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Minister tasked with investigating potential SAS crimes in Afghanistan ‘unable’ to disprove cover-up

A minister repeatedly raised concerns about potential war crimes committed by UK special forces in Afghanistan with senior figures within the Ministry of Defence – telling Ben Wallace “something stinks” – and was unable to disprove an alleged cover-up of killings when he investigated.

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer was speaking to an inquiry into dozens of killings of Afghan civilians by the SAS between 2010 and 2013. He told the inquiry on Tuesday that he did not want to believe reports that the elite British soldiers had killed unarmed Afghans, but he was “unable” to find “something to disprove these allegations”.

He said that when he investigated the matter with the senior figures within UK special forces (UKSF) they were “unable to answer basic questions” and he “did not believe them”.

When he was a junior minister in the Ministry of Defence from 2019, Mr Mercer raised concerns about rumours of potential UKSF crimes with the director of judicial engagement policy with the MoD, Peter Ryan, the chief of defence staff, Nick Carter, and the secretary of state for defence Ben Wallace.

Minister Johnny Mercer said senior figures within the UK special forces failed to probe claims of war crimes (PA)
Minister Johnny Mercer said senior figures within the UK special forces failed to probe claims of war crimes (PA)

He said that the chief of defence staff and the secretary of defence tasked him with “getting to the bottom of it”.

Mr Mercer told the independent investigation he was aware of allegations against a special forces unit, known to the inquiry as UKSF1, from as far back as 2009.

When he tried to investigate the claims during his time as a junior minister, he found that there was a “lack of professional curiosity to get to the bottom of it”.

The director of special forces and the chief of general staff also assured Mr Mercer that the allegations were untrue, the veterans minister told the inquiry.

He said the director of special forces “did not have the professional curiosity that I expected him to have”. He said he became concerned about why senior figures within the MoD could not provide evidence to disprove the allegations.

Members of UKSF have been accused of killing unarmed Afghans, planting weapons on them, falsifying reports and then covering up the crimes.

Mr Mercer then told Mr Wallace that he “did not believe” the director of special forces and the chief of general staff, telling him: “Something stinks”.

He added: “I was very clear that there should be something to refute these allegations, just something. The absence of anything is what pricks your conscience.”

Mr Mercer said he was also told that there was no full motion video available of certain special forces operations that were under investigation. This was something that was “not plausible” because operations had to be recorded on full motion video, Mr Mercer said.

The veterans minister raised his concerns about the lack of video records to Mr Wallace and the director of special forces, the inquiry heard. Mr Wallace “repeatedly told me there was no new evidence”, Mr Mercer added.

The inquiry will examine whether special forces had a policy of executing males of “fighting age” who posed no threat in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013.

Afghan families have accused UK special forces of conducting a “campaign of murder” against civilians, while senior officers and personnel at the MoD “sought to prevent adequate investigation”.

Tessa Gregory, lawyer on behalf of the Afghan families, said: “Today we have learned that, whilst the secretary of state for defence was telling the court in proceedings brought by our clients that there was nothing to see, a serving minister was raising allegations of the gravest nature.

“The bereaved families urge all those with relevant information to come forward to assist the inquiry in ascertaining the truth.”

No charges were brought under Operation Northmoor - which was set up in 2014 to examine allegations of executions by special forces, including those of children.

A further RMP investigation, codenamed Operation Cestro, saw three soldiers referred to the Service Prosecuting Authority, but none of them were prosecuted.

The inquiry continues.