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Cameron 'will not contract out UK's anti-terror policy to ISC'

Published 09/09/2015

Two British citizens who were fighting for Islamic State were killed in an RAF drone strike in Syria carried out without parliamentary approval, David Cameron said
Two British citizens who were fighting for Islamic State were killed in an RAF drone strike in Syria carried out without parliamentary approval, David Cameron said

A security watchdog could investigate the killing of British militants by an RAF drone strike but will be blocked from any scrutiny of ongoing operations, David Cameron said.

The Prime Minister said he was happy to consider a probe by the parliamentary Intellgence and Security Committee (ISC) into last month's military operation to take out suspected terrorist Reyaad Khan in Syria.

But with the Government insisting it would not hesitate to take similar action against others on a reported "hit list" of Islamic State (IS) extremists, he sad he would not "contract out" responsibility for the UK's anti-terror policy.

The revelation of the unprecedented strike on August 21 in the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqah - which also killed Ruhul Amin - prompted calls for a full examination of the legal justification.

Critics said any military action ordered without the prior approval of Parliament should be subject to a system of checks, with some suggesting the ISC should play a role.

Responding to criticisms that a new ISC was still to be set up four months after the general election, the Prime Minister said a Commons motion had been tabled to do so and he hoped a new chairman would be in place within days.

Pressed by the SNP's Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, to refer the drone strike to the body of MPs and peers, he said he would be " very happy to discuss that with the new chair".

But he added: "The only proviso I would put on is that the I ntelligence and Security Committee cannot be responsible for overseeing current operations.

"The responsibility for current operations must lie with the Government and the Government has to come to the House of Commons to explain that.

"I am not going to contract out our counter-terrorism policy to someone else. I take responsibility for it.

"But I think it is important, after these events have taken place, that the ISC is able to make these sort of investigations."

The roll of individuals who pose a direct threat to British citizens is said to be topped by the notorious "Jihadi John", who features in films of hostages being murdered.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon insisted the Government would "not hesitate" to act again despite a backlash over the drone operation which killed militants Khan and Amin on August 21.

The decision to authorise the use of remote RAF aircraft to strike individuals in Syria plotting attacks on the UK was taken "some months ago", according to Downing Street.

A meeting of senior members of the National Security Council, chaired by David Cameron earlier this year, received advice from the Attorney General that such attacks would be legal on grounds of self-defence.

Former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald suggested the Attorney General should appear before Parliament to explain why he believed the threat was sufficiently imminent to justify such a strike.

"It can be lawful, it can be legal. But we need to be reassured that in this case it was," he told BBC Radio 4's Today.

"The precondition is imminence. Without imminence you have the danger of slipping into the sort of programme that the Americans are conducting, which effectively is a form of state-sponsored extra-judicial execution which ... does nothing on the ground to win hearts and minds, is ineffective and I think is degrading of the rule of law and the processes of law at home."

Asked about the drone strikes during an appearance before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: "The situation is that we have a very robust process for authorisation of any such action and then there is a whole set of rules of engagement once it moves to the military phase, which have to be complied with.

"There is a rigorous process for monitoring that and analysing outcomes."

Mr Hammond said that the current situation in which the UK can carry out air strikes on IS in Iraq but not in Syria was "incoherent" from a military point of view but confirmed that the Government would not seek parliamentary authorisation for their extension unless it saw a prospect of securing consensus among MPs.

He told the committee: "We would see authority to attack Isil targets more widely in Syria as being a part of the campaign against Isil, which at the moment is confined to Iraq.

"We would see it as driven by a military logic which says you look at the enemy holistically, you look at his supply lines, you look at his support bases, you look at his command and control nodes and those are the things you want to attack.

"The logic of extending our mandate to cover Isil targets in Syria would be very clearly a logic in support of the mandate we have in Iraq for the collective defence of that country."

He added: "In the east of Syria, in the Isil strongholds in Raqqah, the ability to attack from the air would in our judgement enhance the utility of the military mission. In the end the objective is to defeat Isil and that means we have to get to the controlling brain."

Mr Hammond said coalition airstrikes in Iraq had "stopped Isil's advance dead" and given Iraq's armed forces a "breathing space" to regroup and rebuild, but he stressed that airstrikes alone would not be enough to "roll back" the militant group, which would require home-grown forces on the ground.

He rejected reports that only 54 "moderate" Syrian fighters had been trained by allied forces, saying that the figure was in the thousands, though he acknowledged the process had "taken us longer to get off the ground than we would have liked it to do".

Mr Hammond said the UK government favoured a political solution to the Syrian civil war, and was willing to accept "compromises" with regional powers Russia and Iran that could see President Bashar Assad play a role for some months in a transition process.

However he said Britain was not prepared to contemplate Russian and Iranian proposals for a national vote in Syria to determine whether Assad could stay as president.

It was "not acceptable" for the international community to sanction elections in which someone responsible for crimes on the scale of those committed by the Syrian dictator could take part, he said.

Mr Hammond rejected the argument that the Western coalition should join with Assad in fighting the common enemy of Islamic State.

"Our analysis of the problem is that Assad is a recruiting sergeant for Isil and any suggestion that Western powers were prepared to work with Assad in the defeat of Isil would redouble that recruiting sergeant effect," he said.

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