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Tuesday, September 08, 2015 

You only live twice.

Reyaad Khan is dead.  That much seems to be certain.  Apart from being distinguished by both the Sun and Mail publishing adulatory front pages celebrating his demise, he's also joined other jihadi luminaries in having been declared passed on prematurely.  Or at least that seems to be the case if David Cameron's statement is to be taken at face value.

For according to news reports that were only remembered late last night, Khan had already been reported killed in a drone strike back in July.  This was admittedly based on unconfirmed social media accounts, with jihadi watcher Shiraz Maher quoted, but it seems rather strange that no one in the media itself recalled they had already carried stories on the death of this immediately notorious first Briton to be killed by a UK drone strike.  Maher himself seems rather unconcerned by the discrepancy, referring to government briefings and apparently accepting he must have been misled.

It certainly would be odd for the government to say they had killed someone when they hadn't, and there seems little reason to have opened themselves up to the criticism and questions over the legality of the operation if it had been a mission carried out by a US drone.  Remarkable coincidence it might be that the Sun had been demanding Islamic State be "blitzed", only for Cameron to immediately declare not one but three IS British recruits had been splattered on Syrian soil, but worth the bother of sending out ministers to defend it? Probably not, although stranger things happened.

Such differences or oddities do though invite conspiracy theories.  Most of the saner, and by saner I mean only slightly less stupid allegations around 9/11 centre on the BBC mistakenly reporting that WTC Building 7 had collapsed before it had, and truthers putting much emphasis on a fire chief saying to "pull it", by which he meant get his men out of the building, rather than err, demolish it.  The complete lack of any further information in Cameron's statement beyond Khan was a very dangerous and naughty man and therefore fully deserved to die, coupled with the difference in the dates, hardly helps.  If Khan was killed in a UK strike, but not on August 21st as the government insists, it further undermines the already slim case put forward.

Khan dying sometime in early July would presumably mean he had little real involvement in the VJ Day plot (there seems some confusion over whether VE Day or VJ Day was a target, with there being little in the way of reports of an attack to be launched on VE Day) first "revealed" by the Mail on the Sunday, and since whispered by government briefing as being part of the reason why his annihilation by air was justified.  Like the imaginary plot the Sun "foiled" to attack Armed Forces Day, this too would have involved a pressure cooker bomb, as was used against the Boston marathon.  Despite the MoS's breathless reporting, just how seriously the security services were really taking the plot is open to question: unless the source was the same as the Sun's, i.e., Juanid Hussain, apparently on the same kill list as Khan and duly obliterated days later, albeit by US drone, quite why they would allow word of a plot they were still trying to disrupt to enter the press is unclear.  Indeed, that "no arrests had been made" at the time of the Mail's story and it seems none ever were, quite how serious the plot was is anyone's guess.

More realistic is that Khan was involved in more serious plots, none of which have made the press, with the briefings pointing to those already in the public domain.  If this is the case, it baffles as to why more cannot be disclosed unless it has the potential to affect upcoming prosecutions.  Except, if these other plots have also been disrupted, that rather undermines the legal justification given, which relies upon the attack being imminent or actual, per Article 51 of the UN Charter, or "instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation", in order to meet the Caroline test.  The decision to kill Khan and others was, we're told, itself taken at a meeting of the national security council after the election, again raising questions about just how much of an overwhelming threat was being posed if it then took until almost the end of the summer for an opportunity to arise to act on it.

Comparing the strike against Khan with the US drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, only further underlines how far the decision to kill Khan has taken us.  Regardless of your views on assassination by drone, al-Awlaki has been definitively linked with a number of terrorist attacks and continues to inspire plots through the lectures and writings he left behind.  He was also the de facto leader of al-Qaida in Yemen.  Khan was a 21-year-old known previously only for appearing in a propaganda video.  He may well have been directly involved in plotting attacks that could have killed dozens, if not hundreds of civilians, but that he was not an apparently senior figure within Islamic State, nor a figure known on the level of Mohammed Emwazi demands that more information be disclosed.

And that information is almost certainly not going to be.  It comes down to, as Joshua Rozenberg has said in response to David Allan Green's piece doubting the legality, whether you trust the government or not.  Releasing the policy document and legal advice on which the attack was carried out is only going to take us that slight amount further, as will asking a judge, the Intelligence and Security Committee or the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation to review the decision after the fact.

If the government wants to kill Islamic State fighters of British origin, it should say so.  It should not hide behind specious legal justifications that fall apart under the slightest scrutiny.  Moreover, it should seek the authorisation of parliament for its apparent new policy.  Failing to correct previous inaccurate reports or to set out why this person was such a threat only leads to further questions, less trust, and more cynicism.  If the real aim is to further soften public opinion in advance of another attempt at getting military action in Syria through parliament, the government should just get on with it, and the arguments both in favour and against can once again be gone over.  That the government has done everything now except do that suggests it continues to regard its case as being just as lacking as it was two years ago.

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