Australian SAS soldiers on patrol near Bagram, Afghanistan.Credit:
© Simon O'Dwyer
Australian SAS soldiers on patrol near Bagram, Afghanistan.Credit:
Warning: Disturbing content

Australian special forces soldiers were fuelled by "blood lust" when they tortured and executed prisoners in Afghanistan and then covered up their actions, according to a briefing handed to military chiefs which likened the conduct of some troops to that of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib.

The confidential report was commissioned in 2016 by then chief of army Angus Campbell and is the most detailed and significant internal military dossier to be aired about the special forces' war crimes scandal that took place during the war in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2015. It was the catalyst for the soon-to-be-completed four-year Inspector-General inquiry into war crimes by senior judge Paul Brereton.

The report was delivered to General Campbell, who is now Chief of Defence Force, making him Australia's most senior officer. It says unarmed civilians and prisoners were shot or had their throats slit by some Australian soldiers with a "large number of illegal killings often gloated about".

The report, recently sighted by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, was produced by defence consultant Samantha Crompvoets and contains extracts of "lengthy and candid" interviews with special forces soldiers and whistleblowers.

Insiders with knowledge of the Brereton report, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because its contents have not been released, say his report has confirmed many of the key findings of the 2016 report.

Justice Brereton's findings will identify a small group of special forces soldiers as responsible for murders, and make war crimes referrals to the Australian Federal Police, multiple sources say. Defence has spent months planning its public response to the Brereton inquiry, which is likely to remain largely classified except for a redacted public summary of key findings.

The Crompvoets report records allegations made by multiple special forces insiders that war crimes were normalised among cliques of soldiers, while others who confronted the bad behaviour were marginalised.

The crimes disclosed in interviews include alleged "competition killing and blood lust" and "the inhumane and unnecessary treatment of prisoners". General Campbell was also told of testimony from special forces that some soldiers were "glorifying these crimes" and were involved in the "cover-ups of unlawful killing and other atrocities".

"Comparisons were made to [a massacre of unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War] My Lai and Abu Ghraib," the report states.

Dr Samantha Crompvoets

Dr Samantha Crompvoets was told stories of torture and murder by Australian soldiers.
Dr Crompvoets, who declined to comment for this story, was told Australian special forces "would take the men and boys to these guest houses and interrogate them, meaning tie them up and torture them" during operations in Afghan villages.

When the soldiers left the village, "the men and boys would be found dead, shot in the head, sometimes blindfolded and throats slit. These are corroborated accounts."

Another account describes allegations that two "14-year-old boys suspected of being Taliban sympathisers had their throats slit ... the bodies were bagged and thrown into a nearby river".

In the report handed to General Campbell, one special forces insider is quoted as describing a cover-up culture in Afghanistan involving some members of the special forces deployed there between 2001 and 2014.
"If they didn't do it, they saw it. And if they didn't see it, they knew about it. If they knew about it, they probably were involved in covering it up and not letting it get back to Canberra ... and to make it even harder, if they didn't know about it, the question will be: why didn't you, because you should have."
The report describes how war crimes allegations made by non-government organisations and SAS and commandos support staff, including interpreters, "were apparently muted by SF (special forces) leadership in Afghanistan" as part of a culture that was described by a special forces insider as "insidious, abhorrent and shameful".

The briefing also points to major failures in Defence that contributed to the scandal, including ineffective leadership inside special forces and the absence of adequate whistleblowing channels that should have enabled soldiers to report war crimes without fear of retribution.

Secret briefing ordered

Dr Crompvoets is a sociologist and government consultant occasionally engaged by General Campbell to investigate sensitive and difficult military issues. She was commissioned by General Campbell and special forces commander Major-General Jeff Sengelman in 2015 to interview special forces personnel and document their concerns in a briefing note.

The briefing was, until its wider circulation throughout senior military ranks this year, one of the most tightly held documents in Canberra. It describes the source of allegations of war crimes as "insiders - current army personnel who had experience working in SF [special forces]".

