Saturday, 12 September 2015
How, Why The UK Government Used A Drone To Kill UK Citizens
The British drone strike that killed a number of Isis fighters, including two British citizens, has raised questions, including how David Cameron’s government arrived at its decision to kill its target, the British jihadi Reyaad Khan. The Guardian (UK) looks at some of the questions raised by the military action.
How was the decision made?
The decision to launch a military strike to kill a British national, Reyaad Khan, was made in the spring by the National Security Council. The NSC is the UK’s main forum for discussion of intelligence issues. It meets once a week and is normally attended by the prime minister. It was a momentous decision on various levels: to kill a British citizen, to do this using a drone and to do it in Syria, a country with which the UK is not at war.
The NSC was briefed on the activities of several prominent British members of Isis, including Khan, Junaid Hussein and Ruhul Amin. Approval was given for further strikes if necessary.
Who made the decision?
We know for sure that David Cameron and the attorney general, Jeremy Wright QC, attended the meeting. Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, was eligible to attend and almost certainly did so – Cameron told MPs on Monday that Fallon issued the authorisation for the attack on Khan.
Also eligible to attend NSC meetings are Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, chief of the defence staff, Robert Hannigan, director of GCHQ, Alex Younger, chief of MI6, Andrew Parker, head of MI5, and Sir Kim Darroch, the government’s national security adviser and newly appointed ambassador to Washington.
The government has only said that “senior members” of the committee attended the meeting that approved the strike on Khan.
What are drones?
Drones, formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles, are widely used by the US in conflict zones from Somalia to Afghanistan. The advantage for the US and the UK is that, unlike planes, they can remain stationary over a target for hours at a time. The other is that, being unmanned, there is no risk to US and UK pilots.
Khan, Amin and a third Isis fighter were killed when their vehicle was hit by a Hellfire missile fired from a UK Reaper drone while they were travelling outside the main Isis stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. Hussein was killed a few days later in a US drone strike.
Chris Cole, who heads the campaign group Drone Wars, said the UK has 10 Reaper drones. They normally carry four missiles, but the payload varies. Their range is not known – it partly depends on how big a load they are carrying – but they can fly at least 620 miles (1,000km) and remain airborne for 16-20 hours.
According to Cole, based on freedom of information responses from the Ministry of Defence, RAF Reapers launched 130 strikes in Iraq up to 30 June this year.
The MoD does not disclose where in the Middle East the UK Reapers are based: speculation centres on Jordan and Kuwait. They are piloted by RAF crews working for intelligence and reconnaissance units. The crews operate the drones from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and the US airbase at Creech in Nevada.
Is there now a UK ‘kill list’?
In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, the US issued playing cards to its troops showing pictures of most-wanted Iraqis, as part of its “kill or capture” strategy. But the term “kill list” did not come into common use until 2012, when the New York Times revealed the existence of a list held by the Obama administration of al-Qaida targets in Yemen with connections to the US.
Since then, the Pentagon’s kill list has expanded considerably – but it does not grade terrorists and suspected terrorists along the lines of “most wanted”. Instead, it takes the form of a spreadsheet, listing the names and personal details of targets. The US administration prefers the term “disposition matrix” to describe it.
The UK had long insisted that it has not maintained a similar list. That is why it is such a departure for the UK to have approved the killing of Khan and, to all intents and purposes on Tuesday, confirmed its own list of targets.
What is the legal basis for killing UK nationals abroad?
Legal advice would be sought from the attorney general, who would have consulted other government lawyers.
Wright has maintained a very low profile. He was made Queen’s counsel when he was appointed as attorney general last summer. The political pressure on him to provide more detail about his legal advice to the prime minister on the Syrian drone strikes is likely to intensify in the coming days.
Doubts were quickly expressed about Cameron’s defence of the legality of the drone strikes. Under Article 51 of the UN charter, every country has the right of self-defence. “Under the right of self-defence, any armed attack [against the UK] would have to be imminent or actual,” Phillipe Sands QC, professor of law at University College London, said.
And under the so-called Caroline test, relating to a 19th-century case and referred to by legal commentators on Tuesday, the need for pre-emptive self-defence must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”.
Cameron said Khan had been plotting to attack public commemorations. Downing Street later pointed to two events in the public domain about specific plots, on VE Day in May and Armed Forces Day in June.
How could there be an ‘imminent threat’ when the killings were carried out after the named events?
This is the key question. Cameron referred to Khan and Hussein planning an attack, but in its briefing to reporters later, Downing Street referred to events that had happened long before they were killed.
The counter-argument from the government would be that while the plots against VE Day in May and Armed Forces Day were already in the public domain, officials are aware of other plots that were not discussed publicly.
There could still be legal challenges. When the US killed an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights mounted a legal challenge, arguing it was an unconstitutional action. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also an American citizen, was killed in another drone strike two weeks later, although the US insisted he was not the target.
Did Hussein and Khan coordinate their plots?
Some Isis members do work in tandem while others operate individually.
Is the UK working more closely with the US on tackling Isis threats?
Cameron confirmed that the US had been responsible for a drone strike on Hussein. Until this announcement, reports from the US had only said the Pentagon was likely to have been behind the attack.
The US and UK have been closely sharing intelligence since the second world war, with the UK the main beneficiary in being allowed to tap into the mammoth American intelligence-gathering operations.
The US could easily have carried out the killing of Khan on its own. The UK may have pressed to carry out the attack itself for political reasons. The drone attacks against Khan and Hussein are not separate but part of the same operation.
Why is the UK being so transparent about it?
It is unusual for the UK, unlike the US, to offer so much detail about intelligence-led military strikes. So why now?
Given the sensitivity of carrying out an airstrike inside Syria without the approval of parliament, Cameron may have wanted to wait for the return of the Commons after the summer recess.
He could have had other motives such as wanting to be seen to do something to combat Isis.
Image: Reyaad Khan (left) and Ruhul Amin. Photograph: YouTube/PA