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September 8, 2015

The Legal Basis for Targeted Airstrikes Against Islamic State’s British Citizens

Robin Simcox

On 7 September, Prime Minister David Cameron informed the House of Commons that the Royal Air Force had carried out a precision drone strike which killed Reyaad Khan, a 21 year old British citizen. The strike took place in the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, Syria, on 21 August. Killed alongside Khan was Ruhul Amin, a 26 year old Briton.

This is the second time a Western country has deliberately killed one of its own citizens as a result of a targeted airstrike. The other occasion was in September 2011, when a US drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula cleric, in northern Yemen.

The Legal Basis for Targeted Airstrikes Against Islamic State’s British Citizens outlines the legality of the UK strike and why the targeted killing of British citizens associated with the Islamic State will likely need to be utilised again in the future.

The key findings in the briefing include:

  • According to Cameron’s statement in the House, targeting of Khan was an “act of self-defence” justified under the charter of the United Nations.5 Cameron is referring to Chapter VII, Article 51, which recognises states’ right to self-defence under international law.

  • In September 2014, Parliament voted in support of airstrikes against IS – but only in Iraq, and not Syria. However, at the time, the Prime Minister provided a caveat: that he would “reserve the right if there were a critical British national interest at stake or there were the need to act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, [to] act immediately and explain to the House of Commons afterwards”.
  • There is no evidence to suggest Khan wished to return to the UK, making his arrest by domestic law enforcement also impossible. This meant that, in order to mitigate the threat he posed, action would need to be taken in Syria, where a civil war is currently raging.

  • The US government has previously outlined the circumstances in which it would be permissible to target a US citizen. President Obama has previously said that citizenship “should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.” These arguments were made in the wake of the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, but similar principles also apply to Reyaad Khan.


The Legal Basis for Targeted Airstrikes Against Islamic State’s British Citizens is available to download here


Robin Simcox

About Robin Simcox

Robin Simcox is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, where he specialises in al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda inspired terrorism. He is the co-author of both editions of 'Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections' and several other reports broadly focussed on national security, terrorism and al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated movements across the world. Simcox has written for the likes of the Wall Street Journal, New Republic, Guardian, Weekly Standard, Spectator, Huffington Post and Daily Telegraph and regularly appears across a broad variety of media outlets, including the BBC, Fox News, Sky News, Channel 4 and al-Jazeera. He has spoken on a variety of platforms, including the British Parliament, US Special Operations Command and the European Parliament.

Full profile  |  See all of Robin Simcox's work