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Britain's Drone Strike in Syria
These executions are a mark of tyranny
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The ability to execute its own citizens has been a mark of tyrannical government from Rome in the days of the Caesars to Moscow during the Great Purge in the 1930s

The lack of public response to the British government ordering the assassination by pilotless drones of two British citizens, Reyaad Khan and Rahul Amin, is alarming but scarcely surprising. The two Isis members were killed outside Raqqa in Syria because they were allegedly planning attacks in Britain, though the nature of the threat they posed remains a secret. Their deaths were never going to shock many people in Britain, given IS’s ghastly record for carrying out ritual murders, rapes and massacres.

But the drone attack should cause real alarm because it is an extraordinary extension of the powers of government to be able to execute its own citizens with no explanation, except that the killing was for the public good and against an unnamed but horrendous threat, the nature of which is known only to the government itself. Keep in mind that the ability to execute its own citizens has been a mark of tyrannical government from Rome in the days of the Caesars to Moscow during the Great Purge in the 1930s. Where evidence for an existential threat is lacking, it can be exaggerated or manufactured, as notoriously happened in 2003 over Iraqi WMD.

Avoiding a descriptive word such as “assassination” and the use instead of phrases such as “targeted killings” shows that governments are themselves a little edgy about the rightness of what they are doing. Even so, drone warfare has become highly attractive to political leaders in the US, Britain and the rest of the world. They like it above all because it shows them doing something easily explained and apparently effective against evil-doers of whom their own people are frightened. The use of drones means that there will be no American or British soldiers coming back in coffins, so even if the attacks fail there will be no political price to pay domestically.

In addition, though this justification is a bit discredited these days, the drone strikes can be sold as being of such pin-point accuracy against terrorist leaders that civilian casualties are negligible. The use of drones has all the advantages for politicians of going to war, in terms of rallying public support behind them, but without the costs and uncertainty of real conflict.

The problem is that experience has shown again and again that drone warfare does not work and generally increases the terrorist threat rather than reducing it. The drone strikes become a highly publicised melodrama that substitutes for a real and effective policy. For instance, in September 2011, in Yemen, a US drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Obama administration, which has conducted some 500 drone strikes, presented this killing as a high point in its counter-terrorist campaign. But four years later AQAP is spreading through Yemen, capturing the port city of Mukalla, and stronger than it has ever been. It has done so by taking advantage of the chaos that followed the Saudi military intervention in Yemen in March, which is backed by the US. If Washington is embarrassed by its demonstrable failure in Yemen, it is showing no sign of it, presumably calculating that the rest of the world is paying little attention to the calamitous war there.

Drone strikes and the killing of selected individuals by US special forces have been directed at different times against supposed “king pins” or more junior commanders. The original concept appears to have been pioneered by the Israelis in Gaza, a small besieged enclave where targeted individuals could be easily located and eliminated. Elsewhere, drones were sold by their advocates as a “magic bullet” whereby war could be conducted on the cheap.

Like many simple solutions to complex problems, their shortcomings are easy to describe but difficult to prove – often because the military commanders who owe their promotion to advocating new weapons or strategies have no wish to have their effectiveness accurately tested.

When such measurements do take place, the results are often highly disconcerting and contradict upbeat propaganda claims. A fascinating concrete example of this is given by my brother Andrew Cockburn in his recently published book, Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High-Tech Assassins, in a chapter describing the US campaign in Iraq to eliminate “High Value Individuals” held responsible for the IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices, that inflicted heavy casualties on US troops. No less than 70,000 of these had been put in place by insurgents by 2007. The counter-measure adopted by the US Army was to target and kill leaders of “the IED networks”, and many were assassinated or otherwise disposed of.

For once there was a rigorous study of what had been achieved, which was carried out by Rex Rivolo, who worked for the Institute for Defense Analysis, the Pentagon’s think tank. Visiting frontline military units with Colonel Jim Hickey, who had led the final, successful, hunt for Saddam Hussein, Rivolo asked about the effect of killing high value individuals (HVIs) on the number of IEDs being used against US troops. Without exception, the soldiers said that the campaign to kill those responsible was counter-effective. One soldier said: “Once you knock them off, a day later you have a new guy who’s smarter, younger, more aggressive and is out for revenge.”


Rivolo conducted a study on 200 cases where high value targets had been killed or captured between June and October 2007. He looked at the neighbourhood of the local leader who had been eliminated, in order to see if the number of IEDs had gone up or down in the 30 days after his death or arrest. According to the book, it turned out that “hitting HVIs did not reduce attacks and save American lives. It increased them. Each killing had quickly prompted mayhem. Within 3 kilometres of the target’s base of operations, attacks over the following 30 days shot up by 40 per cent.”

