British Drone Strike Targets in the Light of the Chilcot Report

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On July 6, 2016, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, was finally published after more than six years of work by Chair of the Inquiry, Sir John Chilcot. The aim of the study, which began in 2009 and was initiated by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was to consider the UK’s policy on Iraq from 2001 to 2009 and to “identify lessons for the future” by answering two key questions:

  1. Whether it was right and necessary to invade Iraq in 2003, and
  2. Whether the UK could—and should—have been better prepared for what followed

The study ended up taking four years longer than the projected two years, and it cost more than £10 million to carry out. The conclusions have been widely affirmed as damning of Tony Blair, the prime minister who chose to ally the United Kingdom with the United States in its invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

The report spans multiple volumes, but The Guardian has put together a nice summary of the most important points, a few of which I’ll paraphrase here:

–The war was not a last resort. The UK joined the war effort before peaceful options had been exhausted.

–PM Tony Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. There was no imminent threat. Furthermore, Britain’s intelligence agencies produced “flawed information”, skewed by a confirmation bias that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD (weapons of mass destruction). Essentially, British intelligence accepted the burden of proof put forth by the US government: that Iraq needed to demonstrate that it had no WMD. (NB: such negative proofs are logically impossible. Try proving the nonexistence of Santa Claus–or God, for that matter.)

–Blair assured US President George W. Bush that he would join the war effort without fail: “I will be with you, whatever.”

For the most part, the six year, £10 million+ study basically concluded what millions of antiwar protesters had no difficulty recognizing back in 2002.

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Now that the UK government itself has concluded that Blair made serious errors while acting in the capacity of prime minister, many people have called for his criminal indictment. The most promising charge would have to be that he misled, and therefore coerced, the British people into participating in a war against their own national interest. In the wake of the report, Blair has stood by his decision to embroil the UK in the war in Iraq, claiming that he meant well. Once again we find that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” (See: just war theory for more on that…)

One topic which has not been addressed by any of the many commentators on the Chilcot Report—at least not to my knowledge—is whether it does not also mandate a reconsideration of the treatment of Britain’s allegedly treasonous enemies, young men who have turned against the UK government as a direct result of its complicity in the destruction of the country of Iraq, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and the harm to millions more, many of whom were forced to flee their homeland as a result of the postwar violence and insecurity.

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Junaid Hussain

I am interested specifically in the cases of three young British nationals, Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussein, all of whom were incinerated by lethal drone while living in Syria, to which they fled in order to join the ISIS effort. The reason why the stories of these young men, denounced by the UK government as “evil terrorists” and threats to national security, trouble me is because they were deliberately destroyed by their own government without ever having stood trial or even been indicted for their alleged crimes.

 

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Ruhul Amin

Two of the targets, Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan, were taken out on August 21, 2015, by missiles fired from drones by the RAF under the authorization of then-Prime Minister David Cameron. The third target, Junaid Hussein, was eliminated on August 25, 2015, by a US drone with the help of British intelligence. (Other persons were killed in a previous strike aiming for him.) All in all, August 2015 was a precedent-setting month for Britain, a nation in which capital punishment has been outlawed and which was not officially at war in Syria, where these British nationals were hunted down and killed.

 

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Reyaad Khan

Two of the three alleged enemies of the state were 21 years of age at the time of their death; the third was 26 years old. They all died in late 2015, which implies that two of the targets were 9 years old when the UK government joined the ill-advised war on Iraq; the third was 14 years old. This means that they were children or young adolescents at the time of the invasion of Iraq. Their entire worldview was obviously affected by the war on Iraq, for they later decided to team up with whoever was fighting those responsible.

In other words, if Britain had not joined forces with the United States, which would have made it very, very difficult for the war to proceed, as there would not have been a “coalition of the willing” but only a rogue aggressor state, then in all likelihood Iraq would not have been destroyed, and the group which came to be known as ISIS would not have grown and spread from Iraq to Syria.

These are all counterfactual conditionals, of course. My point is only that if ISIS never came to be in its present form, because the people of Iraq were not subjected to oppression and lawless aggression—night raids, summary executions, detentions and torture—then the British drone strike targets destroyed with the blessing of David Cameron could not and would not have joined forces with the group now known as ISIS.

