Why the UK launched its first targeted drone strike ever

On Aug. 21, 2015, the UK government launched its first targeted drone strike ever. The jihadist in the drone’s crosshairs was Reyaad Khan, a UK national who was remotely directing recruits to carry out terrorist attacks in his home country. Khan, also known as Abu Dujana al Hindi, was operating in the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria at the time. The UK had used unmanned aerial bombers in the past as part of larger military campaigns. But the 21-year-old Khan, pictured above, was the first jihadist to be specifically hunted in such a fashion.

David Cameron, who was then prime minister, announced the deaths of Khan and some of his associates during a speech before the UK parliament on Sept. 7, 2015. But it wasn’t until today, more than a year and a half later, that the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee released its findings on the matter.

The committee investigated whether the intelligence cited by Cameron and other officials justified the exceptional attention Khan was given. In short, the committee concluded that Khan represented a serious threat.

In its report, the committee agreed with an assessment that was included in a dossier compiled by MI5 in July 2015. That analysis read: “[T]hrough his persistent and prolific efforts to recruit, advise, and encourage operatives in the West to conduct attacks, Khan poses a significant, ongoing and imminent threat to the UK.”

In the months that followed Khan’s death, counterterrorism officials around the globe detected numerous plots connected to Islamic State cyber planners living in Iraq and Syria. European authorities would eventually describe these operations as “remote-controlled,” as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists, both male and female, provided advice and direction that went well beyond mere inspiration. Looking back on this recent history, it is now clear that Khan and his comrades were among the first jihadists to frequently employ this innovation in the West.

Indeed, the committee asked intelligence officials what concerned them most about Khan. Their answer: his role as an “enabler,” meaning his various attempts to provide others with the ability and expertise needed to launch attacks inside the UK.

Khan worked closely with Junaid Hussain, another Islamic State cyber planner. In fact, some authorities determined that both Khan and Hussain needed to be taken out in order to stop their network, as the loss of just one of them would not significantly disrupt the Islamic State threat inside the UK.

Hussain perished just three days after Khan. He was struck down in American drone strike on Aug. 24, 2015 in Raqqa. Hussain has been tied to a series of “remote-controlled” plots in the West, including inside the US.

According to the committee’s report, the July 2015 intelligence assessment provided to UK officials read: “A body of reliable and corroborated reporting indicates KHAN, alongside HUSSAIN, continues to be involved in a concerted and prolific online campaign to recruit, task and encourage operatives in the West to conduct attacks in the name of ISIL.”

Not only did Khan provide his would-be accomplices with “construction plans” for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), he also helped them identify “targets.”

Another official assessment, authored on Feb. 15, 2016, cited Khan’s charisma as one of the keys to his ability to “repeatedly…recruit and [mobilize] individuals towards conducting attacks.” Khan’s “personal popularity and status online helped attract and influence potential operatives, and he invested significant effort persuading recruits,” the analysis read.

The committee reviewed a series of intelligence reports covering the period from Nov. 2014 until Aug. 2015. The details in these reports have been redacted from the final report. But the committee found that Khan and Hussain “together encouraged multiple operatives…around the world…to conduct attacks.” The pair was “connected to” at least some “of the seven major plots thwarted in the UK in 2015.”

The sheer volume of threats generated by Khan and Hussain was far greater than anything UK intelligence officials had to counter in the past.

The committee asked the UK intelligence and security agencies to characterize the plots orchestrated by Khan and Hussain. The agencies responded that while al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Anwar al Awlaki had first advocated and promoted individual attacks, the Islamic State had “deployed this methodology on a different scale.” Khan “was prominent in attack planning on behalf of” the so-called caliphate, “directly inciting individuals to conduct attacks” and using “social media to identify potential operatives and then provide them with encouragement and basic capability to enable an attack.”

Along with Hussain, Khan “did this on an unprecedented scale,” both in terms of the “range” of threats and the “pace” of them.

In the West, there is often a discussion of whether or not terrorist threats are “imminent.” The committee’s report demonstrates why the question of “imminence” can be misleading.

“It is clear from the intelligence reports that the timescale between Khan contacting an operative, recruiting them and providing targets could be a short period of time,” the committee’s report reads. “The question of imminence therefore appears to [center] not on one specific attack about to take place but on a broader concern that – due to gaps in coverage – a plot might go undetected.”

The UK government emphasized in a memo appended to the report that one of Khan’s attacks “could have become a reality at any moment and without warning.”

However, according to the British agencies, all of Khan’s plots were “successfully disrupted.” The committee credited the government bodies with uncovering and stopping Khan’s plans, “thereby avoiding what could have been a very significant loss of life.”

Still, related threats may be looming. The agencies told the committee that they “continue to investigate a network involved in such planning.”

Khan’s career as one of the Islamic State’s most prolific “remote-control” operatives may have seemed unlikely earlier in his life. A biography provided by the committee says he “was born in Penarth, near Cardiff,” which is the capital of Wales, and attended “Cantonian High School and St David’s College in the city.” He “was apparently a straight-A student who at one point [harbored] dreams of becoming Britain’s first Asian prime minister.” In a video recorded in 2010, Khan “spoke of his desire to rid the world of evil and the problems of growing up in a deprived inner-city area,” but also said the UK government “was wasting money on illegal wars” and “more should be invested in young people to prevent them from being led down ‘the wrong path.'”

Khan left for Syria in Nov. 2013 and quickly joined Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s project. He “posted messages on Twitter, bragging about the people he had killed and his extremist plans,” the committee found. In June 2014, Khan appeared in an Islamic State video, “after which his family spoke of their shock and said he had been brainwashed.” Within months, UK officials were regularly receiving reports on the threat he posed.

Ruhul Amin, who was also a UK national, and another individual were also killed in the Aug. 21, 2015 drone strike.

According to the committee’s report, the UK government argued that there was no other way to stop Khan.

“In the prevailing circumstances in Syria, this airstrike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attacks planned and directed by” Khan, the government concluded.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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