In 2015 a British student from Cardiff, Reyaad Khan, was killed in Syria by an RAF drone bomb, presumably “piloted” from Lincolnshire. A House of Commons report later accepted that he was “orchestrating and inciting” terrorist attacks in Britain, but could not discover how imminent the attacks were or the legal basis for his killing. His British associate, Junaid Hussain, was killed by an American drone. Two years later, Hussain’s widow, Sally Jones, and their 12-year-old son were similarly wiped out. No trial preceded these executions of British citizens on foreign soil. They died by executive action for being a threat to national security. If we assume someone in Moscow took the same view of Russian spy Sergei Skripal, what is the difference?
The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, implied this week that Britain was now a victim of Russian “acts of war”, notably cyber-attacks. He implied that if the Skripal case was traced to the Kremlin, he would “look again at sanctions”. He is right that the murder of anyone on a British street is terrible and, if sanctioned by a foreign power, is, in diplomatic jargon, “unacceptable”. But murder is a criminal act against individuals. It is silly to merge it into an act of war.
Khan and Hussain were apparently involved in much savagery in Syria and in plotting terrorism in Britain. Yet there was no indication that killing them was the sole way of preventing further crimes. Hussain’s wife appears to have been extremely unpleasant on social media. But Britain is not at war with Syria – any more than Russia is at war with Britain.
For governments to go about the world killing people without judicial process offends every international law, even if not much can be done about it. But for a British government to kill its own citizens without trial defies Magna Carta. When, in 2011, President Obama authorised the drone execution in Yemen of the US citizen and al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, it provoked outrage as an offence against American liberty. Obama claimed Awlaki “posed a continued and imminent threat to US persons or interests”. The result was years of legal dispute, the case championed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times, no less.
In Britain there was no outcry at the killings of Khan and the Hussains, just a mumble from the opposition. We were merely told that 21 passports had been revoked from unnamed Britons, presumably to leave them vulnerable to drone killing. This suggests the Home Office accepted that a passport ought to confer judicial protection. The absence of any legal debate of drones is a sure sign of a guilty Whitehall conscience.
Do such doubts appear at the defence ministry? In December the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, advocated the drone killing of “all” British citizens on the wrong side in Middle East wars. The implication is that UK citizens abroad cannot consider themselves immune from extrajudicial killing by their own government, should they meet with government disapproval. Does this include gangsters on the Costa Brava?
Both these sagas may fall into the category of small earthquake, not many dead. What is indefensible is the hypocrisy on the British side. Both are instances of the arrogance of power taking the law into its own hands.
I imagine Vladimir Putin and his henchmen view turncoat spies such as Skripal as “enemies of the state” wherever they live. That Skripal was the beneficiary of a spy swap would hardly have mattered in what appears a squalid vendetta. Putin would barely have to wink for him to be targeted. This is why it seems pointless to respond to his machismo with the parliamentary bombast of Britain’s foreign secretary. A Salisbury park bench is not the invasion of Poland.
In proportion, drone killings are far more significant. Britain is not threatened by Syria or Iraq. We have been bombing these countries largely at the behest of the Americans, and doing so as an alternative to a painful commitment of troops on the ground. If this means demolishing a whole block (and everyone in it) to take out one sniper, so be it. To the British government, at least British soldiers were not at risk. It is estimated that about 6,000 civilians have been killed by coalition bombs in the past three years alone.
I sense that the real difference between Syria and Salisbury is sadder. It is that we view killing from the air as somehow more “legitimate” than killing on the ground. The drone is clean, digital, hi-tech, “targeted”, even if it slaughters innocent people in the process. Since faulty technology can be blamed if missiles miss, airborne death is somehow more acceptable than ground-level massacres by “terrorists”. In reality we are back to the old maxim that the AK-47 is the poor man’s B-52. But the AK-47 is at least more accurate – as is Russian poison. If Moscow had used a British drone against Skripal, it might have done to Salisbury cathedral what drones have done to the ancient sites of Mesopotamia.
In just three and a half years, British taxpayers have spent a staggering £1.75bn bombing Isis-held towns. The cost of the bombs alone (£268m) is more than was spent on British humanitarian relief in the entire theatre. These drones have now been “at war” for 10 years. Since they are considered risk-free (to our side) and “hyper-asymmetric”, they can go anywhere, at anyone’s bidding. They show no respect for law or jurisdiction. They are strictly foreign policy for psychopaths. In comparison, Putin in Salisbury looks like a wimp.