I therefore find that, in addition to being responsible for all of the death and destruction in Iraq, Tony Blair bears responsibility not only for the deaths of Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussain, but also for Prime Minister David Cameron’s summary execution without trial of these men. In saying this, I do not mean to absolve Cameron for his mistake, for he himself identified his victims as enemies of the state and arguably violated both British and international law by assassinating them. Cameron should never have followed US President Obama’s misguided precedent in summarily executing without trial his fellow citizens.

However, Tony Blair is equally culpable, in my view, for having contributed to this return to a medieval, pre-Magna Carta framework of justice being perpetrated by unjust warriors as necessary only because of their own prior crimes and the existence of a sophisticated modern technology, the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), without which none of these deaths would have occurred (see: We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age).

It is tragic that so many young Muslim men are being annihilated for reacting violently to what they correctly identify to have been atrocious crimes committed in a misguided war (see: Chilcot Report). The state warriors and the factional terrorists sadly all embrace the same confused premise: that conflict can be resolved by obliterating anyone who disagrees. Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain are graphic illustrations of how young people are being molded into jihadists by their witness of state-perpetrated war crimes, and their heartfelt desire to stop them.

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Exception or Precedent? The remote-control killing by police of a suspect on US soil

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On July 8, 2016, a robot was used for the very first time to blow up a criminal suspect in the United States. Five Dallas city policemen had been slain, and several others injured. The perpetrator, Micah Xavier Johnson, was involved in a conversation with the police for a while, but when he began shooting again, the decision was taken to blow him up. The opportunity was there, the bomb-disposal robot was already in the possession of the police, and who could complain, given what this particular suspect had already done?

The robot used to blow up Micah Johnson was not a lethal drone, but it may as well have been. One might wonder how the police devised the idea of using a bomb-disposal robot to blow up a human being, but certainly the US drone program offers plenty of examples of the use of remote-control technology to incinerate, rather than capture, terrorist suspects.

US citizens have grown accustomed to their government killing people abroad, but the decision to kill by remote control in the homeland was extraordinary in that no attempt was made to incapacitate the suspect instead. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that policemen in dangerous scenarios often opt to shoot to kill, aiming for the heart or head, not the suspect’s foot or hand. However, it is not the role of the police to execute but to take into custody suspects so that their guilt can be determined by a jury of peers and, if convicted, an appropriate penalty applied.

Despite the grisly nature of what was done to Micah Johnson, many commentators have insisted that the police chief made the right call in deciding to blow the man up. But was this in fact his call to make? The precedent set by this action would seem to be yet another step down an ever-more lethal continuum rendered considerably more so by the current US president, Barack Obama, whose policy it is to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists located abroad.

The US administration continues to claim that in all of its thousands of targeted killings, capture has been infeasible and the premeditated, intentional acts of homicide have been necessary in national self-defense, all part of the Global War on Terror. Obama’s authority to kill suspects anywhere he chooses to do so—both inside and outside areas of active hostilities—is said to derive from the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) conferred by the US congress upon President George W. Bush about fifteen years ago.

As technology has become more and more sophisticated, it is highly ironic that the restraints on killing wrought over millennia, and the great advances in institutions of justice, beginning with the 1215 Magna Carta, have been forgotten or set aside. The suspects killed in the Global War on Terror by lethal drone are presumed guilty until proven innocent, but they are denied the right to demonstrate their innocence. They are denied even the right to surrender and usually have no idea that they are about to be killed. They are simply eliminated from the face of the earth at the behest of the US president’s henchmen at a time of their choosing, as the “opportunity” arises.

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The blowing up of Micah Johnson by the police was triply ironic. Not only was he trained as a sniper by the US military, but the young African American was apparently protesting against police brutality against black men in the homeland. Johnson’s desire to “kill white people” arose out of anger at the police killings of a series of black men brought to the attention of the public by the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years. But the response of the police to Johnson’s obviously misguided mission to target policemen was to ratchet up the brutality against black men yet another notch.

Rather than being riddled with bullets, the body of Micah Johnson, a black man, was blown up in a manner befitting a condemned building, not a human being. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that shooting to kill unarmed persons is somehow less objectionable, but only that the degree of sheer violence is much greater and the denial of the victim’s personhood highlighted by the use of a bomb to eliminate him.

