Afghanistan killings an 'insider attack', coroner rules

Corporals David O'Connor and Channing Day The inquest investigated the deaths of Cpl David O'Connor and Cpl Channing Day

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Two UK military personnel shot dead in Afghanistan were unlawfully killed in an "insider attack", a coroner has ruled.

Northern Irish medic Cpl Channing Day, and Cpl David O'Connor, of 40 Commando, from Hampshire, died after a gun battle in Helmand province last year.

An Afghan policeman had fired first, before being killed, with a second attacker's involvement "likely", found Oxfordshire coroner Darren Salter.

The motive remained unclear, he added.

In evidence to Oxford Coroner's Court, marines described how they came under fire in October 2012 as they escorted Cpl Day to teach first aid to Afghan police.

As the group reached a checkpoint near the village of Char Kutsa, in the Nahr-e Saraj district, Marine Rees said he spotted two men walking towards the mosque, one of whom was carrying a loaded rifle with tape around it.

In a statement that was read out in court, Marine Rees said he had greeted the pair in Pashtu but received no reply.

He described how moments later a lot of dirt was churned up as one of the Afghan men, whom he said was under 18 and not wearing a uniform, began firing on automatic in three- or four-second bursts.

Analysis

The deaths of Channing Day and David O'Connor were among six "insider attacks" on British troops by Afghan police or soldiers between September last year and January this year.

Both were shot dead by at least one Afghan policeman. He may not have been dressed in police uniform that day, but the patrol recognised him as a policeman they knew and had come across before.

However, it is not clear whether the attack was long-planned or spontaneous, perhaps in response to a perceived slight - either that afternoon as the patrol passed by, or a misunderstanding on another day - so the Day and O'Connor families may never know what motivated the killing.

British forces have taken many measures to mitigate the risk of insider attacks in Afghanistan, such as the use of "guardian angels" - troops who remain armed and on guard, even inside Afghan or shared bases.

Today, the threat of such attacks is slightly lower, as most British bases across Helmand have shut down. Most personnel are now at Camp Bastion and a much smaller number still out training and mentoring Afghan forces.

As the man moved towards a wall, Marine Rees fired three shots back at him and then there were rounds "hitting the wall and trees around us", he added.

Another unnamed marine said the gunman "sprayed his weapon from side to side in our general direction".

After a comrade called that one of them had been hit, the marine said in his statement that he fired about 20 rounds at the gunman who was 15ft (4.6m) away.

"It all happened very quickly," he said, and was over in a couple of minutes.

Cpl Philip Benford, who was in command of the group of eight including Cpl Day and Cpl O'Connor, told the inquest he was positive there had been two gunmen.

The Afghan man left dead after the gun battle, with the taped rifle next to him, was dressed differently to a gunman Cpl Benford had seen, he said.

"The shots I saw - I distinctly remember - were from a guy with a dark overall and a light blue undergarment, which was very different from the garment which I passed as I was clearing the area," he said.

Cpl Benford said that when Afghan Uniformed Police officers had arrived at the scene, they had seemed casual and "at ease", "like they knew what was going on".

Forensic evidence

Cpl Nick Brown said he had seen the man carrying an AK-47, with distinctive bright-coloured tape wrapped around it, a number of times in the weeks before the attack.

The man - whose name was Naqib - was usually friendly and they would often communicate in broken English or Pashtu, Cpl Brown added.

Cpl Brown also told the inquest Naqib was known to be a drug user and seemed "a bit vacant" when he had seen him earlier on the day of the attack.

Female UK military personnel killed in Afghanistan

  • Cpl Sarah Bryant was the first female British soldier killed in Afghanistan. Her death was later ruled unlawful by a coroner
  • Bomb disposal expert Capt Lisa Head became the second to die after an explosion while she was clearing roadside bombs
  • Cpl Day's death was the third and last to date of a female soldier during the UK's involvement in the conflict

Source: Ministry of Defence

A forensic scientist gave evidence that the weapon strapped with bright-coloured tape was not the rifle used to kill Cpl Day or Cpl O'Connor.

Mr Salter concluded that Cpl Day and Cpl O'Connor had been unlawfully killed while on active service.

"First of all, to the extent that there was any doubt before, this was, and should be termed as, an insider attack," he said.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident on 24 October last year, Afghan police claimed that both UK personnel had been shot by their own comrades. But this claim was later dismissed by Nato specialists and Afghan government representatives.

Referring to the man identified as Naqib, Mr Salter said: "He was a known identified member of the Afghan Uniformed Police and he was the person responsible for the inside attack.

"In terms of his motive, that is always going to involve some speculation, of course, because he is deceased."

The coroner added: "It appears in evidence, particularly in evidence from the persons that were present, that it was this individual who fired the shots on Cpl Day and Cpl O'Connor before he was killed.

"It seems likely that there was a second attacker."

Cpl Day, 25, who was from Comber in County Down, joined the Army in 2005 and was deployed to Afghanistan less than a month before she became the UK's third female soldier to be killed there since 2001.

Cpl O'Connor, 27, had been in Afghanistan since the end of the previous month and was serving as a section commander in the acting rank of corporal.

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