Britain has been accused of reviving a policy of “targeted killing” after it emerged that the RAF had killed an arms dealer linked to Islamic State in a precision drone strike in Syria at the end of October.
Reprieve, a human rights charity, asked “what are the criteria” used to justify who can be targeted in a “track and kill” drone strike, and called on ministers to tell the Commons why this strike was deemed necessary.
The group’s comments come after the Ministry of Defence announced on its website, more than a month after the attack, that the crew of a Reaper drone, armed with 100lb Hellfire missiles, had “tracked a known terrorist in northern Syria”.
In a brief statement, the MoD added: “And at a safe moment, when the individual was alone in a field, carried out a successful attack.” The drone raid took place on 25 October and was disclosed on 27 November.
Subsequent reporting by the Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) group, based on interviews conducted on the ground, concluded that the victim was Abu Hamza al-Shuhail, “a well-known arms dealer in the region” who had sold weapons to several parties during the long running Syrian conflict, “chiefly Islamic State”.
Jennifer Gibson, who leads for Reprieve on extrajudicial killings, said: “This announcement, slipped out on a quiet Saturday morning on the MoD website, appears to herald a new UK government targeted killing policy.
“So what are its criteria for tracking and killing? How did it determine that this person was worthy of assassination? And why wasn’t parliament consulted or even informed?”
The MoD said it had not changed its policy and said the UK has “a robust target clearance process, operates under strict rules of engagement, and is fully compliant with international law”. It published “regular updates” on airstrikes conducted against IS targets for “full transparency”, a spokesperson added.
The drone strike on al-Shuhail appears to have been conducted in conjunction with Turkey. Shortly after the attack, Turkish ground troops encircled a nearby farm and killed a gunman in the compound linked to al-Shuhail including two unconnected civilians who had been nearby, the STJ added.
Al-Shuhail had recently relocated near Ras al-Ayn, an area controlled by the Turkish military, having been smuggled out of an area controlled by the Syrian Kurds.
Kurdish defence forces had asked the arms dealer that “he help them locate IS cells in the area and find the places where IS hid weapons”, according to the local reports, a request that had him “fearing for his life”.
RAF fighters and drones have been engaged in more than 5,000 missions against IS in Syria since MPs voted in favour of military intervention in the country in December 2015. Strikes in Iraq were authorised in September 2014.
Reprieve said it believed the raid was the first “track and kill” drone operation targeting a known individual to be acknowledged by the UK since the killing of 21-year-old Briton Reyaad Khan in Syria in August 2015 by an RAF drone strike – although the circumstances were different.
At the time MPs had not voted for air raids against IS targets in Syria, only Iraq.
A fortnight later, David Cameron, then the prime minister, came to parliament to justify the targeting of Khan – describing it as “necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK”.
Intelligence indicated that the jihadist and other associates were plotting to attack “high-profile public commemorations”, Cameron added, and it emerged that the UK had drawn up a “kill list” of IS targets following the 2015 general election.
Reprieve hopes the recent drone strike will be the subject of questions to the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, when he appears in the Commons on Monday. There is no immediate evidence that al-Shuhail had any connection or link to the UK.