UK action against Islamic State


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In advance of the UK Parliamentary debate tomorrow, HJS has compiled a briefing looking at the threat to the UK and our allies from Islamic State and the appropriate response.

Since June 2014, the Islamic State (IS) has been advancing throughout Iraq. It has executed its enemies, taken over territory and declared a new Islamic caliphate spanning large parts of Iraq and Syria. In his speech to the UN on 24 September, President Barack Obama referred to the group as a “network of death”.

In response to the group’s advances, the US has now carried out almost 200 airstrikes against IS positions in Iraq. It has also, alongside partner nations, conducted further strikes inside Syria.

The US gained military support from a number of Muslim-majority countries and airstrikes have also been carried out by France and they will likely be joined by the Netherlands. Now, Prime Minister David Cameron stated that the UK is ready to “play its part” in the campaign against IS. The below overview sets out the arguments for intervention in advance of tomorrow’s Parliamentary debate.

IS is a Threat to the West

In recent weeks, IS has released three videos showing the beheading of two American journalists and a British aid worker. Further threats have been made against other British nationals currently held by IS, but more broadly against the West. An IS spokesman called on the group’s supporters this week to:

“[K]ill a disbelieving American or European […] including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State … kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”

IS and its precursor groups have also attacked or planned to attack Western targets for almost a decade. They have been connected to a number of terrorist attacks and/or plots, including: the June 2007 car bombing against targets in London and Glasgow; a $200,000 bounty for the death of a Swedish cartoonist who drew insulting pictures of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed and a newspaper editor; Iraqi-born former British resident Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly’s 2010 suicide attack in Stockholm, Sweden; a suspected IS plot to manufacture chemical weapons to smuggle into Canada, the US and Europe; and the shooting of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in June this year.

The Legal Case for British Military Action

British military action against IS in Iraq and Syria is supported under international law by the fundamental principle of self-defence: collectively, at the request of Iraq; and, individually, to protect British nationals held hostage by the group. The “inherent right” of self-defence is recognised by Article 51 of the UN Charter; and the current military campaign is consistent with the recent practice of states in response to terrorist attacks perpetrated by non-state actors originating from another (host) state.

The request for assistance from the Iraqi government permits the UK to take part in US-led airstrikes not only against IS in Iraq but also against its strongholds on Syrian territory. The coalition does not legally require consent from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because of Syria’s unwillingness and inability to repress IS’ actions emanating from its territory that continue to threaten Iraq. Widespread acceptance of the legality of the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to degrade al-Qaeda which also targeted the Taliban government supports this interpretation of international law, which is consistent with UK policy as laid out by the then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith in 2004, sanctioning the use of force “against those harbouring [terrorists]”.

Subject to the conditions of necessity and proportionality, therefore, there is no legal barrier to British involvement in military action by the US-led international coalition against IS in both Iraq and Syria.

A Strategy to Combat IS

President Obama has vowed to “destroy” IS. In addition to airstrikes, the US and its allies are providing military assistance and equipment to the Iraqi Army and Kurdish fighters. However, Obama – as well as Cameron – have so far been unequivocal in their refusal to send ground troops back into Iraq. This will likely make any aim of destroying the group impossible to fulfil. While regional partners should play a leading role where possible, the limited reality of their capabilities means that in order to achieve mission objectives it is imprudent to rule out any of the UK’s assets that can ensure we accomplish the task at hand.

The deployment of US and UK special forces would make a significant impact on the battlefield by helping to: conduct counterterrorism operations; gather intelligence; and advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces. These special forces would also aim to establish greater levels of co-operation with the Sunni tribes – co-operation that was significant in crippling IS’ precursor networks during the US ‘surge’ in late 2006/early 2007.

Politically, the US has focused on improving governance in Iraq and easing sectarian tensions. To that end, Nouri al-Maliki resigned from his role as Prime Minister and was replaced with Haider al-Abadi and a new government was formed. By deepening US military involvement, Obama has the opportunity to reinsert the US as an honest broker in the Iraqi political system. This presents the US with the opportunity to rebuild the influence that was lost following the 2011 withdrawal of troops.


IS is not the only group based in Syria looking to attack the West. While US bombing campaigns are primarily focused on IS, this week they also targeted the group known as ‘Khorasan’. Eight strikes took place against the group’s “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities” west of Aleppo, in northwest Syria.

The group is currently thought to have around two dozen operatives, the majority of whom arrived in Syria in 2012 from Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan, to join the al-Qaeda franchise, the al-Nusra Front (ANF). Several have been identified as senior al-Qaeda operatives. According to an intelligence official from the National Counterterrorism Center, Khorasan has “continued pursuits of high-profile attacks against the West”, having worked with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen to increase its “awareness of Western security procedures” in an attempt “to conceal explosive devices and destroy aircraft”.

US officials have stated that Khorasan network was struck because it was “in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against western targets and potentially the US homeland”, although the next day, another official claimed these plans were “aspirational”.

IS’ Social Media Threat to the West

The social media expertise shown by IS and its supporters is enabling the spread of extremist material to a global audience. Combining the use of Twitter and Facebook with the exploitation of smaller anonymous file-sharing websites, the group’s propagandists have been able to distribute large amounts of extremist propaganda. Simultaneously, Islamist fighters continue to provide online advice and encouragement for British citizens wishing to travel to Syria, and upload graphic images and posters glorifying violence to social media platforms.

The wider success of this online strategy has been two-fold, with the release of violent videos having a devastating effect on the morale of local forces fighting the militants in Iraq, as well as ensuring a steady source of publicity for the group. This reach also gives the group the potential to inspire a terrorist attack on a domestic target in the UK.

The Role of Iran and/or Bashar al-Assad

Several leading political and military figures have discussed the possibility of co-operating with Iran or Assad in aiming to defeat IS. However, this must be avoided.

The brutality of the Assad regime – which has overseen the death of hundreds of thousands in Syria since 2011 – makes any Western rapprochement unacceptable. Furthermore, the Assad regime has been complicit in the rise of IS, including purchasing oil from jihadist groups.

The Assad regime is also sustained by Iranian support, which is arming and funding Shiite militias operating in Syria and Iraq. These militias are carrying out extrajudicial executions of Sunnis and in a single incident last month are suspected of opening fire at a Sunni mosque in Iraq, killing 65 worshippers.

Some of these militias also have a history of targeting the West with ‘Asaib Ahl al-Haq’ responsible for the 2007 kidnap and murder of four British security consultants. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran was also responsible for training, arming and funding militias within Iraq which were responsible for lethal attacks against Coalition forces.

The Hezbollah Brigades – a US-designated terror group armed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – and the Badr Organization, which operated death squads during the height of Iraq’s sectarian fighting also retain a heavy presence in the country’s Interior Ministry and security forces.

Furthermore, Iran has allowed a network of al-Qaeda fixers to operate in eastern Iran. This was described by the US Treasury as a “critical transit point” for al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the network also sending funds and fighters to Syria.


The UK must support the US by all means necessary against the multitude of jihadist threats emerging in Iraq and Syria. IS cannot be allowed to hold on to the huge amount of territory it has gained and threaten not only our partners in the region but also the West. To decisively weaken IS, however, Western powers should not rule out the use of some combat troops if required and should not countenance co-ordinating their activities with actors diametrically opposed to our national interest such as President Assad and the Iranian regime. The UK must shoulder the burden of containing the danger IS poses, alongside our US and coalition allies, through the exercise of its full political and military power to help stem this severe threat to our national security.


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