Questions surrounding the killing of British ISIS fighters in Syria

MQ-9_Reaper_CBPDavid Cameron yesterday confirmed that an RAF-operated Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle conducted a strike near Raqqa in Syria in August that killed two British nationals fighting with ISIS. One, Reyaad Khan, was accused of planning and directing terrorist operations against targets in the UK. He appeared in a prominent ISIS recruitment video last year.

The action raises a number of important issues worth addressing. All three form part of a broader question – was this action legitimate?

First of all, we should ask whether it was actually necessary to use deadly force against these individuals. David Cameron said it was, calling the strike both “necessary and proportionate”. But it seems somewhat odd to suggest that two men travelling in a car through Syria, presumably armed with no more than satellite telephones and AK-47s, posed an imminent and direct threat to British lives or the British state. Here the problem is likely to be one of accessibility. If Khan was indeed directing terrorist plots in the UK, he posed a threat to UK national security. Had he been in the UK, he could have been arrested. But he was in Syria, in territory controlled by ISIS. There was probably no other way of getting at him. At that point we should go back to consider the scale of the threat Khan posed, something we cannot be sure of without access to intelligence evidence.

Secondly, we might consider the legality of a British government killing British citizens abroad, something it is generally not allowed to do at home. Here two issues arise. Firstly, we should ask whether the killing was itself legal. Secondly we should consider how to reconcile it with parliament’s express decision to veto military action in Syria (admittedly against the Assad regime) in August 2013, and its specific approval of action against ISIS in Iraq only in September 2014. As far as the first question goes, the answer points back to the nature of the threat Khan posed. States are allowed to kill people that directly and credibly threaten to kill their citizens. If Khan posed a direct and credible threat to British lives, his killing was legal. There was no prospect of his being arrested and brought to trial, leaving force as the only viable response to the threat. In addition, Khan was physically present in a de facto stateless territory, no longer under control of any recognised government. Britain technically violated Syrian sovereignty by striking Raqqa without the approval of the recognised Syrian government. Since there is no recognised Syrian government, however, the point is moot.

As far as the second question goes, the key legal point is that parliament’s involvement in decisions on military action remains conventional. In other words, MPs have no legal authority over the use of force overseas. Ministers can act as they see fit using the authority granted to them by the historic royal prerogative. They will probably argue (after party conference season) that this strike should receive retrospective approval as part of a vote on extending the UK’s efforts to counter ISIS into Syria. Whether they will win that argument remains to be seen. It will depend in part on whether Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour leadership, and on whether he can count on the loyalty of his MPs.

Finally, we should ask whether killing these men was a moral act. I generally take the view that killing people is wrong, therefore the state shouldn’t kill people. These sorts of targeted killings, widely employed by the Bush and Obama administrations in the US, including against US citizens, throw this simple position into some doubt. For one thing, the argument that a killing is morally justified when it is conducted overseas could lead quite easily to the argument that a killing is morally justified even when conducted at home. On the other hand, it is clear that individuals associated with ISIS do pose a genuine threat to life in the UK. I would accept an exception to my broader opposition to state killing in cases where killing was the only way to save lives. And this brings me back to my original point about necessity. Whether it was morally justifiable to kill Reyaad Khan depends on whether killing him was the only way to prevent him killing others, especially British citizens to whom the British state owes a primary duty of security.

We’re going to hear a good deal more about this issue in the coming weeks as the government works to lay the ground work for a vote on fighting ISIS in Syria.

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