The miscalculation by the US Army was political as well as military. It assumed that there were a finite number of insurgents, though by 2007 they must have known they were fighting the six million strong Sunni community in Iraq. Leaders and local commanders could be replaced and they usually were within 24 hours, and, by a Darwinian process of natural selection, the replacements were better able to survive than their predecessors. The main reason why Isis is so militarily expert and successful today is that its commanders are survivors of a dozen years of intense warfare and attempts to kill them.

Of course, drone attacks and assassination teams are nothing like as accurate – or draw on such impeccable intelligence – as they claim, and a significant proportion of those killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen have been civilians. Such mistakes have repeatedly occurred and are usually met with official mendacity, evasion and, on occasion, shame-faced admission and payment of meagre compensation. I once reported the bombing of an Afghan village by US planes that had left craters 20ft deep which a US spokesman said might have been caused by grenades thrown by Taliban fighters.

It is into this dubious high-tech world of pretended success and real failure that Britain is entering with its first assassination by drone strike.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Drone War, Syria 
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  1. Renoman says:

    The standard treatment for traitors is death, how it is administered is more or less irrelevant assuming a long session of torture is not involved. Why risk a life if it is not required? It must be efficient or the British wouldn’t do it, understand that the American approach to War is vastly different than the British. If the Americans are sent to kill someone they send in the troops, guns blazing, bullets everywhere, the Brits will send in a sniper and if he uses more than one bullet he will have a weeks paperwork describing why he missed.

    • Replies: @woodNfish
  2. Ace says:

    The “British citizen” idea is worthless when time comes to deal with Muslims who come to live in or have been born in Briton. By definition a Muslim cannot give his allegiance to a kaffir nation. Any oath of allegiance given by a Muslim is the quintessential oath given WITH mental reservation and purpose of evasion.

    Renoman above has the nub of the issue – treason. I have 99% confidence in the ability of controllers to determine that someone is in an ISIS, say, operational area and is WITH ISIS troops.

    The author argues that strikes can involve “civilians” but that is not a category to be taken at face value. Moreover, if one watches enough videos of Taliban running around in a lovely green IR glow it’s as clear as can be that they’re troops in the field.

    If those Muslim scum want the protection of their ill-advisedly granted citizenship they should take a camera and photograph caribou in Lappland. “Tour” Syria and don’t be surprised that you’re likely to take a premature trip to where you can enjoy all those apple-cheeked boys.

  3. The drone strikes become a highly publicised melodrama that substitutes for a real and effective policy.

    I do not dispute your analysis of the shortcomings of the drone strikes, but do you really think there can be an “effective policy”? Something other than depopulating the region, I mean.

  4. It is not surprising, since Britons are yet “subjects” in a monarchy, and not, as in the United States free citizens. The execution of persons without due process with impunity has now, unfortunately, also become a feature of the once “free” government of the United States. “Extralegal killing” without due process is one thing, and this only: murder. No matter what state and who commits it, or why. It can be said that both the United Kingdom and the United States now share a despotic surveillance/intelligence regime which operates effectively without constraint of the rule of law, sovereign borders, or the consideration of individual human rights. Oceania uber alles!

    • Agree: Orville H. Larson
    • Replies: @random observer
    , @dearieme
  5. Priss Factor [AKA "The Priss Factory"] says: • Website

    Syrian Girl makes more sense that Western presstitutes.

    • Replies: @VisPacem
    , @Ace
  6. Priss Factor [AKA "The Priss Factory"] says: • Website

    The Zio-West’s criminality in destroying Syria is so huge that it is horrified of Assad surviving. If Assad does win, he will have the power of narrative to tell the world what happened to his nation and who did what.
    Also, he will be a figure of defiance and triumph of survival against all odds against the evil Zio-West.

    Zio-West seeks to bury the evidence of its crime by getting rid of Assad. But the Zio-West is in a bind because its proxies are Alqaeda and ISIS. Zio-West will look bad as the enabler of ISIS takeover of Syria.

    PS. Why are millennials so obnoxious, turning even a tragedy like this into a joke.

  7. Clyde says:

    Citizens in name only and Patrick Cockburn knows this. A name like Cockburn has spent generations on British and Scottish soil. Names like Reyaad Khan and Rahul Amin just got here. Are FOB ….. fresh off the banana boat.
    Leftist polemicists can try and twist the law and common sense but the average Brit knows what an invested Brit is and these two clowns did not make the cut

  8. Priss Factor [AKA "The Priss Factory"] says: • Website

    Even a neocon mag is saying Germany has gone nuts.

