A year and a half ago, in March 2012, Fairfax Media reported that troopers from Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment were conducting clandestine operations in a number of countries in Africa, including Nigeria, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.
Authorised by Defence Minister Stephen Smith in late 2010, the soldiers have, among other things, been assessing border controls, exploring landing sites for possible military interventions and possible escape routes for the evacuation of Australian nationals and military assessments of local politics and security. They are doing this out of uniform and without being accompanied by officers from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, with whom undercover SAS forces are conventionally deployed.
Avoiding either confirming or denying the central issue, Smith resorted to a classic non-denial denial the same day, saying that
"the suggestion ... that somehow we've got Australian Defence Force personnel or SAS personnel operating at large in Africa, rubbing up against the boundaries of the law is just wrong, it's just wrong," he said.
Ben Saul and Hugh White raised the obvious problem of the illegality of ADF members operating in a country with which Australia is not at war, without UNSC authorisation, and apparently without the agreement of the countries concerned. Smith did confirm that he would have knowledge of any such operations, saying that all ADF and ASIS overseas operations are approved by either the National Security Committee of Cabinet or the relevant minister (ie Defence or Foreign Affairs) – but neither confirming nor denying the central claim.
That was a year and a half ago, during which time there has been virtually no discussion of the issue in Australia, and a just a single foreign report. In April of this year, the US website CIA News reported that SASR soldiers had been operating in Tanzania, Mozambique and Somalia – though there has been no subsequent confirmation.
But more than a year after the detailed Fairfax reports, there has been an extraordinary silence surrounding what are on the face of it illegal foreign military operations by ADF personnel. What is the SASR doing in our name in Africa?