Current and former Australian special forces soldiers are operating an Instagram account mocking allegations of war crimes allegedly committed by their comrades in Afghanistan.
The public Instagram account, titled State Sanctioned Violence, is also selling merchandise, including bumper stickers reading “Make Diggers Violent Again” and “Taliban Tears”, and T-shirts with “High Velocity Atrocities” emblazoned on them.
The account, which has amassed thousands of followers, is littered with crude memes and jokes that make light of killings that occurred during combat.
The ABC has been told that the account is operated mainly by one former and one serving special forces soldier. Those men have not responded to questions from ABC Investigations. Other content, such as photographs, is supplied by former and serving special forces.
The account states it is operated by: “A group of current & former Aussie Soldiers keeping the legacy of the boys we lost alive.”
One video, which includes a mock advisory warning normally used on ABC broadcasts, features a mash-up of aerial footage of people being killed by missiles, gun fire and drone strikes, while rap music plays in the background.
Another photo features text reading: “I’ve got two command priorities this year: proxy wars and smashing whores.”
Some posts trivialise an ABC Four Corners story from earlier this year, which showed footage of an Australian SAS trooper allegedly murdering an unarmed Afghan in a field, while others joke about killing Afghan children, making lampshades out of the skins of dead Taliban and hacking off the ears of village elders.
Another video compilation of footage apparently taken from an Australian special forces soldier’s helmet cam is captioned: “Three people can keep a secret but only when two of them are dead.”
Merchandise from the State Sanctioned Violence page is sold through a separate online shop, which requires a password for entry.
The account has posted photos of the ‘Make Diggers Violent Again’ stickers seemingly taken at Canberra’s Royal Military College in Duntroon, as well as next to a handgun and bullets and Donald Trump paraphernalia.
The admins of the State Sanctioned Violence account have also hinted at a forthcoming podcast.
Account mocks MP Hastie
The ABC has been told that the Instagram account, which has been pulled down and put back up a number of times, has caused significant concern within the upper echelons of the Australian Defence Force because of its tone and content.
The account has laid bare a growing rift between the rank and file of Australia’s special forces and the chain of command, ahead of an inquiry report into alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces troops in Afghanistan.
In a statement, Defence initially said it knew about the State Sanctioned Violence account but said it was “not aware of any connection” between serving Australian Defence Force personnel and the content being posted on the account.
When the ABC provided the name of the serving soldier allegedly linked to the account, Defence responded:
“If Defence personnel are identified as having posted inappropriate material, they will be investigated and held accountable for contravening Defence policy.”
The Instagram account largely comprises biographies of dead and living Australian servicemen who served overseas in various wars, but predominantly special forces personnel who served in Afghanistan. The biographies are laced with twisted humour and jokes about killing Afghans.
One post pokes fun at an incident in which an SAS trooper severed the hands of dead Taliban in order to take them back to base for identification. The post mocks federal Liberal MP and former SAS officer Andrew Hastie, who was in command when the incident occurred and immediately reported it up the chain of command.
“‘Many hands make light work’ — Andrew Hastie MP,” the post reads.
Another post mocks former Army Major General John Cantwell, who has spoken openly about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and his horror at witnessing Coalition troops burying Iraqi soldiers alive when he was on exchange with the British Army in the first Gulf War.
The account gives a “shout out” to a supposed mole who is feeding its creators information from within the ADF’s “social media incident team”.
Tension in special forces at boiling point
It has become clear to current and former special forces troops over the last few months that the inquiry conducted by Justice Paul Brereton has turned up significant evidence pointing to alleged war crimes.
There is growing concern among the rank-and-file ADF members that lower-ranked diggers will be held accountable for the alleged crimes and officers and the chain of command will escape scrutiny.
A threat was allegedly made earlier this year against the family of Justice Brereton, the NSW Supreme Court judge and Army Reserve Major General, who is conducting the long-running inquiry on behalf of the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force.