The briefing states that the insiders made "repeated issues of misconduct in SOF (special operations forces) ... for which blowing off steam is a grossly inadequate explanation for behaviours".

Critically, Dr Crompvoets told General Campbell that the special forces insiders who made disclosures often corroborated each other.

"These distinctly different vantage points, each which was completely independent of each other, referred to some of the same events and triangulated the authenticity of the stories," the briefing says. "The gravity of these descriptions does not simply come from the details of particular events, it comes from the emphasis that most often accompanied these stories - 'it happened all the time'. They pointed to a disturbing regularity and normality."

Dr Crompvoets wrote to General Campbell about recording "countless references" from the special forces insiders "to exceptional soldiers and officers who upheld Army values and whose character was unquestionably upstanding".
"This was one of the most consistently conflicting pieces of information I was given, because the obvious question is: why did they not intervene or do anything to stop what was happening?

"To this question came the various answers: they were too high up the chain to see it; the tempo was so high the priority was just to keep everything ticking over; they did try to do something but were dismissed/marginalised/moved on; they only saw one incident not the pattern over time; eventually they left quietly."
The Campbell briefing note describes how special forces insiders "pointed to a number of significant and deeply concerning norms within SOF".

These included "the blurring of mateship with leadership; the ineffectiveness of senior officers compared to junior, more decorated patrol commanders; [and] the shift from unacceptable behaviour to war crimes".

The briefing also describes special forces insiders disclosing "concerns about the ... diaspora of SOF alumni who are powerful, have a great deal to lose, and will no doubt fight to protect their personal reputation as well as the SF brand should they be implicated in any of the above".

"I was told repeatedly everyone knows who the culprits are."

Slit throats, dead civilians

General Campbell was told one special forces insider had disclosed that at least "half a dozen" others in special forces "definitely knew what was going on". Another veteran who "deployed a number of times with the SF" singled out the year of "2012 ... [as] by far the worst he had ever seen".

"He mentioned that the Afghan interpreter they worked with kept reporting that Australian SF were executing farmers, but no one ever followed anything up." Defence sources have confirmed that 2012 is the key focus of the Brereton inquiry.

Dr Crompvoets' briefing to General Campbell described how in 2016, she was told that special forces soldiers felt they needed to "conform to survive".

"Soldiers would do bad stuff to fit in. It becomes part of the banter," is one comment attributed to a special forces insider. Another states: "guys just had this blood lust. Psychos. Absolute psychos. And we bred them."


Comment: That's what all this comes down to. Far from being an anomaly, these sorts of atrocities are a regular staple of how warfare is quite often conducted; terrorize the population. An unspoken but "nurtured" course of behavior.


Dr Crompvoets wrote to General Campbell that war crimes "do not happen in isolation. They (soldiers) become more confident over time when they are there and these behaviours become permissible and equated with being good and effective soldiers."

Hero worship

The Campbell briefing details disclosures by special forces insiders about how they manipulated the rules of engagement - which instruct a soldier when they can lawfully use lethal force - "to commit just about any atrocity that took their fancy".

"The rules they learn there [on the ground in Afghanistan] are the rules. Executing bad guys is ok, no matter what," a special forces insider stated.

"It was sanctioned psychopathic behaviour," another special forces insider disclosed to Dr Crompvoets.

One example provided by insiders to Dr Crompvoets was the ease with which unarmed Afghans could be killed while running away from soldiers by being labelled in post-operational reports as "squirters" - unarmed Afghans seen running away from coalition forces. Reports justifying the killing of these Afghans invariably stated the squirters were "running away from us to their weapons caches".

Australian SAS soldiers on patrol near Bagram, Afghanistan.Credit:
© Simon O'Dwyer
Australian SAS soldiers on patrol near Bagram, Afghanistan.Credit:
"That question was often later asked: how many caches did you find? They [special forces] always found something or had very plausible excuses about why they didn't find anything."

"The SF were able to do just enough to have a sufficient basis in law to justify their actions," the briefing states.

