First killing of Briton by UK drone signals mission creep in Syria
Death of Reyaad Khan marks a significant departure for the UK, with ministers yet to rule out further targeted strikes
7 September 2015
David Cameron's admission that the UK has targeted and killed Reyaad Khan,  a prominent member of Islamic State represents the first killing of a British citizen by a UK military drone.
Another Briton was killed alongside him, Ruhul Amin, also an Isis member, who happened to be in vehicle with him. Cameron also confirmed that a third Briton had been targeted and killed in a separate drone strike by the US as part of a joint operation three days later. To put this in perspective -- to illustrate what a major departure this is -- look across the Atlantic at the long-running controversy about drones. The US has been in the forefront of the use of drones with Barack Obama employing even more of them than George W Bush. Americans have been killed, though the US insists these were inadvertent: people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Washington has only admitted to one targeted killing by a drone of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. The preacher, accused of working with al-Qaida, was hit in a strike by a Hellfire missile in Yemen in 2011. But now the UK has acknowledged that at least two British citizens were targeted for drone strikes.
Chris Cole, the head of the campaign group Drone Wars, said of Khan: "This was the deliberate killing of a British citizen. It is shocking. We have not seen this before."
According to British sources, Khan had been involved in more than just incitement through the internet. He had been directing, through the internet, potential attacks on commemorative events in the UK this summer such as the VE celebrations in May that were presided over by the Queen.
So when intelligence revealed that he was travelling in a vehicle near Raqqa, the Isis stronghold in Syria, with two others, Amin, and a third, non-Briton, all Isis, on 21 August, there was no hesitation.
About 90% of British intelligence comes through interception of communications by America's National Security Agency and its UK counterpart, GCHQ, rather than by the old-fashioned use of agents on the ground.
Given the short amount of time available, with Khan travelling in a vehicle, a decision had to be made quickly. Khan had been approved as a target months earlier by the National Security Council, the UK's central intelligence body, a meeting attended by Cameron.
The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, gave authorisation for the strike and the order was given to the RAF crew flying the Reaper drone to fire.
The drone was launched by an air crew from a base in the Middle East but controlled by a British crew thousands of miles away, from RAF 39 Squadron either at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire or operating from the US air base at Creech, in Nevada. The Ministry of Defence never confirms which of the two bases is involved in attacks.
Reaper is the UK's only armed, remotely piloted aircraft and there are ten available. Introduced to Afghanistan in October 2007, each one has video cameras, image intensifiers, radar and infra-red imaging.
The drone strike marks a departure for the UK in another important way, as another sign of mission creep, not least because ministers have not ruled out further targeted drone strikes.
The RAF has been carrying out drone strikes against targets in Iraq as part of an international coalition against Isis. These have been mainly been against Isis collectively, such as suspected vehicles or groups attacking the Iraqi army or Iraqi Kurdish forces in the north.
Having no parliamentary authority to expand airstrikes to Syria, the UK was initially restricted to surveillance flights over the country. Earlier this year, there was the revelation that RAF pilots embedded with the US air force were taking part in airstrikes in Syria.
Britain currently only operates drones over Iraq and Syria but the number flown over Syria appears to be increasing rapidly. According to Drone Wars, the proportion of drones over Syria belonging to the UK has increased from 10% in January to 40% in May.
Michael Clarke, director-general of London's main military thinktank, the Royal United Services Institute, said the government would be open to charges of jumping the gun, given that a government parliamentary motion to authorise the extension of air operations into Syria was expected within weeks. "It now looks as if it has decided to create a momentum to action that might be unstoppable," Clarke said, though he added the risk for the government was that it might backfire.
* This article was amended on 7 September 2015 to remove the reference to Reyaad Khan being assassinated. This term applies to the murder of prominent political figures.