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Profile: Special Air Service (SAS)

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Special Air Service (SAS) was a participant or observer in the following events:

Fearing a diplomatic incident, CIA and other US agents rarely venture into Afghanistan. Generally speaking, soldiers from the British elite Special Air Service (SAS) work with and train the mujaheddin instead. The SAS provides weapons training in Afghanistan until 1982 when Russian soldiers find the passports of two British instructors in a training camp. After that, mujaheddin are trained in secret camps in remote parts of Scotland. When the US decides to supply Stinger missiles to the mujaheddin in 1986, it is the SAS who provide the training in how to use them (see September 1986). But the SAS is taking orders from the CIA. The CIA also indirectly gives weapons to Osama bin Laden and other mujaheddin leaders. One former US intelligence official will say in 1999, “[US agents] armed [bin Laden’s] men by letting him pay rock-bottom prices for basic weapons.” But this person notes the relationship will later prove to be embarrassing to bin Laden and the CIA. “Of course it’s not something they want to talk about.” (Reeve 1999, pp. 168)

Mujaheddin preparing to fire a stinger missile.Mujaheddin preparing to fire a stinger missile. [Source: National Geographic]Worried that the Soviets are winning the war in Afghanistan, the US decides to train and arm the mujaheddin with Stinger missiles. The Soviets are forced to stop using the attack helicopters that were being used to devastating effect. Some claim the Stingers turn the tide of the war and lead directly to Soviet withdrawal. Now the mujaheddin are better trained and armed than ever before. (Coll 2004, pp. 11, 149-51; Clarke 2004, pp. 48-50) The British Special Air Service (SAS) train the mujaheddin in how to use the Stingers (see 1980-1989).

SAS soldiers fighting for Qala-i-Janghi fortress.SAS soldiers fighting for Qala-i-Janghi fortress. [Source: CNN/House of War]Eight British Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers dressed in civilian clothes arrive at the Qala-i-Janghi fortress in Land Rovers after receiving orders from US Central Command in Florida. They position themselves on the perimeter of the fortress and shoot over the walls at the prisoners inside who are armed with thirty guns, two anti-tank guns, and two grenade launchers. “They pulled up in two long-range desert patrol vehicles,” one witness tells reporters. “They were clearly British and not American. They have been leading the firing at the Taliban’s positions. You can tell they are special forces because their firing is more disciplined: they use single shots rather than bursts.” Some time later, six uniformed American Special Forces officers arrive, positioning themselves in the southwest corner of the fort to prevent any Taliban prisoners from fleeing the compound. (Harding 11/27/2001; August 11/28/2001; BBC 12/1/2001)

British special forces soldiers from the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Service (SBS) pursue Osama bin Laden as he flees the battle of Tora Bora (see November 16, 2001 and December 5-17, 2001). According to author Michael Smith, at one point they are “20 minutes” behind bin Laden, but they are “pulled off to allow US troops to go in for the kill.” However, it takes hours for the Americans to arrive, by which time bin Laden has escaped. (Smith 2/12/2007)

Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter casts doubt on Salman Pak’s characterization as a terrorist training facility (see April 6, 2003), in an August 2002 interview later included in his book War on Iraq. Ritter says in part, “Iraqi defectors have been talking lately about the training camp at Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. They say there’s a Boeing aircraft there. That’s not true. There’s an Antonov aircraft of Russian manufacture. They say there are railroad mock-ups, bus mock-ups, buildings, and so on. These are all things you’d find in a hostage rescue training camp, which is what this camp was when it was built in the mid-1980s with British intelligence supervision. In fact, British SAS special operations forces were sent to help train the Iraqis in hostage rescue techniques. Any nation with a national airline and that is under attack from terrorists—and Iraq was, from Iran and Syria at the time would need this capability. Iraq operated Salman Pak as a hostage rescue training facility up until 1992. In 1992, because Iraq no longer had a functioning airline, and because their railroad system was inoperative, Iraq turned the facility over to the Iraqi Intelligence service, particularly the Department of External Threats. These are documented facts coming out of multiple sources from a variety of different countries. The Department of External Threats was created to deal with Kurdistan, in particular, the infusion of Islamic fundamentalist elements from Iran into Kurdistan. So, rather than being a camp dedicated to train Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, it was a camp dedicated to train Iraq to deal with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. And they did so. Their number one target was the Islamic Kurdish party, which later grew into [Ansar al-Islam]. Now, Jeff Goldberg claimed in the New Yorker that [Ansar al-Islam] is funded by the Iraqi Intelligence service. But that’s exactly the opposite of reality: the Iraqis have been fighting Ansar for years now. Ansar comes out of Iran and is supported by Iranians. Iraq, as part of their ongoing war against Islamic fundamentalism, created a unit specifically designed to destroy these people. It would be ludicrous for Iraq to support al-Qaeda, either conventionally, as many have claimed, or even worse, to give it weapons of mass destruction…” (Ritter and Pitt 9/25/2002)

The US and Britain send a team to search for the body of Osama bin Laden in the rubble of the Pakistani town of Balakot, according to the British Sunday Express newspaper. The al-Qaeda leader is thought to have been buried there following a recent earthquake. The British component comprises members of the foreign intelligence service MI6 and the SAS Special Forces unit; the Americans are US Special Forces. The team, whose deployment is approved by President Bush, is flown in from Afghanistan equipped with imagery and eavesdropping technology, high-tech weapons systems, and linguists. The search is motivated by the fact that, days before the earthquake happened, an American satellite spotted an al-Qaeda training camp in a nearby area and obtained high-resolution close-ups. A senior intelligence officer in Washington says: “One of those photos bore a remarkable resemblance to bin Laden. His face looked thinner, which is in keeping with our reports that his kidney condition has worsened.” This is a reference to the rumor that bin Laden has kidney problems (see November 23, 1996). The Sunday Express will report: “In recent weeks, both MI6 and the CIA have established that bin Laden has received a portable kidney dialysis machine from China but it requires electricity to power it. Drones, unmanned aircraft that US Special Forces launched from Afghanistan last week, have reported that the area along the border has lost all power supplies.” However, the state of bin Laden’s kidneys will still be shrouded in mystery two years later (see Late 2007). According to the report, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has agreed to keep other rescue teams working to locate survivors away from the border area where the search for bin Laden is concentrated. (Daily Times (Lahore) 10/20/2005) There are no reports that the search is a success. A man thought to be bin Laden will continue to release audio messages (see, for example, January 19, 2006).


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