SEPT. 7, 2015
Britain Says It Killed 3 ISIS Suspects in First Drone Strike in Syria
By STEPHEN CASTLE
LONDON -- Crossing a significant threshold in its battle with jihadist groups, Britain announced on Monday that it had conducted an armed drone strike for the first time inside Syria, killing three suspected members of the Islamic State, including two British citizens.
In a statement to Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron said that a British man, Reyaad Khan, had been identified as a terrorist threat and was killed on Aug. 21 in an operation in which two associates, including another Briton, identified as Ruhul Amin, also died.
Mr. Cameron's announcement came as France said it would  start sending reconnaissance flights over Syria and was considering airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syrian territory.
The British government's decision to order a lethal drone strike against a terrorism suspect in another country -- an action long practiced by the United States -- is a significant step, raising questions about the scope of British operations in the Middle East.
Britain is not taking part in military action in Syria, because lawmakers rejected that idea two years ago, although both Britain and France are involved in the American-led campaign to strike Islamic State targets in Iraq.
The Aug. 21 strike appeared to bring British policy closer to that of the Americans, who in a 2011 drone strike targeted and killed Anwar al-Awlaki,  an American-born jihadist preacher.
British officials did not offer a specific explanation for the delay of more than two weeks in reporting the lethal drone operation. Nor did they explain precisely how they knew two of the victims were Britons.
"This announcement by the prime minister is a big departure in a number of ways," said Michael Clarke, director general of the Royal United Services Institute, a research organization that specializes in defense issues, who noted that Britain had so far promised not to conduct military operations in Syria.
In addition, Mr. Clarke said, "this drone strike is the first to have been conducted, apparently, as a targeted assassination."
Speaking to lawmakers, Mr. Cameron justified the action on the grounds that Mr. Khan, 21, and another Briton, Junaid Hussain, had sought "to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks," including terrorism in Britain. Mr. Hussain was reported killed in an American drone strike  on Aug. 24.
Mr. Cameron was vague about the precise threat posed, though he said it included "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."
Several weeks ago, one British newspaper suggested that the queen might be a terrorism target when she attended the ceremony to commemorate the end of World War II in Japan, though this commemoration took place on the weekend before the lethal British drone strike.
Mr. Cameron said six plots by Islamic extremists had been thwarted this year and described the killings as an "act of self-defense," taken after "meticulous planning."
However, the acting leader of the opposition Labour Party, Harriet Harman, questioned the legality of the strike and urged the government to publish the legal advice, something it said it did not plan to do.
The decision to target Mr. Khan was made in the country's National Security Council, at a meeting attended by Mr. Cameron, his office said. Approval for the specific operation that killed Mr. Khan was given by the defense secretary, Michael Fallon.
"We took this action because there was no alternative," Mr. Cameron told lawmakers. "In this area, there is no government we can work with.
"We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots."
Mr. Cameron also said that the British attorney general had been consulted and that Britain was exercising its "inherent right to self-defense."
His announcement came as diplomatic discussions have intensified over the conflict in Syria, a primary cause of the growing refugee crisis in Europe. Many of the thousands now fleeing for safety in European countries are Syrians.
Since its election in May,  the British government has been expected to make another attempt to get the approval of lawmakers for military action in Syria.
Mr. Clarke said that the drone killings "will be regarded as jumping the parliamentary gun" in announcing that British air power had already been used to bomb something on the ground inside Syria, adding that this may prove to be a "high-risk strategy."
Brendan O'Hara, who speaks for the Scottish National Party on defense, added that "the case for bombing in Syria has simply not been made -- and any involvement of British service personnel in bombing without the approval of Parliament clearly flouts the democratic decision taken by the House of Commons."
The French decision to at least begin surveillance missions over Syria was announced by President Francois Hollande at a news conference in Paris.
"Depending on the information that we will have gathered, the intelligence that we will have collected and the reconnaissance that we will have done, we will be ready to conduct airstrikes," Mr. Hollande said.
Sending French troops to Syria was "unrealistic" and "reckless," Mr. Hollande said, and he ruled out ordering any ground forces to Syria or Iraq, where he said France had already conducted 200 airstrikes.
Asked about reports  that Russia was bolstering military support for the government of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Hollande said that Russia was committed to a political solution of the Syria conflict, now in its fifth year.
Although Russia is an ally of Syria, Mr. Hollande said, Russia would not offer unwavering support to Mr. Assad himself.
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.