10:50, October 12 55 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-12 10:50:03
Is targeting of Isis member Sally Jones legally justified?

The targeting of Sally Jones, who is believed to have died in a CIA drone strike in Syria, fits neatly into a framework of legal justifications prepared by the government for such premeditated killings.

“Specific” advance evidence of a terror plot threatening UK interests is not legally necessary before launching pre-emptive drone strikes against suspects overseas, the attorney general, Jeremy Wright QC, explained earlier this year.

The surge of improvised, jihadist attacks this summer – inspired by Isis videos that are broadcast across the internet – is likely to have heightened the security services’ interest in Jones and the danger she posed.

Nicknamed the White Widow after her husband, Junaid Hussain, was killed in a 2015 US drone strike, she was an active Islamic State recruiter and propagandist who urged her followers to carry out attacks in the UK.

But her killing raises more acutely the question of whether the UK is operating a kill-list of priority targets. The reported death of her 12-year-old son, Jojo, alongside her underlines concerns about the legality of the attack since he would be classified as a non-combatant.

Although the latest drone strike was carried out by the CIA using US military hardware, the closeness of US/UK cooperation in previous Predator drone attacks in Syria make any denial of advance knowledge by British officials implausible.

British drone pilots operate Reaper and Predator drones out of both RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and Creech US air force base in Nevada. There has also been also US/UK intelligence-sharing in past Syria drone strikes.

The first drone strikes against British Isis militants Reyaad Khan, Ruhul Amin and Junaid Hussain, were carried out by both US and RAF drones.

The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State executioner known as “Jihadi John”, later that year was a joint operation. David Cameron, then prime minister, said Britain had been working “hand in glove, round the clock” with the US to track down and target Emwazi.

Anticipating that there would be future killings by drones of UK citizens in Syria, the attorney general in January this year gave a speech setting out the legal justification for such attacks. One of the key requirements for exercising self-defence under international law, he said, is that the threat must be “imminent”.

Wright denied that the threshold for self-defence was being “watered down” but said not knowing the target, type or time of a terrorist attack should not prevent military action.

“In a world where a small number of committed plotters may be seeking to inspire, enable and direct attacks around the world, and indeed have a proven track record of doing so, we will not always know where and when an attack will take place, or the precise nature of the attack,” he told the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“But where the evidence supports an assessment that an attack is imminent it cannot be right that a state is prevented from meeting its first duty of protecting its citizens without nailing down the specific target and timing of an attack. Apart from anything else, our enemies will not always have fixed plans. They are often opportunists.”

The government has advanced two separate justifications for carrying out drone strikes in Syria: first, as part of UN-sanctioned collective coalition defending Iraq, and second, as self-defence of Britain in the face of imminent threats of attack by Islamic State and its website-inspired supporters.

The government’s refusal to reveal the precise legal advice justifying targeted killings of British jihadists abroad is being challenged in the UK courts by the organisation Rights Watch UK.

Before the hearing in July, Yasmine Ahmed, the executive director of Rights Watch, said such drone strikes were “a sweeping expansion of the circumstances in which the government claims they can lawfully use force overseas”.

She added: “By shielding their legal justification from public view the government are depriving parliament and the public of the opportunity to have informed debate about where and when its government can engage in the premeditated killings of individuals, including British nationals abroad.”

Judgment is awaited in the case. Daniel Carey, a solicitor at the law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn who is involved in the legal challenge, told the Guardian on Thursday: “The self-defence basis [of the legal justification] opens up the possibility of kill lists, formal or informal.

“The question of legality is most starkly thrown up by the death of her [Sally Jones’s] child, if he was killed. The big issue [in establishing a legal justification] is the requirement under international humanitarian law that any threat should be imminent.” The attorney general’s interpretation of that issue, he said, was controversial.

“If the UK is getting the US to do its dirty work, that does not absolve [ministers] from responsibility for it.”