Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes


Yesterday, the Prime Minister re-announced that his Government had targeted British citizens with missiles fired from RAF drones.  Two men are dead.  The Sun and others have cheered the news.  Others have expressed grave concern.

This morning I wrote this:

Actually, I am sure what I think about such killings.  I will come to that in a moment, but for now I want to remark on something else.

This is the kind of issue on which the opinions of many honest people diverge from that of human rights activists, and they really cannot fathom what is so problematic with such actions.  

“They’re trying to kill us? What is wrong with us taking them out first?” said one person to me last week (we were talking about killing Islamist fighters in general, not British variants in particular).

The news that Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were killed by drones therefore presents human rights activists with a double challenge.  The first is to oppose such actions and to call the Government to account for them.  The second, regrettably, is to explain ourselves to the electorate.  The Human Rights Act is under attack from this Conservative Government and it is essential that public opinion does not swing away from this crucial law, nor the values that underpin it.

So why are the drone strikes wrong?

Khan and Amin do not provoke much sympathy.  I am sure that their underlying reasons for joining IS were complex and the particular sociology of their stories will be relevant and important.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that they chose to abandon the United Kingdom and align themselves with a group that beheads its enemies and subjugates women. They announced that the UK was their enemy and they plotted atrocities against us.  Really, what is so wrong about taking them out?

First, there is a chance they did not commit the crimes they are accused of. By this, I do not suggest that Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were innocent bystanders, the victims of a fatal mistake! That is obviously not the case.  Rather, I ask this: did they actually commit acts of terrorism against other people? Or did they instead just engage in propaganda stunts on YouTube and Twitter?  

The only evidence that they engaged in violence comes from our Government—the same people that just blew them up with an air strike. Given the Government’s dubious record on such matters, this is a legitimate concern.  As we have seen on issues like Northern Ireland, WMDs and the Jean Charles De Menezes debacle, our security services do lie to cover up both conspiracies and mistakes.  What if they’re lying now?

We British citizens (which, until recently, included Khan and Amin) have some insurance against Government conspiracies and errors: The Rule of Law.  If we come into conflict with the Government then we are put on trial.  If we are innocent we can explain ourselves, and if we are guilty we will be punished proportionately.  This principle is a feather in the cap of our democracy.  That the Rule of Law was bypassed in the case of Khan and Amin is a black eye for the UK.

Adherance to the Rule of Law is crucial in a democracy.  We abide by the restrictions that we have placed upon ourselves.  If someone comits a crime, then we put them on trial.  We do not execute them on a whim.  This is at the core of what it means to be a decent and civilised country.  It is a blanket principle and cannot be subjected to a “yeah, but” retort listing some exceptions.  Laws that only apply some of the time to the people that David Cameron decides are worthy of them are not really laws at all: due process becomes the gift of the powerful.

“But they would not do them same for us!”

Yes, I am well aware that if Islamic State militants were to catch us in Syria or Iraq, they would chop off our heads and upload a video of the deed to YouTube. But we should not sink to that barbarous level, because we aspire to be better than them. Indeed, the fact that they give no quarter to their enemies is one of the main reasons why we are fighting them: it is evidence of their depravity and their dangerousness.

If and when we catch them on British streets, we must send them to The Old Bailey and then to Belmarsh.  It is in this process that we signal our humanity and our superiority. Upholding the rule of law when we encounter them is a victory in itself.

Taking any kind of legal shortcut is tantamount to admitting defeat. Missile strikes on British citizens, signed off by ministers, utterly undermine the idea of due process. 

Worse: they allow IS to claim moral equivalence between our actions and theirs.

It is for this reason that the Government’s explanation that “we are at war” is not good enough.  Islamic State militants also think they are at war.  Those deranged jihadi videos that periodically surface talk of war and resistance as a justification for terrorism.  By sending in the drones to kill them, we encourage the “war” mentality.

Related: other countries with a more malign approach to the world enjoy using the national security excuse as a reason to censor, abuse rights, and kill.  Russia could easily deem Ukrainian resistance activists in the Chrimea as equivalent to Islamic State fighters in Iraq. China erroneously considers Taiwan and Tibet to be its sovereign territory and might declare people who say differently to be a threat.  Turkey routinely labels anyone who speaks of Kurdish separatism to be a terrorist (last week, two British journalists who wrote about Kurdish issues are arrested on this basis, and their Iraqi colleague remains detained).  Extra-judicial drone strikes based on the say-so of a politician set a terrible example to others.

