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‘A Dangerous International Precedent’: British Government Embraces Killer Drones

British Prime Minister David Cameron informed Parliament the government had launched a drone strike on August 21, which assassinated three people in Syria alleged to be Islamic State militants, including two British citizens.

The strike against British citizen Reyaad Khan, the “target of the strike,” was committed without approval from Parliament. British citizen Ruhul Amin, who was killed in the strike, was deemed an “associate” worthy of death.

Cameron admitted it was the first instance in the “War on Terrorism,” where the government had used a “British asset” to conduct a “strike in a country where Britain was not involved in a war.”

CAGE, an advocacy organization which speaks out for communities disproportionately impacted by policies of the “War on Terrorism,” labeled the strike a sign that the U.K had joined the U.S. in setting “a dangerous international precedent in which a national government acts as judge, jury, and executioner on a global scale.”

“The U.K. government has not released a legal justification for the killing of two British nationals in Syria. This may violate safeguards put in place to assess how soon someone is about to make an attack. We question whether Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin posed a ‘continued imminent threat,'” declared Ibrahim Mohamoud, communications officer for CAGE.

Specifically, it is true that Cameron and the British government did not release a detailed explanation containing the “legal justification” for the targeted assassinations. But Cameron did explain why the government believed the strikes were “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 U.K’s inherent right to self-defense. There was clear evidence of the individuals in question planning and directing armed attacks against the U.K. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the U.K. 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-defense of the U.K.

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

With the exception of the letter to the president of the UN Security Council, the adopted process for drone strikes closely mirrors the secretive kill-by-committee process of the U.S. government.

Reprieve, a legal organization based in the United Kingdom which has engaged in extensive work on drone policies in both the UK and the United States, condemned this example of the “death penalty without trial,” and called the strike “the new face of U.S. and U.K. counterterrorism policy.”

“What we are seeing is the failed U.S. model of secret strikes being copied wholesale by the British government,” stated Kat Craig, legal director of Reprieve’s “Abuses in Counter-Terrorism” project. “Ministers repeatedly promised Parliament and the public that there would be no military operations in Syria without Parliamentary approval. The fact that David Cameron has bypassed Parliament to commit these covert strikes is deeply worrying – as is his refusal to share what legal advice he was given.”

Despite the fact Parliament opposed authorizing air strikes in Syria two years ago, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon brushed aside criticism rather brashly.

“We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. If we know there’s an armed attack likely, if we know who’s involved in it, we have to do something about it,” Fallon said during a BBC Radio 4 interview.

Fallon added, “There are other terrorists involved in other plots that may come to fruition over the next few weeks and months and we wouldn’t hesitate to take similar action again.”

But, similar to U.S. “legal justifications” for assassinating U.S. citizens, officials provided no specific examples of what or who faced an imminent threat if the three suspected Islamic State militants were not eliminated with deadly force.

U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen on September 30, 2011, setting a clear precedent for the U.S. government to extrajudicially kill U.S. citizens. But, to this day, the U.S. government refuses to declassify or make public information about what Awlaki was suspected of planning against America before he was targeted. A federal court in 2014 ultimately chose not to challenge executive power and determine whether targeting U.S. citizens with drone strikes violated due process rights.


It has been known for some time that the U.K government was complicit in U.S. drone attacks. Back in 2013, the government aggressively fought attempts to expose cooperation between the U.S. and U.K. on lethal drone operations. (In fact, British citizen Junaid Hussein was targeted and assassinated in a recent U.S. drone strike in Syria.)

Still, as CAGE points out, the strike that killed two British citizens raises at least three critical questions.

1) Does the British government have its own “kill list”?

2) What is the “threshold for killing a British national on foreign soil without due process”?

3) Is “secret evidence now sufficient to kill” someone, “whose capabilities are unknown”?

Ironically, the announcement came around 800 years after the Magna Carta entrenched the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers. But not only has the U.K. ditched this legal concept to kill its own citizens away from any country in which it has not authorized war, it has also expanded a process of stripping its own citizens of their citizenship with “no judicial approval in advance.”

While Cameron maintains the U.K. government is not involved in U.S.-led war in Syria and Iraq, he insists the U.K. should be participating in air strikes against the Islamic State. This may mark a renewed effort to win Parliament’s backing for drone strikes and greater involvement in war.


Chris Cole of Drone Wars U.K. recalled, “Just six weeks after the parliamentary vote in September 2014, British drones crossed the border into Syria.  The P.M’s spokesperson at the time insisted that such flights did not amount to ‘military action’ but also insisted that in an emergency situation, Cameron would authorize the drones to launch strikes.”

Cole added, “How much of an emergency situation or imminent threat Reyaad Khan was when he was struck is at this stage unclear and should now be the center of a detailed investigation into this strike.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."