As Iraqi and other forces move forward with their long-awaited offensive to recapture Mosul from ISIS, Western airpower is playing an essential supporting role. The United States, Britain, France and other European countries are conducting strikes against ISIS positions that are designed to clear a path for the attacking ground forces. The Western role in confronting ISIS in Iraq is one example of a much wider trend that represents a significant and consequential shift in the character of Western military action against terrorist groups overseas.

Since 9/11, the United States has said it is engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces. In fact, almost from the start, it was conducting two essentially separate campaigns. In Afghanistan, after the removal of the Taliban government, US and allied forces found themselves in a counter-insurgency action to contain the Taliban’s efforts to recover ground. Meanwhile the United States was also engaged in a global counter-terrorist campaign against al-Qaeda that involved trying to kill or capture terrorist suspects, in a way that was largely disconnected from local political or military dynamics. European countries mostly kept their distance from this campaign, which many European officials regarded as strategically unwise and built on the questionable legal theory of a “global non-international armed conflict.”

In the last few years, however, as I document in a new report, there has been a remarkable shift in the nature of Western counter-terrorist military action. As terrorist groups have emerged that aim to control territory as well as conduct international attacks, Western responses have brought together the two strands of US post-9/11 action. The new counter-terror wars combine efforts to deny territory to armed groups (most often in conjunction with local forces) and direct strikes to prevent (or retaliate for) international terror attacks. Moreover, because these campaigns are territorially grounded in a way that the earlier US campaign against al-Qaeda was not, they have allowed for a notable convergence in military practice between the United States and its European allies.

The European venture into counter-terror war began in the Sahel, after jihadist groups including the local al-Qaeda affiliate seized a large expanse of territory in northern Mali in 2012. Fearing the emergence of a terrorist safe haven not far from Europe, France sent troops into Mali and swiftly regained control of the country’s north. But as the jihadists scattered across the Sahelian desert, the French military campaign has involved into a vast terrorist-hunting operation that spans five countries. Meanwhile, after ISIS extended its territory across Syria and Iraq, attracting numerous European foreign fighters and directing or inspiring attacks in Europe, several EU member states have joined the United States in conducting military strikes against the armed group.

A striking number of European countries are involved in these operations, either through conducting airstrikes themselves or providing assistance in the form of reconnaissance, refueling or transport. In letters to the UN Security Council and other statements, European governments have justified their actions both as defending the territorial integrity of countries such as Iraq and Mali, and as responding to armed attacks against Europe. The hybrid nature of these campaigns has made it possible for European countries to carry out actions (like French attacks on training camps for foreign fighters in Syria) of the sort that they refrained from supporting when the United States conducted them in places like Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, in isolation from any wider military campaign.

At times the link to wider military action has been tenuous, as with the British drone strike against a British citizen, Reyaad Khan, in Syria in August 2015. At that time, the British government had not yet won Parliamentary approval for military action in Syria, and it presented the drone strike as a limited action to prevent a threat to the UK; however in later statements it has also claimed that the attack should be seen as part of a wider armed conflict spilling across Iraqi and Syrian territory. In any case, the British government has suggested it would take the same action against a similar threat even with no link to an existing conflict.

During the same period, US military action against terrorists has also shifted to incorporate a greater counter-insurgency element; again this is a response to shifting conditions on the ground. The earlier US pattern of strikes aimed at picking off “high-value targets” – individuals in leadership positions or those most involved in planning international attacks – has in significant part been replaced by actions designed to restrict armed groups’ control of territory, access to resources, or ability to attack local state or peacekeeping forces. In Libya, US strikes are explicitly presented as air support for counter-ISIS action by the country’s government; in Yemen, US strikes take place alongside attempts by the government-in-exile to push al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula out of the areas it has seized during the country’s war; in Somalia, the defense of AMISOM forces and assistance to the Somalian government now stand alongside the protection of American citizens as a justification for US action. One consequence of this new approach is that the number of enemy fighters being killed by US airstrikes in these countries has significantly increased.

These shifts in the pattern of counter-terrorist military campaigns raise a number of questions for the way we assess the legality and legitimacy of our own and foreign countries’ action. Much debate has focused on whether lethal strikes take place in a zone of recognized hostilities. But in these new conflicts, the number of “away from the battlefield” strikes is declining, and new issues are coming to the fore. One of them concerns the scope of force that is permissible in support or defense of local partners: does this depend on whether the situation is characterized as an armed conflict (as would seem clearly the case in Iraq and Libya) or something short of that (as perhaps in Somalia)?

Secondly, are there grounds for a distinction in these conflicts between strikes that are connected with a fight over territory, and those designed to head off international terrorist plots? If a drone strike against an isolated terrorist who is alleged to be involved in plotting against Europe or the United States is permissible only under the narrowest of circumstances (as most Europeans believe), is the situation really so different when our countries are also involved in a fight over a particular piece of territory with that terrorist’s organisation, even though he is playing no part in that contest? And is it relevant whether the individual and the territorial contest are located in the same geographical space? These questions are intended speculatively, but they might take us in the direction of further reflection on the wider issue of the appropriate framework for determining the level of force that may lawfully be employed against non-state armed groups.


Image: French troops prepare for take-off inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft in Istres, France headed to Mali. Photo AFRICOM – Wiki Commons.