At Defence Questions yesterday (13 March), the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, confirmed suspicions that the UK strike in Syria in December 2022 was a British drone targeted killing. Choosing his words carefully, Wallace told the House of Commons:
“I want to update the House on a strike that took place a few weeks ago, as is our agreement on strikes under Operation Shader. In late December, an RAF Reaper remotely piloted aircraft conducted a strike against a leading Daesh member in al-Bab, northern Syria. The individual’s activity was related to chemical and biological weapons. The Reaper’s crew minimised potential risk to civilians before firing two Hellfire missiles, both of which struck the target accurately. These actions are vital to degrading such terrorist threats, protecting British citizens and supporting our international partners.”
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had issued a short update two days after the strike:
“On Tuesday 20 December, a Reaper remotely piloted aircraft kept close observation on a building near Al Bab in northern Syria where at least one active Daesh terrorist was known to be present. Great care was taken to ensure that any potential risks to civilians were understood and minimised before the Reaper’s crew fired a salvo of two Hellfire missiles which both struck the target accurately.”
Local sources reported at the time that two civilians – a woman and child – were injured in the strike and that one individual, a Yemeni national and ISIS commander was either severely injured or killed (see Airwars round-up of media reporting on the strike). He was named locally by his nom de guerre of Abu Yasser al-Yemeni.
The local civilian civil defence force, know as the White Helmets, shared footage of the aftermath of the strike showing the house completely demolished.
Drone Wars submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the MoD in January asking if an investigation was underway into the reports of civilian casualties arising from the strike. The MoD has refused to answer the request citing national security and international relations exemptions. We have submitted an appeal.
This is at least the second UK drone strike in Syria since the end of the so-called caliphate that has all the hallmarks of a UK drone targeted killing. In October 2021, the MoD reported that a UK Reaper “tracked a known terrorist in northern Syria, near the city of Ras al Ayn, and at a safe moment, when the individual was alone in a field, carried out a successful strike.” This appeared to be the targeted killing of alleged arms dealer, Abu Hamza al-Shuhail. The Guardian reporting that the killing appeared to be carried out in conjunction with Turkey. Local Syrian group, Syrians for Truth and Justice produced a detailed report on that strike.
Both the Iraqi and Syrian governments declared the military defeat of ISIS after its final territory was overrun in March 2019, with the death of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, six months later further degrading the groups capability. While ISIS undoubtedly remains a serious terrorist threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, it is far from clear that individuals members of ISIS in Iraq and Syria are a threat to the UK or should be subject to UK military force. The UK argues that it undertakes strikes in Syria in ‘collective self-defence’ with Iraqi forces. While the then Iraqi government requested UK assistance in 2014, extending that legal justification to a strike almost a decade later in neighbouring Syria is extremely weak to say the least.
The UK’s first drone targeted killing in Syria in August 2015 – the killing of Reyaad Khan – caused an uproar, launching detailed media and parliamentary investigations. Eight years later it appears that the UK can undertake such strikes with barely a flicker of media or parliamentary interest.
In her final report as UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard wrote that:
“the vast majority of targeted killings by drones are subjected to little public scrutiny at either national or international levels. And yet, drone technologies and drone attacks generate fundamental challenges to international legal standards, the prohibition against arbitrary killings and the lawful limitations on permissible use of force, and the very institutions established to safeguard peace and security.
The secrecy surrounding the UK’s use of armed drones continues to need to be challenged. The Defence Secretary’s statement raises more questions than answers, not least regarding “the chemical and biological weapons” that the targeted individual was said to be involved with. Refusing to even disclose whether the UK is undertaking an investigation into reports of civilian casualties arising from its drone targeted killing is also simply unacceptable.
The Defence Secretary said that he was making a statement as part of “our agreement on strikes under Operation Shader” implying that drone strikes outside of Op Shader may not be reported to MPs. It should be noted that more than a year has now passed since our FoI Tribunal – seeking to overturn the MoD’s refusal to answer basic questions about the UK use of drones outside Shader – and we still await a judgement.
It very much appears as though the UK wants to continue to expand its use of armed drones for lethal military operations with as little public and parliamentary scrutiny as possible. This must be challenged. The government must accept a level of transparency on its drone operations to enable Parliament to scrutinise its actions, allow the public to understand what is being done in its name and to be able to hold ministers to account. As the Chilcot Inquiry made clear, without proper outside scrutiny of decisions, it’s all too easy to fall into group think. The best way to overcome that is to accept that reasonable challenge and scrutiny is legitimate. Such challenge and scrutiny of decisions simply cannot happen without at least some basic transparency.