I can think of two rejoinders to what I’ve written above.  The first is that, if we are not at war, then perhaps we should be?  Islamic State now controls vast swathes of oi-rich territory and their presence in Syria is one of the main reasons for the refugee crisis on the edge of Europe.  Why not just bite the bullet, quite literally, and drive them out with the all our military might?

There may be some moral merit to this idea.  Surely ‘just war’ theory would justify an attack on the Islamic State? However, I think there is a broad consensus that a Western invasion on the 2003 model is in advisable and would only destabilise things further (this was one of the reasons why I opposed the Iraq war back then).  Meanwhile the other Arab countries in the neighbourhood seem unable and unwilling to step up. Which leaves us nowhere. But the practical impossibility of an all-out war does not justify waging phoney or proxy wars in which some individuals are targeted for extermination, in the way that Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were over the summer.

The other retort is to ask why human rights activists are indignant about the killing of British citizens, but not drone strikes on people from other nations. Surely, blowing up humans is no more or less abhorrent just because they happen to have a different coloured passport.

I would agree with this.  Human rights principles should hold across nationalities.  

I guess that the reason why the debate centres around these British cases is because the legal framework is far more established than for other citizens.  For the Rule of Law to be enforced (and indeed respected) the law itself needs to be fairly clear.  By contrast, International law is murky and uncertain, and so its is more difficult for legal challenge to be brought against a Government carrying out drone strikes.  

5 thoughts on “Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes”

  1. I do think we should call for some proper kind of accountability here. ie an inquiry as soon as possible (and evidence preserved as of now), and criminal charges should Cameron turn out to have been “wrong” about the allegations against these two.

  2. Why not just bite the bullet, quite literally, and drive them out with the all our military might?…Meanwhile the other Arab countries in the neighbourhood seem unable and unwilling to step up. Which leaves us nowhere.

    You argue very well but I feel a bit patronised by the tone of moral superiority, the sense that ‘we aspire to be better than ISIS’. The invasion of Iraq which turned into a disastrous intervention muddied the waters for future foreign policy & it could be argued led to a rise in Sunni militancy (ISIS include remnants of Saddam’s Republican Guard). Now chastened, the West has little stomach to get involved/bogged down in a complex situation in Syria & the Arab world isn’t stepping up to the plate to find a solution. In other words, chaos. We have stood by & allowed a self-styled fascist entity, a law unto itself, to murder indiscriminately and commit human rights abuses, but we can pat ourselves on the back we want to do things by the book.

    As someone whose father was Muslim, I am tired by these jihadis/extremists who have made my life a misery by making me be regarded as a 5th element in my own country. Perhaps the media in the UK could point out that only 700 have gone, some them women with children rather than fighters, out of a population of around 1.5m Muslims, less than 0.01%. Perhaps if you were me, you’d think these two buggers got what they deserved for thinking they could act thousands of miles away without any consequences.

    I wish I could afford the white middle class liberal attitudes (as a left winger) shown by some regarding the drone strike. In an ideal world – in which we do not live, I’d prefer Khan & Amin to be arrested and put on trial, but that wasn’t going to happen.

    Actually, war is an ugly business and frankly, these men have been given the dignity of a liberal discussion which ISIS do not afford gay men, throwing them off buildings or the enslavement of women from other ethnic groups. I know two wrongs don’t make a right, but am I sorry that these the state executed these two men? No.

    I wonder if those suffering under ISIS display the same troubled conscience.

    Yes, I’d prefer we did things legally but I find all these considerations come after the event, namely Iraq, when we committed an outrage in my opinion. Talk of due process & high-mindedness sit ill at ease with me when we have already helped destabilised a region and caused untold suffering to scores of people. There’s a lot of hypocrisy. We had Harriet Harman in a feminist t-shirt. This is a woman who voted for that very male patriarchal of acts, war, and contributed to the rise of prostitution in war-torn Iraq.

    If you want a trouble-free conscience about state behaviour, I’m afraid that has long gone after Iraq.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bob.

      I was opposed to the war in Iraq, because that seemed to be based on dubious legality and that it would have unintended consequences too. I don’t think I forfeit my right to criticise a UK government action in 2015 because I failed to stop a UK government action in 2003! I’ve also campaigned against discriminatory words and policies towards Muslims in the UK which have, as you say, been brought about by the actions of a few fundamentalists.

      What I am grappling with in this post is the point that our consciences are not particularly troubled by the deaths of these guys. The precise point of Rule of Law and Human Rights is that we have to speak out for them even when, on an emotional level, we’re not particularly sad to see a terrorist get the comeuppance.