    If Merkel had real courage, she wouldn’t say “Come to Germany” to refugees but say “Stop the arming and harming” to the US, Israel, and Turkey.

  9. KA says:

    Britain is fully on board with the perverted neocon’s agenda. It is one more nail on the coffin of the possibility of a better negotiated outcome .
    These recurring behaviors and set of action should have dispelled any myth of the sincerity of the western desire to get rid of the Islamofasict except from the mind of the most unapologetic admirers of the empire . British hasn’t changed . Only the brutalization at the hand of Naxi cut its hand of torture and dulled the zeal of civilizing the rest living in the third world. It was lucky on two occasions -1 and 2 WW. US came to its rescue. This time it seems America will put the headstone on its grave and none will come to read the eulogy .

  10. KA says:

    One wonders how and why Britain has allowed so many unaccompanied minors to fly out of the country to join ISIS at a time when it maintains one of the most surveilled street and one of the most penetrative intense security at the airport?
    Is it all for public consumption? Britain is actively engaged in supporting radical Islamism in levant and is fully in bed with the mission of shadow government within Obama administration that has the blessing of Petraeus Panetta,
    Clinton ,and neocons and of Cheney . They proclaim hatred and exasperation at these Islamofascist but engage in behaviors that nurture and solidify the very survival and growth of the radicals .
    These behind the scene public interlocutors of the jihadist then use that development to harness and to materialize the real aim of the imperial court . They garner public enthusiasm by bringing both the racist bigoted colonialist and the secularized liberal do gooder lefties together and get them to support preemptive wars by land by proxy,and by drones.

  11. @KA

    One wonders how and why Britain has allowed so many unaccompanied minors to fly out of the country to join ISIS at a time when it maintains one of the most surveilled street and one of the most penetrative intense security at the airport?

    There may be more to this, but Turkey is a popular holiday destination.

    Also, there is a fair size Turkish minority in Britain – mostly Turkish-Cypriots, they run most of the ubiquitous kebab shops.

    So how is the British Government going to stop British passport holders travelling to Turkey and then on to Syria? Just stop Muslims? That’d be racist.

    • Replies: @KA
  12. The refugee problem is one of the West’s creation. The West is morally obligated to accept them.

    • Replies: @peterike
  13. KA says:
    @Working Class Englishman

    These are minors who are traveling
    Minors . Unaccompanied minors .

    You see the selective application of the laws and you can see the selective tunneling thought the the holes in the laws

  14. HBM says:

    Displacing oneself with Muslim hordes while destroying civil liberties to murder Muslims in the Middle East.

    Need any other proof that Jews are totally in charge of the West?

    • Replies: @KA
  15. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    ISIS can’t retaliate if there are no boots on the ground and their overseas demarches are nipped in the bud, so the article’s analogy is flawed.

    All the angry young men down there will have to make do with killing each other for the while. Good riddance.

  16. Mr. Cockburn tells us:”The ability to execute its own citizens has been a mark of tyrannical government from Rome in the days of the Caesars to Moscow…”

    Every school boy used to know that Roman citizens had the right to appeal a death sentence “unto Caesar” and were not subject to arbitrary execution at the hands of a Roman magistrate. Things have changed since the days of the Roman Empire but decidedly for the worse.

    • Replies: @Karl
  17. Art says:

    The Cameron Brit government summarily kills its own citizens helping fascist Israel. But what can we expect?

    Last week Cameron played kissy face with the fascist Big Jew Netanyahu (who is so insecure that he has to shoot boys who throw stones). How sad, the mighty Brits make nice with a fascist murderer.

    Britain has a new Labor leader who doesn’t like apartheid Zionism – God speed to him and them!

  18. Art says:

    Sorry, this is of no real significance to the Syrian war.

    It is nothing more than the British military getting their rocks off with a new toy – they are showing off, by killing their own citizens.

    Someone should go to jail.

  19. KA says:

    “At the same time, it’s been understood throughout that there would eventually be a multi-billion dollar payoff by the US government in the form of extra military aid to Israel, meant to get them to at least calm down a little about the pact.

    Despite Israel continuing to rail about the deal, and despite the deal being safe in Congress without Israeli acquiescence, the US and Israel are said to be engaged in “low-profile” talks on terms of the “compensation” deal for them, with an eye toward getting the deal ready to announce by November’s state visit for Netanyahu.”