Australian Defence Force investigators and police conducted raids earlier this year and are still carrying out investigations in relation to the alleged threat and other materials found during the raids.
Defence said it was not appropriate to discuss whether the State Sanctioned Violence account was linked to the alleged threat made against Justice Brereton’s family, as New South Wales police are still investigating the incident.
The people running the Instagram account have reflected these fears, posting last month: “If a member is convicted of a war crime, their [officer commanding] and [commanding officer] at the time of the incident should be stripped of any medals obtained on that deployment and reduced in rank. Then we would see less officers saying ‘I support the investigation/people need to be held accountable.'”
The operators of the account also allude to the concerns within the Defence hierarchy about the account and appear to threaten retribution if the ADF brass allow low-level diggers to bear the brunt of any consequences from the current inquiry.
Associate Professor Ben Wadham, a military criminologist from Flinders University, told the ABC that the account reflected well-founded fears about low-ranked diggers being held to account while officers walked free.
“There’s a sense there that that when an investigation happens, when civil society and military clash or civil society, state and military clash, that it’s the diggers that wear the brunt. It’s a fair assessment,” Dr Wadham said.
“When I look at the other issues around misconduct in the ADF over the last 30 years, it’s always blamed on the bad apple, or the bad orchard, the bad pocket of soldiers.
“We never hear about command taking accountability.”
Dr Wadham said the account was a stark pointer to the disconnect that some members of Australia’s special forces feel from civil society.
“It doesn’t justify or excuse anything, of course, but it’s a story that tells us that soldiers see themselves as not being particularly understood by the rest of Australia. It’s a job that is unforgiving and that they have to make the rules up as they go to survive,” Dr Wadham said.
Meanwhile, a video understood to be circulating on military social media pages uses an edited version of the recently released trailer for the upcoming Batman film to convey a similar message. A logo for “Australian Defence Force Investigative Service” is repeatedly punched in the face by Robert Pattinson’s Batman, before a graphic reading “Listen To Your Troops” appears. The video references memes used on accounts associated with the State Sanctioned Violence page.
Page littered with memes, jokes and killings
A separate, personal profile from a former special forces soldier who the ABC understands to be behind the State Sanctioned Violence account features similarly provocative and at times graphic content. The ABC has chosen not to name the solider.
A recent post on the public account features a photo of a crass message scribbled on a rocket followed by a second photo of a bloodied and seemingly headless corpse.
One post splices a film clip by rapper Drake with video of the soldier, seemingly on duty, mimicking the singer, walking alongside a driverless military vehicle while toting his service weapon. Other posts include hashtags like #slaycation and photos of captured ISIS paraphernalia alongside comments such as “‘Sometimes you gotta let the wolves hunt’ — Mr Tony Abbott, 2014.”
Both the soldier’s profile and the State Sanctioned Violence account have several thousand followers and attract regular approving and admiring comments from Australian and international users, many of whom appear to also be involved in the armed forces.
While the accounts seem aimed at reinforcing and celebrating a particular culture within special forces, the tenor of the posts is at times reminiscent of the sort of content spread throughout alt-right online communities.
John Coyne from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has for decades investigated links between the military and far-right groups.
He said the “disturbing” posts were not necessarily reflective of genuine extremist far-right tendencies, but they nonetheless represented a “vulnerability” for the Australian Defence Force.
“The ADF and Defence would be worried about this, and should be worried about it, because it’s a spark in a tinderbox,” said Dr Coyne, who heads up ASPI’s Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement Program and is a former serving soldier himself.
“You’ve got some allegedly ex-members of the ADF saying some pretty horrendous things about violence etc, and you would argue that those people are susceptible to being radicalised themselves, if they haven’t already been so, to a more right-wing extremist perspective.
“I think that is a concern both for Defence and for the wider public.”
In a statement, Defence said its personnel would be held “accountable” if they contravened its policies.
“Furthermore, Defence personnel found to be associated with extremist ideologies will be investigated and may face administrative sanctions. Sanctions range from counselling through to termination of employment.”