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British aid workers in Syria could be on drone 'kill list'

Concerns for safety of aid workers deemed 'risk to national security' over past drone strikes targeting individuals stripped of British citizenship
The UK has carried out drone strikes targeting British citizens in Syria as part of the US-led coalition campaign (Open Government License)

British aid workers stranded in Syria after having their citizenships revoked could be targets for British and American drone strikes even as they await the verdicts of their appeals, human rights campaigners have warned.

Those fears are based on concerns that out-of-country citizenship deprivations have been a “prelude” to extra-judicial killings, and the willingness of the government to target British citizens in Syria deemed to pose a threat to national security despite questions over the legality of the policy.

Middle East Eye has learnt of at least two cases in which aid workers based in northern Syria have been stripped of their citizenship on the grounds that they “present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom,” according to letters sent to their families.

Both say they are only involved in aid work and have never fought in Syria, nor had any links with militant groups. Both are appealing against the decision, but that process could take years.

In the meantime, they are unable to leave Syria legally as their British passports have been cancelled and neither holds travel documentation from any other country.

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“We have seen a really dangerous ratcheting up of rhetoric by politicians and a certain section of the press over the past few weeks in regard of the use of British drones to kill those suspected of being terrorists,” Chris Cole of the Drone Watch UK monitoring group told MEE.

“There is bound to be concern that these men may have been placed on a kill list and may be liable to be killed at any time.”

The government’s use of citizenship-stripping powers has drawn scrutiny in the past because of the cases of Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr, two former British citizens who were killed in drone strikes in Somalia in 2012 and 2014 after both had been deprived of citizenship.

In another case, Mahdi Hashi, a former British citizen who had been held by the US in Djibouti, was rendered to the US to face trial on terrorism charges for which he was jailed for nine years in 2016.

All three were accused of links to Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group, which is considered a terrorist organisation in the UK.

A 'prelude to rendition and drone strikes'

The cases prompted David Anderson, the UK’s then-terrorism legislation watchdog, to highlight concerns in a report in 2016 that out-of-country citizenship deprivation was alleged to “have been the prelude to rendition to the US and even to US drone strikes”.

Asim Qureshi, research director at the human rights group Cage, told MEE that Berjawi had emailed him prior to his death to ask him to instruct a lawyer to bring an appeal against the citizenship revocation order.

“Being in a war brings its own dangers anyway, but what there is is an increased danger that any due process rights that you may have will be rolled over roughshod because that scrutiny that comes with being a British citizen no longer exists,” said Qureshi.

“Say you are an aid worker who is accidentally mistaken for a militant and killed; being a British citizen in that scenario makes a big difference in terms of due processes of accountability.”

Several British citizens have been killed in British and American drone strikes in Syria since 2015 as part of a US-led coalition air campaign which has primarily targeted the Islamic State (IS) group.

They are going to inflict more and more harm on our country, so does that mean eliminating that threat completely? Yes it does

- Gavin Williamson, UK defence minister

They include Sally Jones, an IS recruiter who was reported killed last month; Jones’ husband Junaid Hussain who was reported killed by a US drone strike in August 2015; Reyaad Khan, a British IS fighter reported killed in August 2015; and IS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, who was reported killed in November 2015.

The British government has ratcheted up its rhetoric in recent days amid concerns about the threat posed by fighters seeking to return home following the collapse of IS, which attracted numerous fighters from Western nations to its cause.

Speaking last week, Gavin Williamson, the UK’s new defence secretary, told the Sun newspaper that he would not hesitate to order drone strikes against British IS fighters.

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"They are going to inflict more and more harm on our country, so does that mean eliminating that threat completely? Yes it does,” said Williamson.

“Do you want some of those foreign fighters potentially in this country? Do your readers? They certainly don't, so the job isn't done.”

Williamson’s comment followed remarks last month by Rory Stewart, a foreign office minister, who said that the only way to deal with most IS fighters would be to kill them

Neither of the aid workers is accused by the British government of having links to IS, but one of them is “assessed to be aligned with an al-Qaeda-aligned group,” an apparent reference to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the militant group formerly known as the Nusra Front which formally broke away from al-Qaeda last year.

HTS and its previous iterations has also been a target for coalition air strikes, including a US attack in March in the village of al-Jina in Aleppo province which killed at least 49 people and destroyed a mosque.

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Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a senior al-Qaeda leader and the son-in-law of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was also reported killed in a US drone strike in Idlib in February.

The threat of drone strikes could further complicate the aid workers’ appeals by limiting their ability to speak safely to their lawyers because of concerns that mobile phone data has been used to locate and identify targets for drone strikes.

In the case of Berjawi, the US drone strike that killed him occurred hours after he had phoned his wife in the UK, where she had just given birth to the couple’s son.

Skynet 'kill list'

Earlier this year, human rights groups Reprieve launched a campaign highlighting how a secret US surveillance programme known as Skynet was drawing on mobile phone metadata collected by the US and its allies to draw up a “kill list” of potential drone targets which included journalists, peace activists and community leaders.

“It’s clearly vital that these people are able to seek proper legal help from their lawyers. But we know from previous cases that telephone communications are monitored and indeed used to track down the location of individuals in order to launch a strike,” Chris Cole of the Drone Wars UK monitoring group told MEE.

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“These people should be able to seek legal advice in order to answer the allegations made against them. And they should be able to do so free of fear that seeking to clear their names will merely bring a drone strike down on their heads.”

The British government continues to face scrutiny over the targeted killings of British citizens in Syria with the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights calling on it in May to clarify the legal basis for lethal drone strikes.

In April, the Intelligence and Security Committee, which oversees the security services, said it had not been given evidence to a “key ministerial submission” on which the decision to carry out drone strikes in 2015 had been based.

Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch (UK) told MEE it was “both morally and legally wrong for the UK government to employ blunt tactics in an arbitrary manner to deal with British citizens returning from Syria and elsewhere.

“Stripping people of their citizenship, in particular when they are abroad at the time, deprives people of key legal protections, limits their ability to effectively challenge any such decision and subjects them to the risk of further harms, including death and mistreatment.”

Rights Watch (UK) earlier this year mounted a legal challenge to call on the government to disclose the legal basis for targeted killings in Syria.

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That advice remains secret but attorney general Jeremy Wright, the government’s senior lawyer, said in a speech in January that “specific” evidence of a plot to attack the UK was not necessary to launch “pre-emptive” drone strikes against suspects overseas.

"Piecemeal government comments, including Rory Stewart's recent sweeping statement, paint a picture that is deeply alarming,” said Ahmed.

“Yet the government's failure to disclose the legal advice upon which it is carrying out lethal strikes in Syria, coupled with the government's failure to disclose critical information to the Parliamentary committees charged with overseeing their actions, mean the government's policy – which carries life and death consequences for British nationals in Syria – has been shielded from public scrutiny and marred by legal uncertainty."

The dangers of involvement in aid work in Syria were highlighted this week by reports of an air strike targeting a medical facility backed by British charities in Idlib City in which two people were killed and six ambulances donated from the UK were destroyed.

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