    Will Israel ask for money to help it feel safe after the massacre of Christian and Muslim in Middle East at the hands of the Muslim and the Christain( NATO -US army ) ? After all ,it can always claim that it has genuine worries to become a target after the rest are disappeared from Middle East .Or it may claim that it no longer has suitable targets and it needs to upgrade its defense for practice in the newly created different atmosphere .

  20. peterike says:

    The refugee problem is one of the West’s creation. The West is morally obligated to accept them.

    Your first sentence is true. The second is nonsense.

    Why should the people of the West have to bear the burden of the refugee flood? They did not ask for their governments to meddle in the Middle East. To the extent they did, they did so based on lies and propaganda. They don’t deserve any of what’s happening to them, just as whites in America never asked to be flooded by Mexicans.

    • Replies: @Priss Factor
  21. joe webb says:

    more dopey liberal complaining. These guys deserve to die. I assume because of the costs of deploying and building, and maintaining these flying machines, that when a target is selected, the military wants to be damned sure they get the right guy, at least most of the time.

    Take me for example, if I decided to make war on my country, I would hope that my country would figure out how to kill me. and pdq.

    These liberals are so far out of touch with reality…they want traitors and murderers to be counseled and given Programs for their rehabilitation.

    Never mind the total insanity of these muzzies. I have experienced a couple of them. one for the books. My Moody Bible College Dispensationalist cousin is sweet as a peach, even when he deals with his atheistic cousin, me.

    Muzzies are beyond Sweetness….they are insane, and the worst of them need termination. i just wish there were cheaper ways to achieve same than the probably many tens of thousands of dollars it takes for one kill. Bullets are less than a buck apiece.

    All of which does not overlook the main people responsible for driving the muzzles berzerk, our friends, the people of the bonk.

    by the way, the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.

    Joe Webb

  22. Priss Factor [AKA "The Priss Factory"] says: • Website

    This is really some inspiring video. Patriots saying NO to foreign invaders and taking on Brussels and EU, the policies of which messed up the Middle East.

  23. Priss Factor [AKA "The Priss Factory"] says: • Website

    “Why should the people of the West have to bear the burden of the refugee flood?”

    I agree with this. And if I could help it, I would keep all refugees/migrants out.

    But EU is supposed to be a democracy, and the people did elect their own leaders who cucked themselves to the US to mess up the Middle East. So, even though I oppose the invasion of Europe, I think Europeans are somewhat responsible.

    It’s like Germans supported Hitler who wasn’t simply a tyrant but a very popular ruler. And they obeyed Hitler and followed his orders and invaded Russia. What was the result of this? Russian rollback that finally invaded a huge chunk of Germany and led to so much destruction. Since the German people acquiesced in Hitler’s invasion of Russia, they reaped the consequences of their not entirely unwilling cooperation with evil.

    I think Americans and Europeans need to be more vocal and hit the street to oppose what is really a form of neo-imperialism or Zio-imperialism.

  24. @Surrealisto

    Britain is a monarchy, to be sure, and the term “subject” remains in colloquial use and perhaps even legal use although archaic. But…

    “British Subject” evolved after WW2 into a catch all for the entire empire, as the UK and the old Dominions all developed national citizenships to enhance their border controls even against one another. From the late 1940s, South Africa, Canada, Australia and NZ all created their own citizenships. The UK, still possessing a colonial empire, created the status “Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies”, which excluded the Dominions. The Dominions all continued to redefine their citizenship laws and eventually ended the shared status of British Subject, although their citizens retain some rights to access the UK. The UK eventually narrowed its citizenship as it shed colonies, in 1981 creating “Citizen of the United Kingdom” status as well as separate citizenship for its few remaining possessions and overseas settlements.

    All of which just to say that the nationality term in official and everyday use for born or naturalized Britons has been “Citizen” for generations. The only people who are British Subjects are people in far flung places who never qualified for any other nationality and retain British protection. There may not be any left.

    I realize you probably mean the distinction in less legalistic terms, but in that case I’m even more confused. I see no evidence that Britons are any less “free citizens” than Americans. They invented the common law traditions, had the first bill of rights, that the founding fathers imitated. In modern times, every major imposition of the national security state seems to have been conceived and first implemented by the US, indeed implemented on a grander scale.

  25. I sympathize with Renoman, but in reality few Western countries any more maintain a death penalty for treason, and the UK is no longer among them. In the event of having arrested someone who actually meets the statutory definition of treason, a trial would be necessary and the max sentence would be life imprisonment.

    But I doubt the law or the courts consider criminal treason procedures to apply on the battlefield. An airstrike in a war zone is not really an assassination in the traditional sense, let alone an extrajudicial execution. If they didn’t want to get killed, they shouldn’t have been traitors in actual arms on the battlefield.

