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Former Australian SAS soldier Braden Chapman speaks out about unlawful killings and war crimes in Afghanistan

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 16/03/2020 Mark Willacy, ABC Investigations and Four Corners

Caution: This article contains graphic details that may be distressing for some readers.

Special Air Service Regiment sandy berets © Commonwealth of Australia Special Air Service Regiment sandy berets They are Australia's elite special forces, the lethal operatives of the Special Air Service Regiment, the SAS.

For years, the secrets about what they did in the valleys, fields and mud villages of Afghanistan have remained hidden.

Until now. 

Former SAS operative Braden Chapman first deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, when the brutal conflict there was in its 11th year.

With a major inquiry soon to report on suspected war crimes, Chapman, who was on many covert missions, has decided to speak out about what he saw.

He said he witnessed soldiers in SAS patrols commit executions in cold blood.

A Four Corners investigation has uncovered a culture of impunity and cover-up within the SAS.

"When you're back at the unit, people would make jokes about the size of the rug that they've swept everything under, and that one day it'll all come out and people are going to be thrown in jail for murder or anything else that they've done," Chapman said.

Attached to 3 Squadron SAS as a signals intelligence officer, Chapman's mission was to track Taliban targets.

He said there was a "buzz of elitism" being part of the SAS.

"It is the best thing you could do for your career to go to that unit, especially when you're a lower rank and you're actually gonna get to do a lot of hands-on stuff." 

But he was soon shocked at the behaviour of some of his comrades. 

"They're going to look back and see that we were the guys in there murdering people, and invading, and not there to do something that is honourable," he said.

'Almost like target practice'

In May 2012, Chapman was on patrol with 3 Squadron SAS in a village.

The unit was moving towards a target building, when they saw an Afghan man leave the area.

"When we got to within maybe 20 to 30 metres away and he saw us, he quickly grabbed his phone from his pocket and he threw it. And at that stage he stopped. He put his hands up just like that, then just stood there," Chapman said.

"As we got closer to him, the soldier then just fired and hit him twice in the chest and then shot him through the head as he walked past him."

Chapman said the soldier was an experienced member of 3 Squadron SAS.

"I was only 5 to 10 metres behind him at the time," he said.

"The visual image to me was, the guy had his hands up and then it was almost like target practice for that soldier."

Chapman was ordered to go through the dead Afghan man's pockets.

Another Australian patrol with an assault dog then arrived at the scene.

3 Squadron SAS soldiers during deployment in Afghanistan in 2012.

"It [the dog] actually came and started chewing on the head of the man who'd been shot. And I remember looking to the dog handler and saying, 'Can you get this thing away from it,' because it was pretty gruesome," Chapman said.

"And he's just like, 'Oh, let him have a taste.'"

Chapman said the killing by his fellow SAS patrol member disturbed him greatly.

"In my books, it's murder."

Just days later the helmet camera of another SAS operator captured members of 3 Squadron discussing the soldier who had killed the Afghan man with his hands up. 

"F***ing bulls**t. Not happy with it."

"[The soldier is] a brother, but, 'Bash who I want. Shoot at whoever. Kill a kid. Oh well, just keep shooting c***s.'"

The soldier who shot the man is still serving in the special forces.

'Straight-up execution'

During the same month, a 3 Squadron SAS patrol was searching for an insurgent bombmaker when another unlawful killing took place.

The patrol's dog handler and another SAS soldier, who Four Corners has called Soldier C, were headed towards a mud compound when a young Afghan man in his 20s was spotted in a wheat field by one of the Black Hawk helicopters ahead.

What happened next was captured on a helmet camera. 

Soldier C aims his assault rifle at the Afghan man.

The man is cowering on the ground and appears to only have a set of red prayer beads in his right hand.

Soldier C turns to the dog handler and asks: "You want me to drop this c***?"

The dog handler tells him to ask the patrol commander.

Soldier C then asks the same question twice to the patrol commander, whose response is inaudible on the video.

Within seconds, Soldier C squeezes the trigger and the bullet tears into the Afghan man on the ground.

The Australian shoots him twice more and then walks off.

Chapman was not aware of this shooting until Four Corners showed him the video, but knows the identity of the soldiers involved.

"He's asked someone of a superior rank what he should do. But it comes down to the soldier pulling the trigger. It's a straight-up execution."

The killing of the civilian, identified as Dad Mohammad, was later investigated by the Australian Defence Force (ADF), after Afghan tribal elders complained.

Soldier C told ADF investigators he had killed the Afghan man because he had been seen with a radio.

He also said he shot the young man from 15 to 20 metres away, in self-defence.

But the video shows he was fewer than two metres away while the man was lying on the ground.

Dad Mohammad's father Abdul Malik said his son had face wounds. © ABC / Four Corners Dad Mohammad's father Abdul Malik said his son had face wounds. The ADF investigators concluded that Dad Mohammad was lawfully killed because he posed a direct threat to the Australians.

