witnesses.

It is understood that many of the killing allegations in Northmoor related to special forces’ night raids, which became a key tactic in the later stages of the Afghanistan war. The aim was to break down the Taliban leadership by waging a relentless campaign of raids in which suspected insurgents would be plucked from their beds at night and taken to detention centres.

However, British Army officers interviewed by this newspaper believed the SAS raids were often based on unreliable intelligence and raised suspicions that the soldiers set out to kill rather than capture Taliban suspects in contravention of the rules of engagement. The officers said this led to the shooting of innocent civilians with no connection to the Taliban insurgency.

One ex-SAS officer has suggested that what at times was in effect a “shoot-to-kill” policy may have been caused by frustration in the ranks that those captured would be freed soon afterwards without yielding useful intelligence.
Night raids and other search operations by British, American and other special forces units led to 295 civilian deaths between 2009 and 2012, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

The deaths led to a series of complaints from serving members of the British Army and from the International Committee of the Red Cross working in Afghanistan. This triggered the RMP’s investigation three years ago. Ministers were informed and the chief of the general staff’s office allocated a separate budget for the investigation, which included a £7.6m computer system, such was its seriousness.
As the investigation grew, the RMP detectives were moved to a bunker at RAF St
Mawgan to keep their work secure.

The RMP is understood to have made a breakthrough when it acquired classified “after-action” reports on killing incidents from the SAS.

According to a military police source who has a detailed knowledge of the investigation, some of the reports had not been filed to the regular army command because the SAS claimed that the victims had been shot by Afghan special forces who often attended the raids as back-up or interpreters.

However, according to the source, the RMP examined the bullets found in some of the victims and discovered that they were British Army issue 5.56mm — a type of ammunition used by the SAS at the time and not by the Afghan army which typically used 7.62mm rounds.

Sometimes the SAS would give orders for the Afghan forces to stay outside the compound while they went in for the raid, according to the source. This may have been because they had “decided rather than capture, they’ll kill”. The detectives acquired footage of the incidents from drones and other cameras showing British troops present at a shooting.

The source said: “Well, hang on a second, it says [in the after-action reports] only the Afghan partners fired . . . he’s dressed in British military equipment, and the guy was shot and killed with a 5.56.”

“Military police acquired ‘kill’ footage from drones

A British special forces officer said that at one point the Afghan CF 333 commando unit refused to patrol with the SAS because of concern about their conduct. One CF 333 commando told this newspaper that in 2010 he had witnessed SAS soldiers planting drugs and guns on a victim who had been shot needlessly at a checkpoint.
The inquiry has examined the activities of an SAS unit which is said to have gone “rogue”. The unit has been accused of having routinely carried a Russian Makarov “kill pistol” during the night raids because it could be photographed with the corpse if an unarmed Taliban suspect was gunned down.

The British special forces officer alleged that the pistol was planted to make it look as if the victim had been a high-value target as the Makarov was commonly used by senior Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. It also made it appear that the suspect had been armed, allowing the soldiers to claim that they had fired to defend themselves.
The source added that one of his friends in another special forces unit had been asked to carry a similar “kill pistol” and had refused.

The concern was echoed by the military police source. “How do you justify in an after-action report that it was right to kill someone? You photograph them with a gun . . . There were issues being investigated about what’s called ‘drop weapons’,” the source said.

The sources also claimed the soldiers had attracted suspicion by placing the pistol in the left hand of the victims on too many occasions and by using the same gun serial number when compiling mission reports on the killings.

On Friday a spokesman for the MoD said that more than 90% of the 675 allegations being examined by Northmoor had been discontinued and fewer than 10 investigations remained. He added that the decision to dismiss the cases had been taken solely by the RMP and the government had not influenced the decision.
In a statement, the MoD said: “The Royal Military Police has found no evidence of criminal behaviour by the armed forces in Afghanistan.”

However, it is understood that before Fallon’s February statement the RMP reported two cases to the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA) in which detectives believed the weight of evidence meant British serviceman should have stood trial. However, the SPA did not believe there was a realistic chance of conviction at that stage.

In one of those cases, senior RMP officers had expected a special forces soldier would be prosecuted for multiple murders. The other cases in the wider investigation had even stronger evidence of war crimes, according to the source, raising questions about why they were later dropped.

The source claimed it was difficult to find a court martial military jury with the required security clearance that was properly independent of the SAS and that this could have influenced the SPA’s decision not to prosecute.

Insight: David Collins, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Calvert


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