Overview of UK air strikes in Iraq and Syria since the territorial defeat of ISIS in March 2019

UK air strikes on caves in Iraq in March 2021

More than 2½ years after the Kurdish-led, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) overran the final piece of ISIS held territory, the UK continue to undertake air and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Shader.

Although the MoD has published some details of these strikes, through analysis of statistical data we discovered that a number of UK strikes had gone unreported, including the targeting of an individual on a motorcycle in Syria.

Using Freedom of Information requests, we managed to gain some information about these missing strikes and so, for the first time, can detail all UK air and drone strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since March 2019.  A full list is available at the bottom of this post and and see map below.


Locations approximate. Yellow= Reaper, Blue= Typhoon. Click icons for further details

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UK planning for strikes against ISIS in Afghanistan says head of Royal Air Force

Within days of withdrawing the last British troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of warfare, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is understood to be undertaking planning in order that the UK can launch airstrikes against ISIS in Afghanistan.  The plans emerged after the Afghanistan branch of ISIS launched a suicide attack at Kabul airport during the chaotic evacuation, which killed a large number of civilians – 90 according to some reports – including two British men, and 13 US troops.  Foreign secretary, Dominic Rabb signed a joint statement issued by the US-led coalition against ISIS saying that they would continue to “draw on all elements of national power—military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic, law enforcement—to ensure the defeat of this brutal terrorist organization.”

Head of RAF, Sir Mike Wigston told the Daily Telegraph “If there’s an opportunity for us to contribute, I am in no doubt that we will be ready to. That will be anywhere where violent extremism raises its head and is a direct or indirect threat to the UK and our allies. Afghanistan is probably one of the most inaccessible parts of the world, and we’re able to operate there.”  Read more

The Overseas Operations Act, drone strikes, and the presumption of lawfulness

The Overseas Operations Act, which recently became law, aims to limit the exposure of members of the armed forces to prosecution for crimes committed in the course of armed conflict. Unsurprisingly its passage through Parliament was fraught with controversy. In addition, the Parliamentary debate surrounding the Act highlighted that government thinking around the use of armed drones continues to rely on problematic presumptions and tropes. In its response to questions raised in Parliament, the government has betrayed its underlying view that drone warfare is inherently lawful and clean.

With the aim of limiting ‘vexatious claims and prosecution of historical events’ that emerge from the ‘uniquely complex environment of armed conflict overseas’, the Act is divided into two substantive parts. Part 1 creates a new framework of hurdles to be overcome before members of the armed forces can be prosecuted for crimes committed more than five years ago during overseas operations. These prosecutions will now only go ahead in ‘exceptional cases’. Part 2 reduces the time period within which civil and human rights claims can be brought against the Ministry of Defence or armed forces. Additionally, the Act seeks to place a duty on the government to consider derogating from (i.e. suspend) aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to ‘significant’ overseas operations. Unsurprisingly, the Act has been subject to a great deal of criticism. It has been described as a ‘significant barrier to justice’, contrary to the rule of law, and likely to hamper the training of soldiers.

Beyond this, the passage of the Act has incidentally allowed insight into the government’s thinking around the use of drones, and lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). In a House of Lords debate on 11 March 2021 Lord Browne of Ladyton tabled an amendment which would have required the government to produce a report into the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes. Lord Browne’s reason for tabling this amendment was his belief that the Act is based on incorrect perceptions of the future of war, focusing on traditional ‘boots on the ground’ operations, and ignoring the increasing use of remote and autonomous technology.  Read more

Drone Wars continues to pursue details of secret UK drone operations

Drone Wars is undertaking legal action in an attempt to gain details of secret British Reaper drone operations that has been taking place since at least 2019.  Appealing against the MoD’s refusal to answer both FoI requests and parliamentary questions about these missions, Drone Wars is seeking answers before an Information Tribunal.

Drone Wars discovered in early 2020 that the UK was flying Reaper missions outside of ‘Operation Shader’, the name of the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Although the MoD acknowledged that such missions were taking place, it flatly refused to detail their location or the number of sorties that had been undertaken.  According to the latest FoI response from the MoD (Jan 2021) it appears these secret sorties are continuing.

After an internal appeal to the MoD was rejected in early 2020, Drone Wars appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in April 2020 with a response received in January 2021. Although the Commissioner accepted that there is “significant and weighty public interest in disclosure of the withheld information,” she ultimately upheld the refusal to release the information following undisclosed submissions made to the ICO by the Ministry of Defence. Read more

Five years on from UK’s first drone targeted killing, increasing secrecy needs serious challenge

Secret British drone operations getting little scrutiny

The long delay to the release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report showed all too clearly just how much control the government can wield over Parliament’s weak powers of scrutiny.  While the ramification of this latest setback to parliament’s role of holding the executive to account are still being worked out, the consequences of a similar failure five years ago – when MPs attempted to investigate the use of drones by British forces for targeted killing –  are now apparent.  This should act as a salutary reminder of the need for MPs to constantly push to strengthen their oversight powers.

Five years ago today (21 August 2015), an RAF Reaper drone operating over Syria launched a missile at a vehicle travelling along a dusty road in Raqqa, killing its three occupants including the target of the strike, 21-year old Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan. The targeted killing caused a storm of controversy when then PM David Cameron reported it to parliament three weeks later. The government had not only for the first time launched a lethal strike in a country in which it was not at war, but had also defied a resolution supporting use of force in Iraq though specifically ruling it out in Syria. The government insisted that the operation was necessary as Khan was instigating and encouraging terror attacks in the UK. Read more

Revealed: Private contractors flying British armed drones as number of UK strikes in Iraq increase again

Contractors maintain and operate US drones (General Atomics)

British forces have begun to use private contractors to launch and recover UK Reaper drones undertaking operations against ISIS and other missions which the MoD is refusing to disclose.

The revelation comes as a new Freedom of Information (FoI) response reveals an increase in the number of UK airstrikes in Iraq over the past quarter.  According to the FoI data, UK Reaper and Typhoon aircraft launched 32 airstrikes (or ‘Weapon Release Events’ as the MoD now describes them) against ISIS in April-June 2020.  Not since the end of the battle to regain control of Mosul in 2017 has the UK launched that number of strikes in Iraq. There have been no UK airstrikes in Syria since July 2019.  Read more