British marines who fought alongside Alexander Blackman were out of control and “gung-ho”, abusing Afghan citizens, treating local allies with contempt and showing little regard for the rules of engagement, a former senior officer has claimed.
In an extraordinary attack on his former comrades, Oliver Lee, who was the youngest marine colonel since the second world war, said it was wrong to treat Blackman as a “single rotten apple”.
He said some marines operating in Helmand in 2011 were guilty of dehumanising the enemy, a state of mind that in the past had led to atrocities such as the in Vietnam, and had been too aggressive when they were supposed to be winning hearts and minds.
Lee, who was briefly Blackman’s commanding officer and resigned his commission over the case, said his seniors ignored him when he raised concerns. Later, when details of the Blackman killing emerged, Lee claimed, the marine top brass tried to suppress the truth.
Judges quash UK marine Alexander Blackman's murder conviction
Lee made his allegations in a witness statement .
A brief extract of the statement appeared in Blackman’s skeleton argument to the appeal, which the court has allowed to be made available to the media. In that extract Lee was highly critical of the leadership of two named commanders. Lee claimed: “The leadership and oversight of Sgt Blackman by his commanders Lt Col [Ewen] Murchison and Maj [Aaron] Fisher was shockingly bad, and directly causal to Sgt Blackman’s conduct.”
During the appeal hearing in open court, Blackman’s QC Jonathan Goldberg claimed that Murchison, who was Blackman’s commanding officer for the vast majority of the six-month tour, only visited the sergeant’s command post once or twice, leaving him feeling isolated.
Murchison was the commanding officer in charge of the Nad-e-Ali (North) sector of Helmand. Fisher was commander of J Company, of which Blackman was a member.
The court refused to release the document but the Guardian has seen a copy.
In the statement, Lee said: “Sgt Blackman was not an individual anomaly or a single rotten apple in the basket. Rather those senior to him failed him.”
Lee added: “His moral resources were depleted in a way that should not have occurred if his commanders had been looking after him better.”
The witness statement analyses the situation in Helmand when Blackman shot a wounded Taliban fighter.
Lee explained that the focus of the , which took place between March and October 2011, was not supposed to be on “conventional war fighting” but on conducting a “mature counter-insurgency operation”. The UK was planning to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and the idea was to protect the local people to defeat the insurgents, rather than the other way around, he said.
“Injudicious” use of force was likely to be counterproductive by encouraging more people to join the Taliban, he said, and the highest quality of leadership was needed to make sure the marines maintained their “moral compasses”.
But Lee claimed 42 Commando’s J Company was guilty of abuse and mistreatment of Afghan nationals. He did not spell out what the abuse was except for saying that on one occasion, after it had lost two popular marines, J Company men kicked a farmer.
On another occasion, J Company, which consisted of about 200 marines, prepared a compensation claim for a group of Afghans with little English. They were told to present it to another company – W. When a W Company marine opened the claim it simply read: “I am a gay cunt.”
Lee said J Company was employing a “very high level of violence” through the heavy use of mortar bombs when minimum force was meant to be the order of the day. He claimed a senior officer who visited J Company described it as “psychologically defeated, bereft of ideas, unpredictable and dangerous”.
In September 2011, eight days before the Blackman killing, Lee became commanding officer of J Company because of a reorganisation. By that time, he said it was “completely out of control”.
When he visited J Company’s headquarters on 12 September 2011 – three days before the Blackman incident – he found a “company in disarray in numerous respects”. He said: “Having been on operations many times in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Iraq and I class myself as operationally experienced and yet I had never seen anything as poor as J Company.”
On his arrival, there was “no sensible protection on the gate”, he said. He added: “On entering the base, I found that it had a feral and squalid air about it. The men in the base were disrespectful, surly, dressed incorrectly and there was litter and rubbish everywhere.” An anti-tank weapon was emblazoned with the graffiti “fuck Coin” – an acronym for counter-insurgency.
Lee did not confine his criticism to J Company. He accused a second company of dehumanising the local people. He also said it showed “scant regard” for the rules of engagement.
He said one marine officer also based in the area carried a sniper rifle that had belonged to a marine killed in action. Lee said: “It speaks of an officer having a gung-ho focus on personally delivered violence rather than leadership and sophistication. To carry the weapon of a dead subordinate was, I judged, an emotive and provocative affectation that risked goading others more junior to avenge [the] death.”
According to Lee, one 42 Commando warrant officer compared the unit’s attitude and approach to Herrick 14 to that of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He said: “The heavy-handed Russian approach to Afghanistan in the 1980s bore little resemblance to what we were under orders to do in 2011.”
Lee said he flagged up his concerns but claimed no action was taken.
What Blackman had done emerged in September 2012 when headcam footage of the incident was discovered. He was found guilty of murder and jailed for life.
Lee said he wanted to explain what had happened in Afghanistan at Blackman’s sentencing hearing but claimed the marines effectively silenced him. He said: “The motive must be to avoid bringing discredit upon the chain of command of the Royal Marines and for it to appear to the world that Sgt Blackman acted in a vacuum.”
Lee, who was a member of 45 Commando, resigned three days after Blackman’s conviction, explaining he believed there had been a “miscarriage of justice that had fatally undermined his faith in the integrity and moral courage of the senior leadership of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines”.
During the appeal in open court, Richard Whittam QC, for the director of service prosecutions, said there was “clear conflict” between Lee and Murchison. They had a different approach and there was a personality clash.
In his skeleton argument, which the court also allowed to be released, Whittam said Murchison did not accept Blackman’s command post was isolated or remote. Murchison did not believe it was right to say Blackman had only minimal contact with the outside world. Reports that Blackman had only limited contact with his commanding officers had been “significantly exaggerated”, Murchison argued.
Murchison recalled meeting Blackman on three occasions and recalled him being quiet and steady. Murchison also said he invested “considerable time and energy into mentoring and engaging with my men and setting the right tone”.
In the same skeleton argument, Whittam said that Fisher reported visiting Blackman’s command post every 10-15 days and saw nothing that caused him to question discipline there. He considered Blackman a safe pair of hands and there was no indication that the deployment was getting to him.
Responding to the claims in Lee’s statement, a Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “The Royal Navy carried out a thorough internal review and we stand by the conduct of all commanders involved. We will study the findings of this case very carefully and will act upon any lessons identified.”
The court martial appeal court judgment flagged up the “significant dispute between Lt Col Lee and Lt Col Murchison as to the level of support provided to CP [command post] Omar, the visits made and the adequacy of the command of Lt Col Murchison and Major Fisher.”
But the judges said they did not need to resolve the conflict between the two men – what was relevant to the appeal was Blackman’s perception that there was a lack of support from Fisher and Murchison.
Lee was in court to see the murder conviction quashed. Outside, he said it had been a “good day and a fair day” but he declined to discuss his witness statement or comment further.