After the use of a robotic device to obliterate the suspect, several Dallas officials made public statements to the effect that there was no other way to neutralize the threat posed by Micah Johnson. I can think of several. How about bombing the place where he was located with tear gas? SWAT teams certainly have gas masks in their arsenal of equipment, so the place could have been literally fumigated with gas using the same robot to deliver not explosives but agents of lachrymation. Or how about bombing the place with a gaseous form of sedative to knock him out so that the place could be secured and accessed by a team who would then be able to take the man into custody?

In this regard, the case of Micah Johnson bears comparison to that of Osama bin Laden, who was also executed when in fact he might have been shot with tranquilizer plugs rather than bullets. His unconscious body could have been lifted out of Abbottabad just as his corpse was, but the decision was taken by Obama to kill him instead. Bin Laden was widely reviled as the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and if not the architect, he was at the very least their inspiration, given his enthusiastic exhortations that Al Qaeda members wage jihad against the United States in retaliation to what he regarded as inexcusable war crimes, especially in the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath in Iraq.

The execution of Bin Laden and Micah Johnson are similar in another, even more significant, way. Both acts of killing look like exceptions, which took place in extraordinary circumstances. However, as precedents, both can be seen to set in motion a series of future actions modeled on them, because the exception swiftly transforms into the rule once initial inhibitions against intentional, premeditated homicide have fallen by the wayside. Under Obama’s greatly expanded drone program, which began in January 2009, shortly after the new president assumed his office, assassination of suspects has been rebranded as “targeted killing” and carried out primarily through the use of Hellfire missiles delivered by Predator drones.

The drone program and the execution of Bin Laden were mutually reinforcing. If lower-level “foot soldiers” whose names are not even known may be eliminated by drone, then why wouldn’t Bin Laden be fair game for elimination as well? Both the drone program and the execution of Bin Laden served to inform a further escalation of lethality when US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was executed in Yemen by his own government.

Was Al-Awlaki anything like Bin Laden? Of course not. But Al-Awlaki was mythologized as an execrable bogeyman in the mainstream media to the point where most Americans came to believe that he was morally equivalent to Bin Laden. To this day, most people have no idea that Al-Awlaki spoke out against the crimes of 9/11. He was a voice of moderation at the time, calmly counseling the government not to make the mistake of acting in ways which could easily be misconstrued as waging a war on Islam.

That was precisely what the US government proceeded to do. They invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, despite the fact that most of the perpetrators of 9/11 hailed from Saudi Arabia, the government of which was given a free pass. Rather than focusing on those ultimately responsible for 9/11, the US government set out to harass Muslims such as Anwar al-Awlaki to such an extent, using both the FBI and foreign governments (in his case, President Saleh of Yemen), that in some cases the targeted suspects transmogrified into self-avowed enemies.

Was Anwar Al-Awlaki an operational terrorist, or was he a propagandist and cheerleader of sorts for jihad? Whatever source of inspiration some of the apprehended perpetrators of terrorist plots may have drawn from Al-Awlaki’s sermons, the fact remains that they and they alone chose to carry out violent acts. The evidence supposedly convicting Al-Awlaki of the capital crimes allegedly justifying his summary execution without trial continues to be withheld on grounds of State Secrets Privilege under a pretext of national security.

Exceptions quickly transform into rules when more and more agents agree to follow suit. Case in point: only a few years after Obama’s 2011 decision to execute Al-Awlaki by lethal drone, then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron chose in 2015 to eliminate two British nationals located in Syria using lethal drones. Now, apparently, this is what the US government and its allies do. Find people, even fellow citizens, who appear to be up to no good, and if they are located in a Third World country or war zone, then it’s supposed to be perfectly fine to execute them without trial. Just make sure that you use a missile so that you can call it an “act of war”.

In the case of Micah Johnson, the Dallas cop killer who was blown up by a robotic device operated by remote control, people may say that he obviously deserved to die and the police had no intention of risking the lives of any more of their comrades. But there were other “suspects” identified at the time of the crime as well, who might also have been blown up using robots, were they available, and had those suspects been located.

One fellow’s face was spammed all over Twitter. It turned out that he was not involved. What if some vigilante had taken him out, under the assumption that he needed to be neutralized? What if the angry Dallas police force had located that suspect and blown him up for the very reason that he adamantly denied having done anything wrong? He would have become the homeland analogue to collateral damage, now that the weapons of war are being used by law enforcement.

