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The killing of Mohammed Emwazi on 12 November 2015, announced early this morning, will be seen by most observers as nought but justice for a brutal killer who was apparently responsible for the beheading of at least six people: three Americans, two Britons and a Japanese journalist. As Prime Minister David Cameron expressed it, this operation was a ‘strike at the heart’ of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and would demonstrate that ‘we have a long reach, we have unwavering determination and we never forget about our citizens’.
From an immediate operational point of view this is an open and shut case. Nevertheless, other implications arise from it.
One is that it reinforces the distinct change in tone the British government has adopted since the UK drone strikes on Reyaad Khan and Rahul Amin in Syria last August. When US drones were striking Al-Qa’ida jihadists in Waziristan during Afghan operations up to last year, British officials were tight-lipped over whether UK intelligence assets were used to help locate them, and how far it swopped useful intelligence material with the US for drone strikes. But now, the prime minister makes a point of saying that Emwazi was tracked down by US and British intelligence working ‘literally around the clock’.
There are reports that a British drone was directly involved in the attack, though this was more likely to be on an intelligence and surveillance mission connected to the strike rather than one which fired a missile. But the prime minister has gone out of his way to identify and affirm British involvement in this operation.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon had already said in September this year that Emwazi was ‘at the top’ of the UK’s target list and there would be no hesitation in attacking him if the opportunity arose. The message is clear – Britain is explicitly either going after these people, or helping the US go after these people, in a proactive and assertive way. It is a political statement as well as a military one.
It raises similar legal issues that continue to swirl around the Khan and Amin killings, but in this case any ‘complicity’ in a US action – legal for the US in terms of its declared rules of engagement – may still be a relatively moot point if a British drone was used in non-lethal roles in the operation, since such complicity has already existed for some time and has not been seriously challenged to date. Nevertheless, a direct British drone attack on Emwazi, in Raqqa, would be more difficult for the government to justify – particularly on the prime minister's stated grounds of 'self defence'.
To argue that a general and unspecified, and possibly even non-urgent, threat can be countered by extrajudicial killing in an area in which UK forces are not at war, opens endless possibilities for less lawfully-minded states to adopt the same approach in the name of self defence. Legal justification on these grounds is thin and may be damaging to the international norms the UK seeks to strengthen. There is, however, a ministerial appetite to argue the self defence case in the present climate, largely, it seems, on the basis of natural justice.
Another implication of this success is that there is no evidence that Mohammed Emwazi was of any military or political significance to ISIS operations on the ground. There is no reason to believe his absence will make any difference to the battles on the ground and the meltdown of order and security in Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, his killing is an important blow in a different battle; one that sees no fighting – only murders and public relations. Emwazi was the poster boy for the ISIS message to Western countries: that one of their own citizens was beheading victims and speaking with a British accent. That added immense shock value to the image. It was designed to excite fear the West that just such a thing might soon start to happen deep in its own societies. It was designed to remind British citizens of the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013, suggesting that this would be part of a trend. And, on the basis of recent arrests of terror suspects in the UK, there is some truth to that. A number of alleged recent plots have centred on plans to kidnap and murder victims with maximum online exposure.
Today’s news is presented by politicians as the contrary image – that of a tireless intelligence operation and a relentless military reach through drone strikes that will dispense a powerful form of natural justice – whatever the legal niceties of rules of engagement say.
Probably fortuitously, this news also comes on the day that offensives against ISIS in Sinjar appear to have been initially successful and the long-awaited offensive against it in Mosul has finally begun. ISIS will find itself under considerable military pressure in the weeks to come.
In this context, the killing of Emwazi plays both ways; as a success for Western natural justice and yet, at the same time, the creation of another martyr to the ISIS cause. Perhaps there will be a spike in jihadist attempts to avenge his death either in Britain or among Britons abroad; there will undoubtedly be others to replace him who will act similarly and in his name. For a semi-alienated youth from Kuwait who seemed to click into jihadism in his twenties as a way to become famous, he will have achieved his ambition.
Nevertheless, today will be marked down as a good day for the Western world’s fight against the barbarism of ISIS. But there will have to be a lot more good days like this before any sort of corner is turned in this particular battle.
Article was updated at 1900 Friday 13 November.