Hidden Warfare 3: Special forces

While Britain’s conventional army is being slashed, Britain’s special forces are benefiting from special treatment. Their budget was doubled in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Richard Norton-Taylor
2 December 2016

US army training centre near Mosul, 2011. Wikicommons/ DVIDSHUB. Some rights reserved.The SAS are the only British soldiers engaged actively in military conflict. They are deployed in Iraq, in Syria, and in Libya where they conducted their very first operations 75 years ago. They are helping Kurdish fighters target Isis positions in the attack on Mosul.

While Britain’s conventional army is being slashed, Britain’s special forces are benefiting from special treatment. Their budget was doubled in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

They will be able to spend more than £2bn over the next ten years on new, sophisticated, equipment. They are already testing high altitude surveillance drones that can patrol for weeks on end to spy on targets far below. The new drone, called Zephyr 8, can fly so high and for so long that military commanders are calling it a ‘pseudo satellite’.

Killing machine

Former SAS soldiers have admitted to taking part in an ‘industrial-scale counterterrorist killing machine’ in Iraq. An SAS soldier, Ben Griffin, was served with a court order banning him from making further disclosures after revealing how British special forces handed over terror suspects to US troops in Iraq who were subsequently tortured. It was recently reported in the Sunday Times that British special forces operating in Iraq have been issued with a ‘kill or capture list’ with the names of 200 British terrorists fighting with Isis.

Yet the activities of Britain’s special forces are covered by a blanket of official secrecy thicker even than those applied to MI5, MI6, and GCHQ. When Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5 published her memoirs, special commanders were the most damning in their criticism, decrying an initiative which they said undermined their attempts to prevent former SAS soldiers from writing their memoirs. Even the D Notice Committee, a cosy unit that operates a system of voluntary self-censorship in cooperation with the media, has failed to persuade special forces commanders from lifting the official blanket ban on revealing their activities.

Out of the public eye

Special forces – of the US and France as well as the UK – are taking on an ever more important role on the ground because they are potentially more effective in counter terrorist operations and because their activities can be more easily hidden from public view. After the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, where British troops were killed and maimed in bloody operations the government could not disguise, it was clear public and political opinion were strongly opposed to any future deployment of hundreds of conventional British troops in counter-terror operations.

Strikes by aircraft and drones were one thing; boots on the ground quite another. But it became clear that some boots on the ground were needed, especially to train and mentor indigenous forces and militia opposing insurgent and terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

The Ministry of Defence said that the extra money earmarked for the special forces announced in the 2015 SDSR would be spent on upgrading fixed wing aircraft helicopters, armoured vehicles, and communications equipment. The investment, it said, would ‘enhance their ability to operate and strike globally in the most hostile environments on their own or with our closest allies, and in particular to enhance their counter-terrorism capabilities’.

The UK’s special forces would continue to be made up of a single 'Sabre' squadron from so-called ‘tier 1’ units – 22 Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Service (SBS) – with support from ‘tier2’ units – the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), and 18 Signals Regiment. They total more than 2,000 men.

Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay?

The presence of British special forces in Libya was leaked in March this year, bizarrely, as a result of a briefing by Jordan’s King Abdullah to the US Congress.

The MoD came out with its pet rehearsed response that it did not comment on special forces operations. David Cameron, then prime minister, told MPs that the government had a ‘longstanding policy’ of not commenting on special forces. He told the Commons: ‘The work that our special forces do is vital for our country. Like everyone in this country, they are subject to international law, but I do not propose to change the arrangements under which these incredibly brave men work.’ That blanket ban remains – officially.

In practice, the ban is honoured more in the breach than in the observance. MoD officials do not deny special forces’ activities when questioned by trusted defence correspondents, especially if the operation in question had been ‘a success’.

The Mod’s ‘no comment’ did not prevent the Sunday Times from quoting a ‘senior defence source’ saying: ‘A kill list has been drawn up containing the names of hundreds of very bad people. A lot of them are from the UK. The hunt is now on for British Islamists who have effectively gone off-grid.’ The source was quoted as continuing: ‘This is a multinational special forces operation. The SAS have their own part of the plan and they will be going after British nationals. This is a kill or capture mission and it has already begun.’

Richard Williams, a former SAS commander, told ITV’s Exposure programme last year about how UK special forces, conducted, from a bunker called ‘the Death Star’ conducted up to four operations a night. Special forces were described as systematically eliminating a ‘kill list’ of ‘high-value’ targets – a tactic reminiscent of CIA drone attacks.

Before he was served with a court order, requested by the MoD, preventing him from making further disclosures, Ben Griffin revealed that individuals detained by SAS troops in a joint UK-US special forces taskforce had ended up in interrogation centres in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Guantánamo Bay. Though he had not witnessed torture himself, he said: ‘I have no doubt in my mind that non-combatants I personally detained were handed over to the Americans and subsequently tortured.’

The MoD is understood to have paid out tens of thousands of pounds in compensation to Iraqi policemen allegedly abused by SAS soldiers. The MoD confirmed it had been dealing with claims for compensation but added: ‘the details are confidential’.

Significant operations

As Britain’s special forces taken on an increasingly important role, in operations in which the country’s counter-intelligence and intelligence agencies will also play a significant part, they must be subjected to proper scrutiny. More and more, future conflicts will be fought by special forces in the ground, drones in the air, and cyber attacks in space.

Their activities cannot simply be disclosed by media leaks to which the MoD responds with ‘no comment’. MPs must demand more transparency from ministers. Those on the Commons defence committee should take the lead in insisting on greater disclosure on what are now significant operations, not merely exotic escapades by very ‘special’ troops.

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