The risk aversion of war makers steadily increased over the course of only a couple of decades to the point where sacrificing the lives of civilians on the ground “outside areas of active hostilities” has come to be considered perfectly acceptable among US leaders. These are places where deadly missiles are being directed toward suspected terrorists even though they are not threatening anyone with death at the time when they are killed, and least of all US citizens. Indeed, the targets are usually unarmed, located as they are “outside areas of active hostilities”.

Given how the drone program inclined administrators toward killing rather than capturing Bin Laden, and given how the killing of Bin Laden then inclined administrators to kill even US citizen suspects by lethal drone, I predict a similar lethal turn in law enforcement in the homeland in the aftermath of the obliteration of Micah Johnson by remote control. It does not matter that his case was exceptional. The case of Bin Laden was exceptional, too.

The same risk aversion seen among the “light footprint” war makers led by Obama will begin to infect police departments all over the United States as the commanders of men in blue become less and less willing to allow them to die, even when the risk of killing innocent bystanders will obviously increase. It is of course rational to attempt to protect soldiers and policemen. But is it not finally time to reconsider the infinite price in innocent life being paid in the quest to kill allegedly evil people, whose importance is given higher priority than anything else? Is this focus on death to the exclusion of all other considerations not the ultimate expression of nihilism?

What is most remarkable of all about the myopic, glaucomic, and amnesiac paradigm of lethal centrism is that given the never-ending series of mass killings being perpetrated all over the place—in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Baton Route, Munich—we now have ample evidence that this single-minded focus on lethality is not keeping people in the West safe.

As a matter of fact, “Kill don’t capture” and “Strike first, suppress questions later”, the Obama administration’s signature policy, serves as an incredibly destructive example to lone wolf killers, would-be jihadists, and angry activists alike who emulate governments when they decide to take up arms and perpetrate mass homicide as a way of expressing their grievances.

 

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2016 paperback edition with a new foreword available for pre-order at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Kill-Because-Can-Soldiering-Assassination/dp/1783605472?ie=UTF8&qid=&ref_=tmm_pap_swatch_0&sr=

 

Remembering the Magna Carta

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It took a long time for human societies to come up with the idea of universal human rights and the equality of persons under the law. Before 1215, monarchs could capriciously decree “Off with their heads!” and dispatch anyone with impunity. In the short term, leaders were the equivalent of terrestrial gods, acting with the divine right of kings, according to the received wisdom of the times. If mistakes were made, they would be dealt with in the afterlife.

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Only in the thirteenth century did the absolute authority of the monarch begin seriously to be questioned. Admittedly, the first attempts were not driven by pure quests for morality or justice on the part of leaders themselves. The first steps taken were rather practical in nature, and there were many false starts before the notions of liberty and human dignity began to take hold. The earliest kings to begin the process of forging what would eventually come to be embraced as human rights were amenable to negotiation on contentious matters, including the meting out of justice, for the self-interested or prudential reason that they needed the cooperation of other people in order to govern their domains smoothly.

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Full rights were not extended to all people everywhere for many, many centuries, but it all started with the Magna Carta and the path-breaking idea that the arbitrary justice handed down by monarchs up until that time needed to be moderated. Small concessions led to larger ones and were incorporated in the government constitutions of many Western democratic states, including the United States of America. The ideas continued to be developed and expanded until finally, in the mid-twentieth century, universal human rights were codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the twenty-first century, the idea of universal human rights has taken some serious hits. Ironically, it is the ultramodern technology used to annihilate persons by remote-control which has caused a regression to pre-Magna Carta times in matters of justice. George W. Bush was the first US president to dispatch persons with this technology, but he used it primarily in connection with the already waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the use of drones during Bush’s terms of office involved the protection of forces on the ground. Not all, however, for Bush also used drones, albeit selectively, in places such as Yemen and Pakistan, in a quest to hunt down and eliminate alleged Al Qaeda terrorists.

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President Barack Obama deserves even more censure than Bush on the drone front, having effectively normalized the practice of assassination at a distance. Obama thought that he was being a technologically savvy “smart warrior”, but the most cursory glance at the situation in the Middle East reveals that he was sorely wrong. Much of the US populace regards Obama as a cautious warrior, because he has done most of his killing quietly and covertly, characteristically refusing to share his lethal practices and policies with the public under cover of State Secrets Privilege said to be necessitated by national security.

