Panorama has revealed disturbing evidence of war crimes by the SAS in Afghanistan – and of subsequent attempts to cover them up. Hannah O’Grady describes how a series of alleged murders of civilians was finally brought to light.
Getting to the bottom of this story involved four years of painstaking detective work.
Crucial to this was a cache of internal emails from within the headquarters of UK Special Forces (UKSF) – the military directorate that oversees the SAS. These contained a handful of details about previously classified deadly raids that senior UKSF officers had considered suspicious back in 2011. At the time, British troops were still fighting the Taliban alongside allies in Afghanistan.
We were able to see these emails because they were included in court documents from a judicial review into a night raid previously investigated by Panorama in 2019, which brought to light evidence that the UK military had failed to properly investigate a series of suspected civilian murders in Afghanistan.
We knew from sources within the Royal Military Police (RMP) that investigators believed that suspect killings were far more widespread than the three incidents featured in our initial programme.
But all we had to go on from the court documents were around a dozen dates of when the raids took place, and sometimes the number of people killed. We had no way of identifying where they had occurred from the documents alone.
RMP investigators had been prevented by armed forces headquarters from visiting the sites in question. Our RMP sources also told us a lack of co-operation from UKSF prevented them from interviewing senior Special Forces officers and that they suspected pressure had been exerted from on high when they were ordered not to view potentially crucial aerial footage of the operations.
The Ministry of Defence spokesman said that British forces “served with courage and professionalism in Afghanistan” and were always held to the “highest standards”. The MoD said it could not comment on specific allegations, but that declining to comment should not be taken as acceptance of the allegations’ factual accuracy.
Then we had a breakthrough. A source – who must remain anonymous – handed us hundreds of contemporaneous military reports.
They didn’t disclose the precise location of the raids, but they did offer potentially vital clues about what had happened during each one. We trawled through hundreds of these operational accounts.
Then we spent months trying to work out where they had taken place. To do this, we scoured press cuttings looking for incidents that might match those in the court documents – our colleagues in BBC Monitoring had archived and translated local language news coverage from 2011.
Panorama was also given access to a leaked US military log. Combing through that, we looked for events that might match a British night raid.
We spoke to journalists who had covered the conflict, including incredibly brave local reporters, as well as soldiers and other British officials in Afghanistan.
Together, this gave Panorama enough to travel to Afghanistan and speak to witnesses, who would give their evidence for the first time.
The US military log had given us a map grid reference that led us to the village of Nad Ali, in Helmand province. There the Panorama team met Haji Habibullah – a charismatic, bear-like man in his 70s whose neighbours treated him like an elder.
But his demeanour changed when he described the killing of his two young sons aged 16 and 20. Remembering what happened to them, Habibullah broke down and wept.
In the early hours of 7 February 2011, Habibullah’s sons, Samiullah and Nisar Ahmad, had been sleeping in a single-room guesthouse in the grounds of the family home. Alongside them were seven mourners who had come to the village for a funeral.
Then four helicopters carrying SAS personnel landed in the nearby fields – and soon, all nine people in the guesthouse were dead.
According to the official SAS account of the incident, they had believed the property was linked to a Taliban leader. As the troops entered the compound, the SAS said, several insurgents opened fire – so the SAS then shot back, killing those in the guesthouse. The report adds that three AK-47 rifles were recovered in the raid.
But that wasn’t how Habibullah remembered it. All those who died had been unarmed civilians, he said, unconnected to the Taliban.
He took the BBC team to the guesthouse. It had been bricked up – the memory of his sons’ deaths had made it too painful to use again. “When I remember them it hurts me so much,” Habibullah said.