Fallon: Britons with Isis are ‘legitimate targets’
Report claims drone strike killed mother of boy, 12 Defence secretary refuses to confirm death in Syria
British nationals fighting with Islamic State in Syria were a “legitimate target” for drone strikes, the defence secretary said yesterday, as he refused to confirm whether he believed reports that Sally Jones had died in a US strike.
Isis fighters were at risk of being hit “every hour of every day”, Michael Fallon said at a Foreign Office press conference.
The Sun reported on Wednesday that the CIA had told the UK that Jones, who travelled to Syria in 2013, was killed by a Predator drone strike near the Iraq border in June. It said news of her death was not made public amid fears that her 12-yearold son, Jojo, may also have been killed.
US military spokesmen and US sources also refused to confirm whether Jones had been killed, or whether her son was with her at the time.
Fallon said: “If you are a British national in Iraq or Syria and if you have chosen to fight for Daesh – an illegal organisation that is preparing and inspiring terror attacks on our streets – then you have made yourself a legitimate target and you run the risk every hour of every day of being on the wrong end of an RAF or a United States missile.”
Although deaths by drone strikes in Syria are hard to confirm, given the inability to collect evidence on the ground, there is confidence that Jones has died. It is understood that the strike was not based on intelligence requiring the specific sanction of the prime minister, Theresa May.
David Cameron, May’s predecessor, did give sanction for strikes against UK foreign fighters in Syria.
Jones, dubbed “the white widow” by some in the press, was a regular propagandist on social media. She had more than 20 handles on Twitter but there has been no activity from her in recent months.
The UK and US are working closely in Syria, specifically in the campaign to free Raqqa from Isis. The city, in north-west Syria, is now the home to fewer than 400 jihadists and possibly as few as 5,000 citizens.
Jones was believed to have been in Raqqa, but seeking to flee over the Iraq border. Raqqa has been subject to a steady coalition bombardment, and the chances of her survival there were always going to be minimal.
Although the US forward base for its Syria operations is in Qatar, drone strikes are operated from the US and launched on the basis of human and signal intelligence from inside Syria. Some of it comes from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the fighters operating with US air support to free Raqqa from Isis control.
British drone pilots operate Reaper and Predator drones out of RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and Creech US air force base in Nevada.
By law, Jones’s son is too young to be deemed a legitimate target, and British sources have not confirmed if they know he is dead. If his mother was killed while in a vehicle, it would have been hard to identify if she was travelling with her son. But if she was attempting to escape over the Iraq border, it is unlikely Jones would have left him behind.
Col Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the Baghdad-based coalition of anti-Isis forces, refused to confirm her death, but said coalition attacks on Isis did not discriminate by nationality.
The UK government is aware that there is an intense legal debate about the targeting of Britons fighting for Isis in Syria. Six British citizens have been killed by drones, and previous parliamentary inquiries into the legality of such strikes has led to criticism about the vagueness of the UK’s position on combat rules in areas outside of armed conflict.
There are also doubts about the extent to which the British military can be legally liable for the specific actions of allies if the allies are acting in concert with the UK.
In October last year, parliament’s joint committee on human rights criticised the government for refusing to explain how targets were selected, whether there was an “impossibility of capture” test and whether the laws of war were being misapplied outside recognised armed conflicts.
Britain has defended its position by saying strikes are justified if it believes attacks on the UK are imminent. The specific legal advice on which the UK government acts has not been published.
‘If you have chosen to fight for Daesh you have made yourself a legitimate target’
Sally Jones, an English mother who once played in a punk band before converting to Islam, has reportedly been killed by a drone strike in Syria
Col Ryan Dillon refused to confirm Sally Jones’s death but said that coalition attacks on Isis fighters did not discriminate by nationality