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UK accused of reviving 'targeted killing' policy against Islamic State in Syria

Ministry of Defence quietly acknowledged killing of alleged Islamic State arms dealer Abu Hamza al-Shuhail in October
A photograph purportedly of an alleged Islamic State-linked arms dealer Abu Hamza al-Shuhail, who was killed by a UK airstrike in Syria (Social media)

The UK has been accused of reviving a “targeted killing” policy after its air force killed an arms dealer linked to the Islamic State group (IS) in a drone strike in Syria at the end of October. 

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on its website more than a month after the attack that the crew of the Royal Air Force's Reaper drone had “tracked a known terrorist in northern Syria”.

"And at a safe moment, when the individual was alone in a field, carried out a successful attack,” it added in a statement.

According to a report by the Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) group, the arms dealer was a man known as Abu Hamza al-Shuhail. 

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'The MoD needs to explain how it put out a misleading press release that the person killed was "alone in a field" yet failed to mention the strike occurred as part of a two-hour ground operation'

- Jennifer Gibson, Reprieve

“The Royal Air Force statement announced that the strike was completed against a 'known terrorist'; however, the statement does not give his name. STJ reached out to several sources to investigate al-Shuhail’s background and the activities which led to his assassination," the group said.

"The sources confirmed that Sabbahi al-Ibrahim al-Musleh, who operated by the name Abu Hamza al-Shuhail, worked with IS. They added that al-Shuhail was a well-known arms dealer in the region, who, for years, cooperated with the several military sides that successively controlled Deir Ezzor province since 2011.” 

STJ, which is supported by the US-based National Endowment for Democracy, said the attack was conducted alongside Turkey, as it discovered that soon after the drone strike, Turkish ground troops had encircled a nearby farm and killed shooters linked to the arms dealer and two unconnected civilians.

Jennifer Gibson, who leads on extrajudicial killings for the human rights group Reprieve, told Middle East Eye: “This announcement, slipped out on a quiet Saturday morning on the Ministry of Defence website, appears to herald a new UK government targeted killing policy. So what are its criteria for tracking and killing? How did it determine that this person was worthy of assassination? And why wasn’t parliament consulted or even informed?

“The MoD also urgently needs to explain how it put out a misleading press release that the person killed was ‘alone in a field’ yet failed to mention the strike occurred as part of a two-hour ground operation that reportedly killed at least three civilians, and no doubt terrorised others," she added.

"It’s details like these that call into question the MoD’s commitment to transparency and accountability.”

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict, added: "The strike, and the lack of information available about it, illustrates a growing trend of secrecy around UK military operations.

"Over the past two decades, the UK’s military capabilities and commitments have outpaced parliamentary mechanisms for scrutiny and oversight. In order for Parliament to conduct its scrutiny role, it is essential that we are provided with adequate information about UK military operations, including the legal frameworks and policies that inform these."

An MoD spokesperson told The Guardian that its policy of targeted killings had not changed and that the UK has “a robust target clearance process, operates under strict rules of engagement, and is fully compliant with international law”.

It added that the MoD published “regular updates” on air strikes against IS targets for “full transparency”.

UK drone strikes in Syria 

According to Reprieve, Shuhail's killing is the first targeted drone strike against an individual that the UK has made public since 2015, when a 21-year-old British IS member was killed in Syria.

British MPs at the time had authorised strikes against IS in Iraq but not Syria. Then-prime minister David Cameron insisted the operation was necessary for self-defence.

Reprieve argued that Cameron's government had either failed to draw up a “targeted killing policy” or failed to publish it, both of which it said were illegal.

Following Britain's 2015 general election, it emerged that the UK had drawn up a "kill list" of IS targets. 

According to Drone Wars, the UK still insists that there has only been one civilian casualty since military action against IS began seven years ago. 

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