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

FoI reveals UK flying Reaper drone missions outside of operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed in response to an FoI request from Drone Wars UK that British Reaper drones are undertaking missions outside of Operation Shader, the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The MoD has refused to say how many ‘non-Shader’ sorties there have been, or where they are taking place.

There has been no suggestion until now that British drones are undertaking operations elsewhere.  Answers to previous parliamentary questions and FoI’s requests about the use of RAF Reapers have all indicated that since late 2014, they have only been used as part of Operation Shader. The one exception was the mission that undertook the targeted killing of Reyaad Khan in August 2015, which the MoD subsequently insisted was not part of Operation Shader. Read more

UK drones more likely to target individuals than infrastructure data analysis reveals

Drone video showing ISIS fighter with children in Iraq.*

Examination of UK air strike data from the past two years shows that British unmanned drones have been used far more often to attack individuals on the ground in Iraq and Syria than the UK’s other strike aircraft, the Tornado or the Typhoon.

Analysis of reports published by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over the two years up until September 2019 show Reaper drones launched two-thirds (67%) of the 110 strikes at ISIS fighters in the open while other aircraft were used far more often to launch attacks on buildings, fighting positions, strong-points and other infrastructure. Half of all UK Reaper attacks (51%) were targeted at individuals on the ground compared to only 10% of Tornado and Typhoon strikes. Altogether, Reapers launched 29% of the UK’s strikes in this two-year period.

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UK ops in Iraq and Syria: Reaper drones likely to play an increasing part says senior RAF officer

The latest response to our Freedom of Information requests on British air and drone operations in Iraq and Syria show a marked decline in UK air and drone strikes in Syria since December 2018. (See our stats page for full update) Altogether, British drones and manned aircraft fired 189 missiles and bombs in the final three months of 2018 compared with 69 in the first three months of 2019 – a drop of 63%. Read more

Latest FoI release from MoD shows extent of UK air and drone war in Syria

The rise in UK air and drone strikes in Syria since September 2018 has been laid bare in the MoD’s latest responses to a Drone Wars UK FoI request. The number of British strikes in Syria per month rose to its highest ever amount (75) in December 2018. Overall, the UK launched 244 air and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria during 2018, firing 512 munitions. Between 2014 and the end of 2018, the UK has fired more than 4,100 missiles and bombs in a total of 1,925 strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  You can see the details on our stats page here. Read more