No one should mourn the deaths of two British ISIS fighters in Syria. But by using RAF drones to kill British citizens abroad, the United Kingdom has effectively re-established the death penalty for certain crimes, this time with no judicial review, no legal framework and no accountability
Did Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, both British citizens, deserve to die in Syria at the hands of an RAF Reaper drone missile?
No right-thinking person is likely to be mourning their deaths, certainly. But while feeling satisfaction that two murderous traitors have been blown off the face of the earth is one thing, it is quite another to approve of the way in which these events came about. And given what we know, we should not approve.
From the Guardian:
David Cameron is facing questions over Britain’s decision to follow the US model of drone strikes after the prime minister confirmed that the government had authorised an unprecedented aerial strike in Syria that killed two Britons fighting alongside Islamic State (Isis).
Speaking to the Commons on its first day back after the summer break, Cameron justified the strikes on the grounds that Reyaad Khan, a 21-year-old from Cardiff, who had featured in a prominent Isis recruiting video last year, represented a “clear and present danger”.
[..] The strikes were authorised by the prime minister at a meeting of senior members of the National Security Council some months ago after intelligence agencies presented evidence to ministers that Khan and Hussain were planning to attack commemorative events in the UK.
You do not have to be a quisling Islamist sympathiser or virtue-signalling civil liberties absolutist to feel uneasy about the fact that the Prime Minister can order the execution of a British citizen on foreign soil with no judicial review, let alone a formalised process approved by Parliament.
You don’t have to be Glenn Greenwald to be alarmed by the fact that the United Kingdom government has a secret “kill list” of other enemies of the state, all of whom probably deserve a similar fate – but whose deaths set the precedent for future governments to target other people in other circumstances far less clear-cut.
And you don’t have to wish that Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were still alive to be perturbed about the circumstances surrounding their death.
To be clear: this is not about wrapping ourselves in the cloak of moral righteousness – Dan Hodges rightly warns us against this in his refreshing polemic against the moralising Left and their willingness to turn a blind eye to Islamist outrage:
Well, if inviolate principle means saying to the likes of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin “where you off to today lads? Throwing another couple of gays off a roof? Ooooooh, bit harsh. But OK, on your way” then you can keep it. Morality is not an abstraction. Nor is it codified under the rule of law. If a doctor helps a patient in agony to end their life they may have committed an illegal act. But they haven’t necessarily committed an immoral one.
So by all means, lecture us about politics. Lecture us about foreign affairs. Lecture us about international law. But please, if you really think the killing of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin was wrong, keep your moral lectures to yourself.
No, this is not about the killing of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin being wrong. It’s about the fact that there was no formal process surrounding the decision. It’s about the fact that it happened at the personal whim of the prime minister, who was not following a clear judicial process. And it’s about the fact that because no law exists to constrain the British government when it comes to these tactics, there is nothing to prevent them from being used more widely, and in less morally clear-cut situations.
The idea of a “War on Terror” as a pitched battle between Western civilisation and an idea has always been vaguely ridiculous, but the struggle against Islamic State is real. They occupy territory and think of themselves as a state, and their interests are diametrically opposed to ours. We may not have declared war on them, but there can be no doubt that those who leave Britain to join and fight for ISIS are committing an act of treason, and quite possibly an act of war, too.
Killing someone who takes up arms against you may well be the right thing to do, but still there should be a process wrapped around the decision for the state to kill one of its own citizens. A law should be passed in Parliament making explicitly clear the actions taken by an individual which may lead to them being considered an enemy combatant, and the penalties for doing so – potentially including being targeted by the armed forces.
But most important of all, the ultimate decision should rest with the judiciary, not elected politicians who may be tempted to run for re-election using their tally of “bad guys taken out by drone” authorisations as a proxy for their strength on national security issues. There should be a set standard of evidence, and designated counsel to argue for the accused.
When all of that is done, the decision may still be to fire the missile and kill the target. And so be it. But crucially, it will not have happened just because the prime minister thought it would be a good idea.
Of course, this stance is liable to attract accusations of being “soft on terrorism”. But nothing could be further from the truth – this is about being strong on justice and the rule of law, not being weak in the face of evil.
Those who inveigh against defenders of civil liberties and the rule of law, accusing us of being terrorist appeasers or apologists, should remember that the right to civil liberties, freedom and access to justice is only maintained for the majority by defending the rights of the unpopular and the hated to avail themselves of the same freedoms.
The battle for all of our most fundamental rights is won or lost at the margins, in that toxic swamp of bigotry and ignorance where Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin lived. If energy is not expended defending the almost indefensible, the forces of illiberalism and authoritarianism inevitably gain such momentum that it becomes impossible to stop them when the target list starts to include the names of people more deserving of defence.
Khan and Amin were odious people, having irrevocably turned their backs on the country which gave them life and liberty. And the end result – their deaths – may well have been the correct one. But the route taken to get there was all wrong: two British citizens were killed by the British armed forces at the behest of British government ministers at the say-so of the Prime Minister. There was no trial, but worse than this, there was not even the pretence of due process or judicial review.
These things matter. And Dan Hodges is wrong when he claims:
OK, this may be a legally grey area. But the practicalities of defending the realm some times supersede the principles. The end justifies the means.
No, Dan. The ends do not justify the means. Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were odious traitors, yes, willing accomplices in the medieval barbarism of one of the most close-minded and authoritarian regimes in the world, and their death at the hands of the British state is no sad thing. But it is not enough to sit back smugly, pleased that everything worked out well on this one occasion. It matters that there must be a process and framework for making these decisions, one approved by Parliament and with as much transparency as possible after the fact, so that journalists and the public can hold government to account.
We have a duty to care about the type of country we leave for future generations, and the future British state should be one where no citizen, no matter how depraved, can be deprived of their life at the order of a politician and at the end of no established or transparent legal process.
Our democracy is only as strong as the laws and institutions on which it is based, and on the good character of those elected to office. The summary execution of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin proves that there is no law limiting the power of the state to extinguish the life of one of its citizens, no review process, and no subsequent accountability. You may think this is fine when the offender is a young British Muslim gone to fight with ISIS, but what if the targets change one day? What if there is one day more of a grey area when it comes to the guilt or nature of the target? There is no law, and yet now a precedent has been set.
When medieval fanatics hijacked aeroplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center – or when they climbed aboard London buses and tube trains with explosives concealed in their backpacks – they did so with the intention of intimidating us into silent submission to their twisted worldview, to change who we are as a country.
Well, now we are a country which executes its own citizens from afar, following a ‘trial’ consisting of nothing more than a secretive discussion between the Prime Minister, Defence Secretary and the intelligence agencies. Now we are a country which has effectively re-established the death penalty, and this time with no laws, framework or restrictions governing its use. Now we are a country which is growing increasingly paranoid, authoritarian and illiberal by the day, a country willing to sacrifice almost any principle or fundamental freedom on the altar of national security and the unattainable goal of perfect safety.
We are no longer who we once were, and the behaviour of our government in the face of Islamist terrorism is largely responsible. So from the terrorist’s perspective, what is there now left to accomplish?