A BBC investigation has found evidence supporting very serious allegations against members of the SAS while they were operating in Afghanistan in 2010-11. This includes the allegation that one unit alone may have unlawfully killed 54 people over the course of six months.
The BBC found a series of “strikingly similar” accounts from soldiers who reported shooting people because they pulled hidden weapons out after being detained. The implication is that the pattern is suspicious, and that there may have instead been systematic extrajudicial executions by the SAS using “burner” weapons (not their formally issued weapons).
Many of the men killed were reportedly captured and detained from family groups, and allegedly shot by elite soldiers on night raids. The investigation alleges that high-level officers covered up their suspicions of killings that, if proven, could amount to war crimes by British forces.
These are extremely serious allegations, and every time the UK and its allies appear to have broken the law of armed conflict it plays into the hands of the likes of Vladimir Putin.
However, the British government has spent years taking steps to make it harder to prosecute precisely crimes of this kind. It has done so under the insistence that the British military is plagued by “vexatious claims” against its troops, brought forward by “dodgy lawyers” working on behalf of phony victims.
The years of rhetoric on this issue culminated in 2021 in the Overseas Operations Act, a law which established a statutory presumption against prosecution when the events at issue were more than five years in the past. This means that prosecutors are being strongly discouraged from prosecuting historical crimes.
Proposed changes to British law could prevent armed forces from taking legal action against the government
Prosecutors have also been given a series of “matters” to which they must give “particular weight” in taking their decision on whether or not to prosecute. This includes considering the “exceptional demands and stresses” that members of the armed forces are likely to be subjected to while overseas. If the prosecutor decides to proceed anyway, the prosecution can only go ahead with the permission of the attorney general (who is a member of the government).
Soldiers are shielded from prosecution for more minor offences but more serious crimes are exempt from the new rules, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. However, while individual soldiers still face repercussions for their actions, the new law means the government is much more thoroughly insulated from legal action.
BBC investigators discuss one of the 54 allegedly suspicious deaths with the dead person’s family members:
In particular, new time limits protect the UK government from civil claims and claims under the Human Rights Act for harm caused in overseas military operations more than six years previously.
The allegations brought forward by the BBC relate to events that took place in 2010 and 2011. That means that if soldiers are found to have committed war crimes in Afghanistan at that time, the UK government will not be required to provide compensation to the victims’ families or accept any other form of legal accountability for what happened.
The Royal Military Police spent years investigating hundreds of alleged offences, including by SAS units in Afghanistan, through Operation Northmoor. But the Ministry of Defence closed the investigation in 2019, finding no evidence of criminality. The BBC’s investigation could amount to new evidence of alleged war crimes, but with the new law in place since last year, the government is ultimately likely to be shielded from any legal action or accountability.
James Sweeney does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.