  26. I’m also not sure why Western policy should carry quite so much blame for the fate of Syria, or dictate how the refugee crisis is handled.

    The west did little to nothing to undermine Assad and has still done nothing- if anything, the rather half-hearted anti-ISIS war constitutes going to war on Assad’s side.

    Israel benefits from the chaos to some degree, but it’s a spectacularly high-risk policy and conditions could go south for Israeli interests really fast if they haven’t already.

    And there are larger issues.

    If a people has the right from time to time to use force to replace a government it doesn’t like with one it does, and attempts this feat, and doesn’t have the means to get it done, there are consequences and state failure is often one of them.

    And if people have that right, I would consider it a derivative of the larger right of peoples to settle their quarrels by force without interference by unaffected foreign peoples unless the latter have skin. Well, Syria is a state that contained many such and now the lid is off. And western countries arguably have no skin or, if we do, it is hopeless confused by the fact that most participants on every side are against our interests. So our skin is to let it go on without intervening, so we do that.

    If the Syrians or Iraqis considered themselves to be first and foremost nations and citizens of their respective countries, things would not have reached this state. They don’t seem to consider these to be their defining identities, or in some cases they might but are prepared to stake everything on a different form of state. They have the right to act on these assessments.

    A realist Western foreign policy might have contrived to generate this situation to gain advantage, but neocons probably actually believed democracy would bust out all over. If Syrian or Iraqi peoples had overwhelmingly wanted that outcome they could have done it.

    Either way, if it’s not in the west’s interest to take refugees, the west is not obliged to take them. There are no such obligations outside of signed treaties, and that only applies to convention refugees and to first safe country of landing. I’d be happy to kick in money to pay for really swish camps. In Turkey or the Greek islands. And no migrants from countries farther afield and not actually engaged in countrywide civil wars.

  27. woodNfish says:

    The standard treatment for traitors is death, how it is administered is more or less irrelevant…

    I totally agree with this part of your comment. I don’t think the guilt of these peoples actions is in question, and I don’t want good troops harmed or killed trying to retrieve a traitor from a battlefront just so we can try him in court (as we did with Bergdahl).

    As for you guns blazing comment about amerikans, you haven’t got a clue what our Rangers and Seals do.

  28. Karl says:

    >>> Every school boy used to know that Roman citizens had the right to appeal a death sentence “unto Caesar”

    All American jurisdictions accommodate an equivalent right of appeal.

    Having said that, I would note an irony: The Second Amendment is sometimes cited as a fundamental right of citizens to resist government power by deadly force, merely because a citizen has decided to be judge/jury/executioner on a charge of “tyranny”.

    Don’t act surprised if/when that becomes a two way street with a Sovereign deciding that treason has/is-about-to occur.

    • Replies: @random observer
  29. @Karl

    An interesting point. I hadn’t thought of the way the wheels are coming off the rails as such a clear, almost dialectical, process before.

  30. Ace says:
    @Priss Factor

    Yes, thanks. Excellent video.

  31. Many conservatives, who were also old cold warriors, were against going into Iraq. The way we did it was try to treat the Iraqis like they were Germans or Japs, and try to rebuild the country in the same way we did Germany and Japan in the 40s and 50s.

    The only thing that held the country together, and radicals in check, was Hussein. If Hussein was getting out of line then going in and killing him, and handing the keys to another strong man with the advice, “don’t make us come back.” Arab Islamic countries have been red in tooth and claw from the beginning. Only strong men have kept things in check.

  32. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I refuse to think of these two Muslims as British citizens, just as they didn’t.

  33. KA says:

    “Speaking with his US counterpart, John Kerry, Hammond said the possibility of a fresh vote on British military action in Syria was under constant review but he indicated the government had reservations about the involvement of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

    Russian involvement in Syria complicates UK’s role, says Hammond

    Bad boy ! Somebody just found out that Al Quida was holding a vote to decide to strike again or not.

  34. dearieme says:

    ” Britons are yet “subjects” in a monarchy”: you clearly have no clue what being a “subject” means in a constitutional monarchy. You are also out of date: the jargon changed from “subject” to “citizen” years ago. That change was a mere change of label.

  35. Karl says:

    > You are also out of date: the jargon changed from “subject” to “citizen” years ago.

    Next you’ll be telling us that an invasion by 20 year old Somali men, is an influx of “refugees”.

    Next after that, you’ll be telling us that you can accomodate your spouse’s preference to have sex outside the marriage; itr’s just a question of “terminology”.

    the flag of theCommonwealth of Virginia, teaches us clearly how we should handle your monarch…..

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