This is a op-ed article written by Thomas C. Baron With a sense of pride, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced to the House of the Commons that British drones had killed Reyaad Khan, an ISIS fighter and recruiter, alongside two others in Syria. This was not the first time drone had been used by the RAF in Syria, nor was it the first time they had been used for targeted killings, but the justification Cameron gave for the operation was a new direction.
“We should be under no illusions,” Cameron told the House on the first day back after summer break, “their intention was the murder of British citizens.”
Pointing to six attacks the police and security forces had prevented over the previous 12 months and naming various military commemorations as known targets, Cameron said Khan posed as “clear and present danger” to the United Kingdom. Two others, both ISIS fighters, one of which was also a UK citizen, were also killed in the strike.
This is the first time the public has been made aware of a drone strike targeting a British citizen and signals a new justification for the use of drones and targeted killings.
Where as previously, drones had been used in support of ground operations of British and allied soldiers as well as to diminish their targeting enemy troop movements, arms stores, and targeted killings of terrorist leaders with the intent of diminishing their operational ability, the justification for the killing of Khan was focused solely on the protection of the British people from an imminent threat.
Where previous killings have targeted leadership and key personnel, it is unclear to what extent Khan represented a major player within ISIS. Young, he was 21, and relatively new to the world of Islamic militarism, it is unlikely he was included in operational matters or was a leader in any capacity. Compared to older members who were veterans of conflicts across the world and had more experience in the region, Khan had no experience and little to offer in the fight beyond the services of a foot soldier.
Being British, however, Khan carried weight as a PR tool of the organisation. Last year he featured in an English-language recruitment video for the group aimed at attracting young Muslims from the English-speaking world to ISIS and his social media presence has provided a key force for ISIS’ message, his accounts sharing pictures and stories glorifying the life of an ISIS fighter and their operations.
If Cameron’s claims are accurate, Khan’s planned of terrorist attacks in the UK were unlikely to have taken place at the command of ISIS leaders. ISIS has little history of planning terrorist attacks outside their region of control, preferring recruits to join the fight in Iraq and Syria and pushing only those who cannot relocate to fight on the home front, and any attacks that have taken place have largely been on the initiative of the individuals involved.
Khan appears to have been one of these individuals. Full details have not been made public, but the statements of the prime minister make it clear there was evidence that Khan was planning attacks against public events in the UK, although no details have been released as to whether he planned to carry out the attacks personally or was recruiting Brits to carry out these attack for him.
Under international law, the killing of Khan stands up for this reason. As the Economist wrote on the issue, “the concept of what constituted an ‘imminent’ threat is fairly elastic and certainly does not require waiting until the last moment before it materialises.” While question as to the size of the threat may never be known, the political incentive for Cameron is clear.
To say that killing of Rayaad Khan was political is to ignore the simple fact that most killings in war, and war it self are political acts. It is fair to say that his killing was more political.
In carrying out the operation, Cameron was able to send a clear message to the British electorate that he is taking actions to protect the UK against the threat of ISIS, a threat Cameron consistently made clear. In killing Khan, and announcing it publicly, Cameron can hope to stem criticism that he is failing to act to tackle the problem and can show himself as a defender of the British people, willing to stand up to the ISIS threat. The killing also fits into Cameron’s narrative as to the threat Islamic extremism poses to the UK and his role as a defender of traditional British values against the growth of radicalisation.
The nature of such events means that it is unlikely the evidence Cameron was provided as to the threat Khan played to the UK will be made public in the near future. His targeting of British citizen in a foreign country due to the threat the individual (as opposed to the collective) posed to the British people directly is new ground for British anti-terrorist operations and, whilst controversial to some, will prove popular with Cameron’s electoral base.