An SAS squadron whose existence has never been confirmed has been carrying out intelligence work in African countries with whom Australia has never been at war, it's been reported.
Victorian-based SAS 4 Squadron has been operating at large in Africa, raising concerns within the military and intelligence community about work that is normally carried out by spies, Fairfax newspapers say.
The report says troopers from the secretive squadron have mounted dozens of operations over the past year in nations including Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya, putting the special forces unit at the brink of Australian and international law.
The missions are believed to involve terrorism intelligence gathering - amid concerns about the threat posed by Somalia-based terror group al-Shabab - and to be aimed at developing rescue strategies for evacuating trapped Australian civilians.
The Fairfax report says ASIO is concerned a small group within Australia's Somali community is funding the terror organisation.
It says the 4 Squadron troopers have also explored landing sites for possible military interventions and assessed local politics.
The intelligence gathered by the secret operations flows into databases used by the US and its allies.
But there are concerns about such operations being carried out in countries with whom Australia is not at war and about the level of legal protection and existence of contingency plans in the event they are captured, the Fairfax report says.
Australian National University professor Hugh White, a former deputy secretary of Defence, said such operations deprived soldiers of their legal protections.