Justice Brereton's impending inquiry report has, according to Defence sources including soldiers who have been interviewed, collected copious evidence that weapons were repeatedly planted to justify killings. Dr Crompvoets also describes insiders' disclosures that some ADF lawyers had "drunk the Kool-Aid" and failed to properly investigate alleged war crimes.

"Any investigation into alleged misconduct was 'set up' to find the person not guilty," one insider claimed.


Comment: Gee, sounds a lot like the Israeli government's investigations of the IDF's atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank.


The Campbell briefing states that those most responsible for the alleged war crimes were, according to some whistleblowers, a very small number of patrol commanders who could not be held to account. The Age and Herald have separately confirmed a small number of patrol commanders, who lead small teams of four to six soldiers, are subject to the most serious war crimes allegations being investigated by the IGADF.

The briefing to General Campbell states: "They were responsible for the worst of it. [A] core group of people who wield so much influence that officers find it very difficult to manage... They are hero worshipped and unstoppable."

The alleged war crimes were only exposed to the Inspector-General after other patrol commanders or more junior soldiers blew the whistle. These whistleblowers appear to have also spoken to Dr Crompvoets. She records one insider as telling her: "It's like your typical whistleblower, we all know what happens to them. I became a chameleon. I knew what I needed to do to survive."

Another stated: "It was all f---ed up. I constantly struggled with my own personal tolerance framework."

The briefing to General Campbell states: "What was really disturbing to hear was that, at least according to the people who approached me, a lot of behaviour goes largely unchecked ... and there is intense pressure not to report things up."

"I was told that to intervene would mean getting sacked."

Allied partners implicated

The Campbell briefing also makes serious allegations about war crimes involving US and British special forces, who sometimes worked with their Australian counterparts. The US military has prosecuted several special forces members for brutal war crimes with mixed success, while the British military has also faced scrutiny and investigations.

One special forces informant is recorded as telling Dr Crompvoets: "Whatever we do, though, I can tell you the Brits and the US are far, far worse. I've watched our young guys stand by and hero worship what they were doing, salivating at how the US were torturing people. You just stand there and roll your eyes and wait for it to end."

The SAS logo: Who Dares WinsCredit:
© Ken Irwin
The SAS logo: Who Dares Wins
But shocking alleged criminal acts also involved Australians, the report states. A section describes allegations that two boys suspected of being Taliban sympathisers "had their throats slit ... the bodies were bagged and thrown into a nearby river".

"It was impressed on me this was not an isolated incident," the briefing states.

"What was really concerning was everyone knew which SF units, squadrons and patrols and under which commanders most of the killings were perpetrated. The same names would pop up with remarkable frequency," Dr Crompvoets wrote.

The finding that the same small number of special forces figures feature in many of the war-crime allegations was repeated in late March by Major-General Adam Findlay, who was then the senior army officer in charge of Australia's special forces. In a private briefing at the SAS headquarters in Perth, he admitted some elite soldiers had been found by the Brereton inquiry to have committed war crimes in Afghanistan and blamed the atrocities on "poor moral leadership".

Dr Crompvoets' briefing to General Campbell in early 2016 was the catalyst for Justice Brereton's four-year war crimes inquiry. General Campbell, who declined an interview request, was told in powerful terms by Dr Crompvoets about the nature of the disclosures she had recorded for him.

"As stories trickle out, and inevitably they will, the legacy of SOF [special operations forces] will perhaps no longer be the fine capability held in such high regard politically and internationally. Rather it will be a story about accountability, trust and blood lust that will stain the organisation for a long time to come," the report handed to General Campbell said.

"Is it a Pandora's box too complex and with too much organisational risk to prise open? I don't know the answers. My hunch, though, is that reputational risk does not stop at SOF and is far greater than even army."

On Tuesday evening, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds gave the strongest indication to date that the federal government supported the release of at least some of the Brereton report.

"To the greatest extent possible, transparency through this process [of the Brereton inquiry] is critical and paramount, as is accountability for all findings of the Afghanistan Inquiry," Ms Reynolds said a statement.

special forces inquiry
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