Four Corners can reveal that Soldier C is still serving in the special forces.

As part of a major inquiry into allegations of war crimes within the special forces in Afghanistan, the Inspector-General of the ADF is investigating whether it was common practice to plant radios on bodies.

Chapman said throughout his deployment, there was systematic use of planted weapons and radios to justify killings.

"I did see plenty that were planted," the former soldier said.

"They definitely got them off somebody else and walked over and sat it next to a body."

Chapman said weapons were also planted on dead Afghans.

"Other members of my troop back in Australia, they did use to joke about how the same serial number [of a gun] was in every single photo of a dead Afghani," he said.

"So, you know, inferring that somebody was planting these AK-47s."

'Someone's lied giving evidence'

Another incident that still haunts Braden Chapman involved the death of an elderly Afghan man, Haji Sardar, during a raid on the village of Sarkhume in mid-March 2012.

Chapman is the only Australian witness to speak publicly about what happened to Haji Sardar.

He said Haji Sardar was initially shot in the leg by the SAS-led patrol.

An Australian medic helped patch up the wound, which was not life-threatening.

A senior SAS soldier then took the injured man away.

"Some time later he came back and our medic asked him, 'What happened, where is he?' Because he'd worked on him, he [the medic] considered him his patient. And then he [the soldier] just...shook his head and said, 'He didn't make it.'"

Chapman said the SAS medic was upset, because he believed the man had been killed.

"He was just saying that the man, he was fine. There was no way he would have died, and he knew that the soldier had killed him," he said.

After complaints by villagers, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) found Haji Sardar had been beaten to death by an Australian soldier.

"Haji Sardar was first injured and then taken away for investigation and died as a result of torture," said AIHRC chairwoman Shaharzad Akbar.

AIHRC chairwoman Shaharzad Akbar and Haji Sardar after he was killed.

Australian Defence Force investigators later determined that Haji Sardar had been carrying a weapon and that his killing was lawful.

AIHRC was told by villagers that Haji Sardar was an unarmed civilian.

"I'd say that someone's lied giving evidence because there's no way that you can justify an execution," Chapman said.

Four Corners has obtained hours of footage shot by members of 3 Squadron SAS during the unit's 2012 rotation through Afghanistan.

It shows the destruction of buildings, motorbikes and the shooting of dogs.

"We try and say that we're there to help and the Taliban are bad. But if we go in and we start destroying infrastructure or destroying their private vehicles and burning down their homes it doesn't really send the right message," Chapman said.

"They're going to run straight back to the Taliban, who usually are not doing that."

Potential for war crimes charges

Braden Chapman's squadron and its time in Afghanistan in 2012 are of key interest to the Inspector-General's investigation.

Glenn Kolomeitz, a former special operations lawyer for the ADF in Afghanistan, said the special forces were highly trained in the rules of war.

"These guys were given training throughout their work," he said.

"[There's] no excuse in terms of the training as provided and the understanding, absolutely."

Mr Kolomeitz said he believed there was potential for charges to be laid under the war crime murder provisions of the Commonwealth criminal code.

"We have obligations at international law, domestic law, and indeed moral obligations, to not ignore these sorts of allegations," he said.

3 Squadron SAS successfully captured many targets during its deployment in 2012.

Chapman said the unlawful killings he witnessed may constitute war crimes, and he believes the soldiers responsible deserve to go to jail.

"I just want the truth to come out, and people who did commit crimes to be held accountable," he said.

He said he also believed officers who ran the special forces should wear some of the blame.

"It is a culture issue as well, and these incidents that are happening would filter through to them. They know what’s going on over there," he said.

Chapman said a strict code of silence was observed by members of the regiment.

He said he learned this early on in his deployment when talking with one of the more experienced operators.

"He said to me, 'I hope you're ready and prepared for this deployment because you need to make sure that you're OK with me putting a gun to someone's head and pulling the trigger. Because I don't want to read about it in 10 or so years.'"

Chapman said that soldier was the one who later dragged the wounded Haji Sardar away before he was found allegedly beaten to death.

For Chapman, speaking out is his chance to atone for staying silent about what he witnessed in Afghanistan.

He believes even if he had made a complaint at the time, it would have gone "nowhere".

"I didn't break any rules of engagement," he said.

"But I feel now that even if it had ruined my career back then, I probably should have made that complaint.

"It's definitely affected me. You try to look back at your career, try and be proud of it, but then you've got all these incidents. You see yourself as part of the bad guys."

Defence did not answer Four Corners' questions about particular incidents involving the killing of Afghans.

In a statement, it said the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force was investigating "whether there is any substance to rumour and allegations" about possible war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.

It said the inquiry was ongoing. 

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