The long arm of British law

Will the deaths of high-profile British ISIL fighters act as a deterrent for others thinking of following their path?

Ground Control Stations at Britain's Royal Air Force Waddington [Getty]
Ground Control Stations at Britain's Royal Air Force Waddington [Getty]

In May 1987, the British Army’s Special Air Service (SAS) ambushed a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit as it was carrying out an attack on a police station in Loughgall, a small village in Northern Ireland.

In the ensuing firefight, 1,200 rounds were fired, and all eight members of the IRA were killed. While all the victims would have rejected the concept of rule by the British state they claimed they were fighting, they were, nevertheless, British citizens. 

Throughout the period known as the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the British security forces killed 163 members of the IRA and other paramilitary organisations. While critics of the British government would claim this was evidence of a “shoot to kill” policy – or extrajudicial killings – the security forces claimed such actions were only ever taken in self-defence and when they were unable to make an arrest. As such, they had been operating within the law.

UK drone strike kills British ISIL fighters in Syria

‘Entirely lawful’

Earlier this week, David Cameron, the British prime minister, announced the death of another two British citizens killed by the UK’s own security forces – although this time in Syria.

Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, from Cardiff and Aberdeen, respectively, were killed last month in Raqqa, the professed capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in a drone strike piloted by the Royal Air Force. 

The prime minister said the strike “was entirely lawful”, and that there was “a clear legal basis for action in international law”.

Watch this: The Arena: What drives Westerners to fight for ISIL? 

Furthermore, their deaths were justified as both men were “involved in actively recruiting ISIL sympathisers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West”. Khan was also suspected of having tried to plan an attack on a World War II commemoration service in London last August that fell apart after his intended recruit turned out to be a journalist.

Screengrab of an air strike hitting a target on August 9, in Syria [EPA]

While these attacks mark a precedent in the way Britain is conducting its operations against ISIL and show a resolve in eliminating threats to domestic security, both the timing of the announcement and its manner are significant. 

First, the announcement, coming about two weeks after the attacks and in the midst of the refugee crisis afflicting Europe, was not only timed to provide a welcomed change of headlines for the government, but also to reinforce its position on the crisis itself.

Rather than welcoming more refugees into Europe, Britain believes they should be encouraged to stay closer to their homes, thus, facilitating their eventual return. At the same time, it believes the international community should be doing more to address the root cause of the problem by defeating ISIL – hence, using this attack as an example.

Generating publicity

Secondly, the nature of the announcement by the prime minister to the House of Commons, rather than through a Ministry of Defence press release, was designed to generate as much publicity as possible about the victims. Both Khan and Amin, along with four others, had been featured in an ISIL propaganda video that was released in June 2014, called: There is No Life Without Jihad.

Watch this: Will more air strikes in Syria serve any purpose?

In this video, they encouraged other Westerners to embrace jihad, with Amin asking: “Are you willing to sacrifice the fat job you’ve got, the big car you’ve got, the family you have? Are you willing to sacrifice this for the sake of Allah?”

While these attacks mark a precedent in the way Britain is conducting its operations against ISIL … both the timing of the announcement and its manner are significant.


Similarly, Khan sought to reassure would-be martyrs that death would be no more than “the sting of an insect”.

The British government hopes that the deaths of such high-profile British ISIL supporters – along with the death of Junaid Hussain, who was killed in a separate US strike a few days later – will act as a deterrent for others thinking of following their path.

Ultimately, neither Khan nor Amin were singled out because they left the UK to take part in an ISIL propaganda video, nor because they embraced an existence of sadistic medieval barbarism.

They were killed because they posed a real threat to the safety of the UK and had placed themselves beyond its judicial reach. 

Yet, while national security might have provided the legal basis for this attack, the fact that they were such prominent supporters of ISIL made their deaths all the more welcome. 

By announcing this strike to its own citizens so publicly, Britain has been both able to show the depth of its resolve to prevent attacks at home and to send a clear message to those tempted to travel to Syria.

In the long war against ISIL, sometimes the media campaign is as important as the military one.

Crispian Cuss is a former British Army officer who has worked and lived in the Middle East. He currently acts as a defence and security consultant.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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