In a shocking statement made in the House of Commons this afternoon Prime Minster David Cameron announced that for the first time a British citizen, Reyaad Khan, has been targeted for assassination by a British drone. A second Briton, Ruhul Amin and a third unknown man were also killed in the strike. Cameron told the House:
Today I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision air strike carried out on 21st August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqah in Syria.
In addition to Reyaad Khan who was the target of the strike, two ISIL associates were also killed, one of whom – Ruhul Amin, has been identified as a UK national. They were ISIL fighters and I can confirm there were no civilian casualties.
The deaths of these two British men in a British drone strike comes just days after another British citizen, Junaid Hussain was reported killed in a US drone strike in Syria.
Cameron insisted that the targeted killing was legal, arguing that it was carried out under the inherent right of self-defence. He stated:
I am clear that the action we took was entirely lawful. The Attorney General was consulted and was clear there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law.
We were exercising the UK’s inherent right to self-defence. There was clear evidence of the individuals in question planning and directing armed attacks against the UK. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the UK and our allies. And in the prevailing circumstances in Syria, the airstrike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attacks planned and directed by this individual.
So it was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK.
The United Nations Charter requires members to inform the President of the Security Council of activity conducted in self-defence. And Today the UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations is writing to the President of the Security Council to do just that.
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.