RAF Air Strike on British Citizen: A High Risk Strategy

Reyaad Khan killed in drone strike
Reyaad Khan (C), originally from Cardiff, pictured with fellow Britons Nasser Muthana and his younger brother Aseel in a still from a video released last year. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Monday that Khan had been killed in a RAF drone strike in Syria. YouTube

This article first appeared on the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) site.

Today the British Prime Minister controversially announced that two British citizens were killed in RAF drone strikes. The point is not so much that they were British but that he was targeted in an area that the U.K. does not currently regard, legally, as an operational theatre of war for U.K. forces.

This announcement by the Prime Minister is a big departure in a number of ways. Our commitment in October 2014 to join the U.S.-led military campaign against Daesh was accompanied by the caveat that the U.K. would operate in Iraq only and that 'no military operations' would be conducted across the border in Syria.

In fact, in all but bombing operations themselves, U.K. forces have been conducting a number of military-related activities in support of other Coalition forces operating in Syria. Now, with this announcement, the Prime Minister has revealed that the government must have authorized a bombing operation in Syria itself, albeit by a Reaper drone as opposed to the RAF Tornado aircraft operating out of Cyprus.

Secondly, this drone strike is the first to have been conducted, apparently, as a targeted assassination. The Prime Minister's statement spoke of the "meticulous planning" for a "precision airstrike." Presumably Reyaad Kahn, who had been operating in Syria since November 2013, was the intended target.

The point is not so much that this man was British but that he was targeted in an area that the U.K. does not currently regard, legally, as an operational theatre of war for UK forces. Drones were used for lethal strikes in Afghanistan but only where U.K. or ISAF forces were threatened by fighters on the ground.

The government insisted that, unlike CIA drones, they were never used for targeted assassinations in territories where we were not militarily engaged. This would have been in contradiction to the U.K.'s criminal justice approach to counter terrorism. The Prime Minister made it clear that the legal justification in this case was explicitly one of "self-defence." He may have to say more about that to justify the sceptics. A generic self-defence case would be a bit of a stretch in these circumstances. He may have to show that there was some specific reason why Reyaad Khan posed an imminent threat to the U.K., its people or its military personnel; not just that he was a Daesh supporter who wished us harm.

Not least, the Prime Minister's announcement will be regarded as jumping the parliamentary gun in announcing the fact that last week U.K. airpower was used explicitly to bomb something on the ground inside Syria. The government was expected to introduce a motion into parliament to authorize the extension of air operations into Syria within a couple of weeks.

It now looks as if it has decided to create a momentum to action that might be unstoppable. Or perhaps not. There is enough scepticism across the parties on any new 'Syria vote' to create a lot of anger over what has been announced. It may turn out to be a Downing Street high-risk strategy to log-roll a controversial issue through parliament, throw a spanner into the works of the new Labour leadership when the winner is announced at the end of this week, and incidentally bury a switch in legal policy inside the complexities of the current refugee crisis.

Professor Michael Clarke is director general of U.K.-based defence and security think tank, the Royal United Services Institute, and visiting professor of Defence Studies at King's College London.