      Your raw pragmatism carries its own kind of problems. If it can be so easily abandoned then those ideas are fatally undermined. Long term this will cause more suffering too. Don’t forget that human rights abuses in places like Iraq begin under the guise of ‘practical’ considerations. The US-led invasion of Iraq was similarly pragmatic: “No time to worry about the Rule of Law, there are WMDs”. I think ‘pragmatism’ is as much an ideological choice as the principled approach I lay out above.

  3. Thanks Robert for your response.

    I respect your principled stance, but I feel there is a difference between Iraq under Saddam & ISIS. I supported Hans Blix & his weapons inspection and here I agree the rule of law was flouted.

    I think the context is different: Saddam was not acting as ‘an aggressor’. The irony of the invasion is that it (cause) has led to a militant form of Sunni extremism (effect). ISIS, Islamo-fascist in tone, are aggressive towards other minorities, expansionist (caliphate) & encourage acts of terrorism abroad. Saddam at least complied with the UN’s weapons inspection team. ISIS are amoral and do not abide by any humanitarian or Geneva conventions whatsoever.

    So, how are we to address ISIS? We have stood by and allowed them to commit a mass infringement of human rights abuses unchecked. When we do take some form of action, we feel morally compromised. It is an intractable dilemma reminiscent of ‘The Gatekeepers’ documentary.

    Yes, I responded in an emotional level whereas you argued about the rule of law holding the state accountable. You also posit a very interesting question: why aren’t our consciences troubled more? On another blog entry, you quoted Anthony Barnett saying that the British people protested against Iraq because they possessed the distinction of ‘knowing how to fight a good war when it is necessary.’ Could it be that the lack of public outrage to Khan & Amin is due to shifting public attitudes towards any future military action against ISIS?

    I feel that Khan & Amin should be held morally responsible for their choice they made. They elected to become citizens of the so-called ISIS caliphate & morph into British citizens when it suits.

    What exactly does being ‘British’ mean, a loaded term in itself? After centuries of political evolution, it probably means democratic values in a pluralist society. Khan & Amin were sympathisers of a regime which is totalitarian in nature.

    Could the two men actually be innocent of any crime? I feel that by choosing to remain in Syria – as opposed to those jihadists who have returned – they condoned ISIS’ reprehensible behaviour & share in its moral culpability through guilt by association.

    They knew they were beyond the bounds of British justice. The targeted-killing goes against what we would like our country to be, but perhaps it sent a message to British jihadis abroad that there can be consequences to their actions & that if you wish to wage war, you can be considered a legitimate target.

    This legality may be dubious, which you rightly challenge, & we should be given more information (transparency) but the consequences (effect) are in no way the same as the catastrophic decision to invade a sovereign nation. Two men lost their lives and their families suffered (the personal). It is not the same as destabilising an entire country/region which has harmed millions and which has still not been examined properly (public inquiry). I am also deeply troubled by the disproportionate time & attention being given to two men who acted of their own volition as opposed to the mass of coerced victims of ISIS. Has the same level of attention been given to them? What about their civil liberties?

    Perhaps, ultimately, the best approach is to find a political solution in Syria, some form of consensus with a brokered ceasefire so that each side (Assad & the FSA/moderates) confront ISIS in a united front & contain them, as well as bring those British jihadis guilty of crimes to justice. In Iraq, this means bringing moderate Sunni groups onside to marginalise ISIS.

    I questioned your principled approach, as I felt uncomfortable with the high-minded moral tone & the sense that by simply acting superior, we will defeat the terrorists.
    How do you propose to accomplish this? I would be genuinely interested to hear. It will be challenging, since we are allowing them to dictate the terms as we take into account ethical considerations to which they pay scant heed. We respect borders that no longer exist as the map of Iraq:Syria is redrawn right in front of our eyes. ISIS can use social media with impunity as we debate over issues such as state surveillance or bringing in legal measures to compel social media organisations to police themselves. They use business fronts in Turkey to launder money. Orwell was a great liberal democrat but even he recognised that war was necessary on occasion.

    Sadly, if one looks closely, our government and nation is fatally compromised at every level. In other words, we have no claims to any morally superiority whatsoever.

    We are one of the biggest sellers of weapons to Saudi Arabia. In the news recently, there was yet another wedding massacre in the Yemen civil war as the government bombed Houthi rebels. We probably sold the Saudi-led coaliton the plane/the bombs dropped on that wedding party as well as giving them training & support.

    We want to be high-minded when it comes to us pressing the button to activate the drone that kills two terrorists, but we rarely think of the consequences of someone else pressing the button of a weapon sold by the UK arms industry & which helps benefit our economy (£50bn).

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