Talking point

MoD vs BBC: Panorama stands by SAS death squads exposé

New evidence suggests one squadron may have unlawfully killed 54 Afghans in six months

The BBC has defended an episode of Panorama, airing on BBC One at 9pm this evening, which alleges that dozens of detainees and unarmed men were killed in suspicious circumstances by British special forces in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011.

For the hour-long programme, the Panorama team analysed hundreds of pages of newly obtained SAS operational accounts. These included reports of more than a dozen “kill or capture” raids carried out by one squadron in Helmand, southern Afghanistan, and suggested that one unit may have unlawfully killed as many as 54 people during a six-month tour. 

The investigative journalists also uncovered allegations that SAS squadrons competed with each other “to get the most kills” and that the squadron focused on by the BBC in the Panorama episode, called SAS Death Squads Exposed: a British War Crime?, “was trying to achieve a higher body count than the one it had replaced”.

‘Illegal killings’ were ‘part of our job’

One SAS soldier, who spoke to the Daily Mail on condition of anonymity, described “illegal killings” as being “part of our job”, adding that “the tactics were gruesome”. SAS sources told the paper that residual guilt over the killing “of so many Afghans” caused “post-traumatic stress disorder and a rise in alcoholism among the soldiers who took part”.

Evidence obtained by the BBC also suggested that General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the former head of UK Special Forces, “was briefed about the alleged unlawful killings but did not pass on the evidence” to a Royal Military Police murder inquiry.

Internal emails revealed that officers “at the highest levels of special forces” were aware of the possibility of unlawful killings, “but failed to report the suspicions to military police despite a legal obligation to do so”, said the BBC.

Calls for a public inquiry 

The allegations have led to calls for the government to “carry out an inquiry into the shocking allegations”, said the i news site

Comparisons have been made with Australia’s Brereton report, published in 2020, which investigated similar allegations and found “credible evidence” that the Australian Defence Force was “responsible for the unlawful killing of 39 people” during the war in Afghanistan from 2005-16.

Paul Brereton, the senior judge who led the investigation, “found evidence that Australian SAS patrol commanders had ordered their junior subordinates to make their ‘first kills’ by shooting Afghan prisoners”, said The Telegraph

The shocking revelations put pressure on the UK government to reopen an inquiry into alleged misconduct by British forces in Afghanistan, but a MoD source told the paper that Australia’s defence force had confirmed to its UK counterparts that “no British service personnel” had been flagged as “persons of interest or affected persons” as a result of the Brereton inquiry. 

MoD issues ‘strong rebuttal’

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was quick to issue what The Telegraph described as a “strong rebuttal of the programme”, criticising the BBC for putting “our brave Armed Forces personnel at risk both in the field and reputationally”.

The MoD’s statement added that the corporation had jumped to “unjustified conclusions from allegations that have already been fully investigated”, explaining that two “extensive and independent” investigations into the conduct of UK forces in Afghanistan did not find “sufficient evidence to prosecute”. 

A BBC source told The Telegraph that its programme should be watched “in full” before judgement is made. At the same time, the corporation issued a formal statement defending the Panorama journalists’ reporting.

“This is the culmination of a four-year investigation, which includes new evidence and eyewitness accounts, and is firmly in the public interest,” it said. “The MoD’s position is reflected fully within the film. We stand by our journalism.”

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