Two More British Citizens are Dead From a Targeted Killing in Syria

UK Prime Minister David Cameron speaking before Parliament on Sept. 7 revealed that in addition to alleged ISIL hacker, recruiter, and propagandist Junaid Hussain, two other Britons have been killed by drone strikes in the past three weeks. Reyaad Khan and Rahul Amin were killed on Aug. 21 in Raqqa, Syria, when the vehicle they were traveling in was destroyed by a Royal Air Force drone strike that was aimed at killing Khan. The two were killed along with a third companion, all three were said by Cameron to be affiliated with ISIL.

Cameron’s comments today mark the first time British officials have publicly discussed the Aug. 24 killing of Hussain by a US drone in Raqqa, Syria. The Prime Minister claimed that both Hussain and Khan were involved in recruiting ISIL “sympathizers,” plotting terrorist attacks, and that their “intent” was to kill to British citizens. While Cameron repeatedly emphasized that the strike that killed Khan and Amin was deemed “entirely lawful” under the principle of self defense, he did not reveal any detail about the alleged plots or Khan’s role in “directing” and recruiting for them. He likewise did not elaborate on Hussain’s case. While today’s speech was a small step toward providing the public with important information about the latest in the US and UK’s targeted killing programs, many of the questions raised last week by yours truly about these strikes remain. The section of Cameron’s speech explaining the killings is below, bold highlights are mine: 

We have pursued Islamist terrorists through the courts and the criminal justice system. Since 2010 over 800 people have been arrested and over 140 successfully prosecuted. And our approach includes acting overseas to tackle the threat at source with British aircraft delivering nearly 300 air strikes over Iraq and our airborne intelligence and surveillance assets have assisted our coalition partners with their operations over Syria.

As part of this counter-terrorism strategy, as I have said before, if there is a direct threat to the British people and we are able to stop it by taking immediate action, then as Prime Minister, I will always be prepared to take that action and that’s the case whether the threat is emanating from Libya, Syria or from anywhere else.

Mr Speaker, in recent weeks it has been reported that 2 ISIL fighters of British nationality who had been plotting attacks against the UK and other countries have been killed in airstrikes. Both Junaid Hussain and Reyaad Khan, were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting ISIL sympathisers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West, including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high profile public commemorations, including those taking place this summer.

We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we ourselves took action. Today I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision air strike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqah in Syria.

In addition to Reyaad Khan who was the target of the strike, 2 ISIL associates were also killed, 1 of whom – Ruhul Amin, has been identified as a UK national. They were ISIL fighters and I can confirm there were no civilian casualties.

Mr Speaker, we took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots. And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action.

The US administration has also confirmed that Junaid Hussain was killed in an American airstrike on 24 August in Raqqah.

With these issues of national security and with current prosecutions ongoing, the House will appreciate that there are limits on the details I can provide.

However, Mr Speaker, let me set out for the House the legal basis for the action we took the processes we followed and the implications of this action on our wider strategy in countering the threat of ISIL.

First, I am clear that the action we took was entirely lawful. The Attorney General was consulted and was clear there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law. We were exercising the UK’s inherent right to self-defence. There was clear evidence of the individuals in question planning and directing armed attacks against the UK. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the UK and our allies.

And in the prevailing circumstances in Syria, the airstrike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attacks planned and directed by this individual. So it was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK.

The United Nations Charter requires members to inform the President of the Security Council of activity conducted in self-defence. And today the UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations is writing to the President of the Security Council to do just that.

Process

Turning to the process, as I said to the House in September last year: “it is important to reserve the right that if there were a critical British national interest at stake or there were the need to act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, you could act immediately and explain to the House of Commons afterwards.”

Mr Speaker, our intelligence agencies identified the direct threat to the UK from this individual. They informed me and other senior ministers of this threat. At a meeting of the most senior members of the National Security Council, we agreed that should the right opportunity arise, then the military should take action. The Attorney General attended the meeting and confirmed there was a legal basis for action. And on that basis, the Defence Secretary authorised the operation.

The strike was conducted according to specific military rules of engagement which always comply with international law and the principles of proportionality and military necessity. The military assessed the target location and chose the optimum time to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. This was a sensitive operation to prevent a very real threat to our country. And I have come to the House today to explain in detail what has happened and to answer questions about it.

ISIL in Syria

Mr Speaker, I want to be clear that this strike was not part of coalition military action against ISIL in Syria – it was a targeted strike to deal with a clear, credible and specific terrorist threats to our country at home.

The position with regard to the wider conflict with ISIL in Syria has not changed.

As the House knows, I believe there is a strong case for the UK taking part in air strikes as part of the international coalition to target ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. And I believe that case only grows stronger with the growing number of terrorist plots being directed or inspired by ISIL’s core leadership in Raqqah.

But I have been absolutely clear that the government will return to this House for a separate vote if we propose to join coalition strikes in Syria.

Conclusion

Mr Speaker, my first duty as Prime Minister is to keep the British people safe. That is what I will always do. There was a terrorist directing murder on our streets and no other means to stop him.

This government does not for one moment take these decisions lightly.

But I am not prepared to stand here in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on our streets and have to explain to the House why I did not take the chance to prevent it, when I could have done.

That is why I believe our approach is right.

And I commend this statement to the House.

  

About the Author(s)

John Reed

Managing Editor of Just Security (2014-18). Follow him on Twitter (@ReedJustSec).