The British government authorised an unprecedented airstrike in Syria that killed two Britons fighting with Islamic State, David Cameron has announced.
The target of the RAF drone attack was Reyaad Khan, a 21-year-old from Cardiff who had featured in a prominent Isis recruiting video last year. Two other Isis fighters were killed in the attack on the Syrian city of Raqqa on 21 August. One of them, Ruhul Amin, 26, was also British.
Cameron justified the assassination in the sovereign territory of another country on the basis that Khan represented a specific threat to UK security, and that he had exercised the country’s “inherent right to self-protection”. He said the strike was not part of the coalition’s general fight against Isis in Syria.
“It was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK,” Cameron said on Monday.
A third Briton, Junaid Hussain, 21, was killed by a separate US airstrike, he confirmed.
The prime minister faced questions over the strikes on Monday night when Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chairman of the treasury select committee who has led a campaign against rendition flights, called for an investigation by parliament’s intelligence and security committee. “The ISC exists to scrutinise decisions like this,” Tyrie said. “As soon as they are created [the process to appoint members to the committee in the new parliament] they should do so.”
The committee would be allowed to see the intelligence that prompted Cameron to become the first UK prime minister to authorise an attack by an unmanned drone outside a formal conflict. Cameron could face questions about whether the strikes amounted to killings of UK citizens outside the UK jurisdiction in an echo of the “death on the rock” shooting of IRA terrorists in Gibraltar by the SAS in 1988.
Amnesty International condemned the killing. Its UK director, Kate Allen, said: “It’s extremely alarming that the UK has apparently been conducting summary executions from the air. In following the United States down a lawless road of remote-controlled summary killings from the sky, the RAF has crossed a line.”
It is understood that the strikes against Khan and Hussain were part of a joint operation by the UK and the US. Khan was killed by an RAF Reaper drone on Friday 21 August while Hussain was killed by the US the following Monday.
The prime minister indicated that the UK and the US strikes followed intelligence that Khan and Hussain were plotting to attack “high-profile public commemorations” in the UK.
It is understood they were the Armed Forces Day event to mark the death of Lee Rigby, which was held in Woolwich on 27 June, and the VE Day commemorations presided over by the Queen in London in May.
The prime minister told MPs: “Both Junaid Hussain and Reyaad Khan were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting Isil [Isis] sympathisers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the west, including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high-profile public commemorations, including those taking place this summer. We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens.”
The Sun reported on 27 June that Hussain had allegedly admitted instructing undercover reporters how to attack soldiers in Woolwich on Armed Forces Day.
The prime minister said the British strike against Khan was “entirely lawful” and that the attorney general had been consulted. He warned that the threat to Britain from Islamist extremist violence was “more acute today than ever before”.
Cameron told MPs: “We took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots.
“And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action.”
The prime minister indicated the attack had been specifically authorised by the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, and that its legal basis had been approved by the attorney general.
Cameron said in the statement: “The strike was conducted according to specific military rules of engagement which always comply with international law and the principles of proportionality and military necessity. The military assessed the target location and chose the optimum time to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. This was a sensitive operation to prevent a very real threat to our country.”
Cameron told MPs that Britain’s permanent representative to the United Nations was writing to the president of the security council about the action, as required by the UN charter.
Labour’s interim leader, Harriet Harman, said no one should be in any doubt about the scale of the threat posed by Isis. But she called for the attack to be reviewed by Britain’s independent reviewer of counter-terror laws and by the intelligence and security committee.
Police and security services have also stopped at least six terrorist attacks against Britain in the last 12 months, Cameron told MPs.
The prime minister also said the the growing threat of Isis showed the need to expand the UK’s involvement in airstrikes against the terror group from Iraq to Syria – something that is rejected by Jeremy Corbyn, the frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest.
Downing Street dismissed suggestions that it had deliberately engineered British involvement in the airstrikes rather than leaving them to the US, which is involved in regular strikes over Syria. The prime minister’s spokeswoman said he had sanctioned the operation after receiving specific intelligence that UK citizens were planning terror attacks on UK soil.
Lord McDonald, the former director of public prosecutions, said the killing of Khan was legal and justified. The Liberal Democrat peer was in charge of the prosecution service in England and Wales from 2003-2008 and oversaw numerous charges and convictions of terrorists in the courts.
McDonald said: “I think it is lawful and proportionate to target a British citizen who has travelled abroad to join an armed group which is targeting Britain and British citizens and is on record himself as having that purpose. I think it is appropriate to invoke the principle of self-defence and to target him.”