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Obama’s decision to execute thousands of suspects without warning or trial using Predator drones is particularly disturbing in the light of the statistics on Guantánamo Bay prison, where the majority of the prisoners were discovered after years of detention to have been erroneously apprehended. The intel just wasn’t that good. Bribed informants are obviously subject to mercenary corruption, and this fact was starkly confirmed by the plight of terrorist suspects incarcerated under the authority of George W. Bush.

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One might have hoped that this lesson would be taken to heart by the subsequent US administration, but it was not. Instead, Obama dealt with the problem of suspects by defining them as guilty until proven innocent. Sound familiar? That would be the pre-Magna Carta template of justice. The sovereign power decrees “Off with their heads!” and that is the end of their story.

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It was shocking to many people when, in 2011, Obama opted to assassinate even US citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan and, two weeks later, Al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, in Yemen. Unfortunately, many people wanted to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, so impeachment proceedings were never carried out. In truth, what he started is bound to grow worse under the most likely successors to the US throne. But we did not even have to wait until the end of Obama’s term to see the nefarious potential for harm set by his precedent rolling back the progress made by republican governments over hundreds of years.

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Ironically, it was during the year of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, penned in Runnymede, West of London, that UK Prime Minister David Cameron decided to strap on his drone warrior holster and whack a couple of his own countrymen, Ruhal Amin and Reyaad Khan. The British Parliament had already explicitly voted against war in Syria, and yet that was precisely where Cameron carried out the assassinations using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), better known as “lethal drones”.

It is depressing that the tendency of people to accord Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt has ended by undoing so much good done by so many people who toiled over so many centuries to establish basic protections for all people under the law. When the leader of a nation chooses to execute his compatriots on the basis of secretive intelligence to which only he and his henchmen are privy, then it is difficult to see how this differs at all from what went on before 1215.

Every monarch throughout history who decreed “Off with their heads!” believed that he was doing the right thing. Often they felt entirely justified in what they were doing, primarily protecting their own domain and shoring up their power against threats. What reason can the US and UK governments possibly have for not observing the most basic protections guaranteed by the laws of the land, and codified in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

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The claim made by Obama has always been that capture is “infeasible”, but the cases of the unarmed Osama bin Laden, who was shot and killed in cold blood, and Anwar al-Awlaki, who was released from a prison in Yemen only to be hunted down and slain, reveal that “infeasibility” has now come to mean “undesirability”. In some ways the execution of British nationals authorized by David Cameron is even more shocking, because the death penalty is prohibited under both British law and the EU Charter. (Oddly enough, Cameron himself opposes Brexit!)

Political leaders can generally be depended on to try to outdo their predecessors, just as Obama did vis-à-vis Bush on the drone front. That is precisely why the legacy of Barack Obama will be none other than the increased propensity to “strike first, suppress questions later,” to prove that whoever the new president ends up being is “tougher” on terrorism than Obama was.

Let no one be fooled by the fact that for most of his eight-year term Obama resolutely recited “no boots on the ground” in the manner of a mantra. After years of covert operations, drone strikes, and weapons provisions to “appropriately vetted moderate rebel forces”, the Middle East is a morass of lawlessness and homicide. We reap what we sow. Now even Obama has sent combat troops to most of the several lands where he has ruthlessly used drones to kill persons whose names are not even known, along with “high-value” targets who became enemies of the state only because of the US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria using implements of mass homicide, Special Forces, intelligence operatives, and regular combat soldiers.

The Magna Carta was the beginning of the full recognition of human liberty and dignity, and an acknowledgement that no mere mortal possesses the divine powers of omniscience. Mistakes are made. Politicians and bureaucrats are sometimes corrupt and sometimes amoral. That is precisely why we have laws to guard against the very tyranny which Obama and Cameron have chosen so myopically to embrace and hold up as an example for leaders all over the world, in both democratic and nondemocratic states.

The road to liberty and universal human rights was long and tortuous. The road to tyranny, thousands of victims have now learned at the hands of the US and UK governments, is short and direct, rather like driving down a street which terminates off the edge of a cliff. The fact that most US and UK citizens have not suffered summary execution has persuaded many to believe that nothing has really changed. In fact, everything has changed, but not in the way which any of the early supporters of Obama might have hoped.

To freely forsake one’s right to be indicted and tried for a capital crime before being annihilated by the state is a luxury enjoyed only by already free people. To condone the drone warriors’ willful denial of the historical and political significance of the Magna Carta is to prevent that same liberty from being shared by all people everywhere.

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