British drones and targeted killing: UK follows the lead of the US and Israel

David Cameron announcing drone targeted killing of Reyaard Khan
David Cameron announcing drone targeted killing of Reyaard Khan

Yesterday’s statement from Prime Minister David Cameron that a British drone had targeted and killed a 21 year-old British citizen, Reyaad Khan, outside a situation of armed conflict after he had been put on what amounts to a kill list months earlier is shocking.  Time and again in response to questions about the UK’s drone programme British ministers, defence officials and military officers have distanced themselves from the type of targeted killing undertaken by US drones outside a situation of formal conflict.  ‘It’s something we wouldn’t do’ has been the mantra.

Nevertheless, almost a year after British drones were re-deployed from Afghanistan to the middle-east and parliament authorised the use of force in Iraq only, the British government has carried out an assassination of one of its citizens by drone across the border in Syria.  Killed alongside Khan in the strike on August 21 was another British man, Ruhul Amin (26) and another unknown man.  A few days later another British 21 year-old man, Junaid Hussain, appears to have been targeted, this time in a joint US-British operation in which US aircraft launch the strike.

While details are still unclear at this stage, it appears that Khan, Hussain and several others were put on a ‘kill list’ in the early summer after intelligence that they were involved in potential terrorist attacks.  David Cameron told the House of Commons:

“Both Junaid Hussain and Reyaad Khan were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting Isil [Isis] sympathisers 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. We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens.”

Sun-drones-coversWe know that an undercover Sun newspaper reporter passed details of conversations with Reyaad Khan to police and intelligence services.  If these conversations were the basis for the targeted killing then the legality of the strikes are in great doubt.  Firstly, as the conversations were with an undercover reporter there was no viable threat – the reporter was never going to carry out an attack. While the conversations likely constituted a crime, this was not sufficient to justify the strike. Secondly at the time of the strike on August 21, there does not appear to have been any imminent threat, a vital element of the self-defence argument.

David Cameron and his ministers will no doubt continue to insist that the targeted killing was legal.  However there will be much argument, discussion and no doubt legal action over the coming weeks, months and perhaps years.  Although I don’t agree with the conclusions, the Head of Legal blog sets out some of the areas of arguments here while the Guardian surveys initial reaction of some legal experts here.

Lowering the Threshold

As we have argued time and time again the problem with drone technology is not just that it is enabling a wholesale expansion of the use of targeted killing, primarily by the US and Israel, but now also by the UK.  But that drones seemingly enable a lowering of the threshold for the use of lethal forces in general.

Through the option of using drones, the US, Israeli and the UK seem to believe that they can breach national sovereignty with impunity.  It is hard to imagine that the US would have used ‘piloted’ aircraft to carry out such strikes in Pakistan and in this case it is impossible to imagine that Cameron would have ordered UK Tornadoes to cross the border into Syria and carry out such a strike without first going to parliament. Remote controlled drones are enabling military intervention. Without the option of using armed drones it is highly likely that the US strikes in Pakistan and this British strike inside Syria would not have been carried out.

What will be interesting to see now is if any of those British officials who have privately been appalled by the US targeted killings in Pakistan break ranks and publicly question the UK following along on the coattails of the US on this. While it is early days at least one senior ex-military official this morning is questioning the legality of the strikes.

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