British soldiers in Afghanistan are alleged to have killed civilians and falsified reports of who did the shooting. Picture: AP
Members of Britain’s Special Air Service 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 classified multi-million-pound Royal Military Police investigation Operation Northmoor, which has been run from a secure underground bunker in Cornwall for the past 18 months.
Senior military police and defence sources with detailed knowledge of the investigation have said evidence gathered of war crimes by the SAS was “credible”. Part of the inquiry is said to have focused on one squadron, 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 from some of the 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.
The inquiry had been expected to take several more years, with provision to continue to late 2021. But the Operation Northmoor team was instructed by the Ministry of Defence to conclude most cases by this northern summer. A military police source said this demand meant the team did not have enough 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 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, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced the Operation Northmoor inquiry, which included lesser offences of false imprisonment and assault, would be reduced by 90 per cent in 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 the one case that 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 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 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 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 said in interviews that they 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 former 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.