Veterans Minister Suspected S.A.S. of War Crimes

Johnny Mercer changed the law to protect soldiers from “vexatious” prosecutions. Now the minister admits he always thought some were guilty of war crimes.

22 February 2024

Johnny Mercer gives evidence to the inquiry. (Photo: Screengrab)

Britain’s most senior military figures took part in a concerted attempt to suppress allegations that SAS troops committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

And a government minister who successfully campaigned to protect soldiers from prosecution believed some of the allegations were true.

This is the remarkable evidence about a “culture of omerta” – a code of silence, originally attributed to the Italian mafia – within Britain’s Special Forces that emerged this week at an independent inquiry in London.

It is examining the conduct of elite SAS troops in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013, including the killing of 33 people in eleven night raids in 2011.

The inquiry has already heard from one senior unidentified British Special Forces soldier who believed SAS troops deliberately falsified post-operation reports to cover up what they had done.

The revelations only emerged after a £10 million internal MoD investigation, Operation Northmoor, failed to discover evidence of SAS wrongdoing and was shut down.

Parliament then passed the 2021 Overseas Operations Act, denying relief to victims of unlawful killing after just six years. 

And only months ago the government introduced the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act, which restricts criminal and civil investigations for Irish victims of British army operations.

Johnny Mercer MP, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, led the campaign to pass these laws and railed against “tank-chasing lawyers” who brought claims against the MoD.

But speaking to the SAS inquiry this week, he admitted to having long-held concerns about the conduct of UK Special Forces in Afghanistan “and from other operations”.

‘Something stinks’

After Mercer became a defence minister in 2019, the MoD reluctantly showed him a secret memo written by a Special Forces commander in 2011 citing “rumours” among elite troops about the SAS “conducting summary executions of supposed Taliban affiliates”.

It said: “One of my team, an officer, has been told by an individual from [the unit allegedly responsible] that there is in effect an unofficial policy amongt the [SAS unit] to kill wherever possible fighting aged males on target, regardless of the immediate threat they pose to our troops.

“In some instances this has involved the deliberate killing [of] individuals after they have been restrained by [SAS soldiers] and the subsequent fabrication of evidence to suggest a lawful killing in self defence.”

Mercer was told by then army chief Sir Mark Carlton-Smith and then Director of Special Forces, General Sir Roland Walker, that the allegations had been thoroughly investigated and were untrue.

Mercer said repeated assurances did not set his mind at ease, with Special Forces commanders giving him “implausible” versions of events. 

The assurances, now shown to be false, were repeated by the then defence secretary, Ben Wallace. 

Mercer told Wallace that he did not believe Generals Carlton-Smith and Walker. “I think my words were ‘something stinks’,” Mercer told the inquiry.

Mercer saw this memo written by a Special Forces commander.

He said that when he challenged Walker about being told there was no video footage of Special Forces operations – critical evidence relating to the allegations – the General lent back on his chair and shrugged. Walker will take over as head of the British army later this year.

It was “implausible” that no video existed, Mercer said, explaining how “full-motion video became a statutory requirement to conduct these operations after a particular operation in I believe it was around 2006 that didn’t go too well. It is literally a go/no-go criteria.”

Mercer wrote to Wallace in 2020 after detailed allegations about SAS killings appeared in the Sunday Times

He complained: “I have continually down-played these allegations in public …That was clearly a mistake.”

Mercer said it was “completely unacceptable” for a minister to have been allowed to tell the House of Commons that reports of the executions were untrue when senior military figures knew such a statement was “incorrect”.

The Director of Special Forces, the head of the army, and the defence secretary had “not done their job that was incumbent upon them with their rank and privileges in those organisations”, Mercer said.

He claims to have received a direct account from a serving member of the Special Forces who had been asked to carry a “drop weapon”, a reference to the practice of planting a non-Nato firearm on a body to falsely suggest the unarmed victim had posed a threat.

Despite saying he wanted to help the inquiry get to the truth, Mercer repeatedly refused to tell the chairman Sir Charles Haddon-Cave who his source was.

‘Perils of disclosure’

After a discussion about the allegations leading to Operation Northmoor, the inquiry heard that Peter Ryan, Director of Judicial Engagement Policy at the MoD, warned of the “perils of disclosure’. 

Ryan continued: “Given the ongoing and prospective legal challenges on a wide range of issues, it is quite possible that Ministerial records would be put into the public domain…so bland is often best.”

In extraordinary evidence that will not do himself any favours in the MoD, Mercer told the inquiry: “The MoD was terrible at investigating itself. There were things that happened…in the course of my work on IHAT [the investigation into abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops in Iraq] and Afghanistan, clearly cases like Baha Mousa [the Iraqi civilian killed while in the custody of British troops] were brought to my attention, clearly unacceptable behaviours, and I had very little faith that the MoD had the ability to hold itself to account.”

This week’s evidence should lead to renewed pressure to break down the wall of official secrecy that gives the country’s Special Forces protection greater even than that enjoyed by the security and intelligence agencies.

The inquiry’s lawyer put it to Mercer that: “One of the other items you identify as a layer of implausibility was the fact that the number of persons killed significantly and repeatedly exceeded the number of weapons found on target.”

Mercer responded: “We never needed to be here today…it’s a crying shame, because this could have been cleared up years ago with facts like that coming out: double the bodies to weapons.”

These facts that could have been obtained through a simple freedom of information request or parliamentary questions – were Special Forces not immune from such transparency mechanisms.

The inquiry continues.