Human rights advocates and legal experts are raising alarms in the wake of Monday's admission by Prime Minister David Cameron that missiles fired from a UK-operated drone were used to assassinate two British nationals the government claims were fighting on behalf of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Syria several weeks ago.
"Make no mistake – what we are seeing is the failed U.S. model of secret strikes being copied wholesale by the British government." —Kat Craig, Reprieve
Though the United States has been widely criticized for the extrajudicial killing of its citizens on foreign soil in recent years, the killing of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin during an airstrike near the Syrian city of Raqqa on August 21 is the first instance in which the UK has knowingly (or admittedly) executed its own citizens in the course of what it calls an "anti-terrorism" overseas operation.
As the Guardian's Ewen MacAskill reports, last month's "attack was carried out by a Reaper drone flown from a base in the Middle East but controlled by a British crew either operating at RAF Waddington or from the US air base at Creech in Nevada. The Ministry of Defence never confirms the location."
Addressing Parliament on Monday, Cameron justified the attack by saying there "was no alternative" to the airstrike and that the men targeted "were involved in actively recruiting [ISIS] sympathizers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high profile public commemorations, including those taking place this Summer." Cameron told Parliament the "intention" of the two men was "the murder of British citizens" which was why "on this occasion we ourselves took action."
Putting the admission in context, MacAskill adds:
The US has been carrying out drone attacks against its own citizens for more than a decade, the most controversial target of which was Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida preacher, in Yemen in 2011. He was killed by a US Hellfire missile fired by a drone controlled by the CIA. Barack Obama has since faced repeated questions about the constitutionality of such killings, with accusations that the U.S. is engaged in extrajudicial assassinations.
The UK has no such constitution protecting individual citizens. But the same questions arise. Cameron’s argument to counter these questions is that Khan was promoting attacks in the UK so the act was in self-defence. As a further elaboration, the argument runs that it is near impossible to arrest him in the Syrian battlefield and he is not likely to return voluntarily to the UK: killing him was the only option.
The political argument is over mission creep. Having no parliamentary authority to expand airstrikes to Syria, the UK was initially restricted to surveillance flights over the country. Earlier this year, there was the revelation that RAF crews embedded with the US were taking part in air strikes.
According to MacAskill's reporting, the attack was "against a particular individual: Khan" and "was not aimed at Amin: it was just his misfortune he was in the vehicle with him. A third victim killed in the attack was also a member of ISIS but was not British."
Cameron argued the attack was "entirely legal" and that the government was exercising its "right to self-defense" by ordering the strike.
Phillipe Sands QC, professor of law at University College London, however, told the BBC's Today program that Cameron's line of argument represented a "new direction" for the UK, which had previously treated cases like this as matters for criminal rather than international law. Now, Sands explained, the "warlike paradigm" of the U.S. military has been adopted by Cameron's Conservative-led government and the Royal Air Force (RAF). "Planning a future attack at some far away place has never been good enough in international law on the use of self-defense," Sands said. "It has to be imminent and on that we need the evidence."
Writing for the UK-based advocacy group Drone Wars, Chris Cole called the revelations "shocking" and said serious questions remain about the legality of the operation, both under British and international law. As Cole points out:
Under international law the legality of a targeted killing depends in part on the imminent nature of the threat. What is not clear from what the PM said is how imminent the threat from Reyaad Khan was and whether that threat was to people in the UK or elsewhere. Despite many suggestions that there is no legal barrier to military operations against ISIS in Syria many legal experts suggest otherwise.
While the news is shocking, at the same time it is perhaps not surprising. David Cameron has increasingly argued over the past few months of the need to ‘tackle’ ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq. And as we revealed last month, the number of British drone flights within Syria has jumped from 11% in January 2015 to 40% in June 2015.
While the PM conceded that parliament should authorise any expansion of the use of British military force from Iraq to Syria, just six weeks after the parliamentary vote in September 2014, British drones crossed the border into Syria. The PM’s spokesperson at the time insisted that such flights did not amount to ‘military action’ but also insisted that in an emergency situation, Cameron would authorise the drones to launch strikes. How much of an emergency situation or imminent threat Reyaad Khan was when he was struck is at this stage unclear and should now be the centre of a detailed investigation into this strike.
In a statement released by Reprieve, Kat Craig, legal director for the human rights group's Abuses in Counter-Terrorism program, characterized the development as deeply troubling — especially as it appears to be replicating the U.S. "kill list" model operated by President Obama.
"Make no mistake," said Craig, "what we are seeing is the failed U.S. model of secret strikes being copied wholesale by the British government. Ministers repeatedly promised Parliament and the public that there would be no military operations in Syria without Parliamentary approval. The fact that David Cameron has bypassed Parliament to commit these covert strikes is deeply worrying – as is his refusal to share what legal advice he was given."
Despite Cameron's public defense of the program, Craig argued that British citizens and lawmakers should be worried about the secrecy surrounding the government's claims, especially at a time, she says, "when numerous American officials have said their own global drone killing policy has failed. As US strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have shown, this level of secrecy around drone killing is impractical and untenable – not least because mistakes are easily made, and can have devastating human consequences. On a decision of this importance, it’s not enough for the Prime Minister just to assert he was advised it was legal – Parliament and the public need to see that advice."
Coming as it does amid a renewed global focus on the Syrian refugee crisis resulting from the nation's ongoing civil war, Leanne Wood, head of the social-democratic Plaid Cymru party in Wales, expressed her concern about the drone attack in the context of the wider humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the region.
"There is a real danger now that the refugee crisis will be exploited as an excuse for launching a bombing campaign in Syria," Wood warned. "Resorting to kneejerk military action, especially with no clear exit strategy is tantamount to pouring fuel on the fire. The U.S. has been launching airstrikes for many months to little effect. Do they have any idea how many civilians have been killed by these actions?"
And concluded, "Stepping up this assault will only serve to intensify the violence, destroy what little infrastructure Syria has left, and more than likely displace far more people."