On October 23, the British government’s international development minister, Rory Stewart said, when asked about British citizens who had joined ISIS in Syria, that “the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them.” Following this cold-blooded statement, controversy erupted in Britain, the US and, to a lesser degree, in Canada.
Admittedly, in this new era of Islamic extremism, a problem exists in many countries following the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the Middle East regarding what to do about those who abandoned their country of citizenship and joined the extremist movement. Should such persons, who pose a potential threat, be allowed to return to the country where they have citizenship? If so, should they be prosecuted, monitored, or rehabilitated? The question can extend not only to those who were fighters but even to their wives and children. Canada shares this problem, as an estimated 60 such jihadis have returned to Canada already and nearly 200 are believed to be still outside the country. It is an extraordinary issue that Western countries may have to face as the war against terror continues into the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Stewart’s solution is facile and, in making it, he has added impetus to the further erosion of civil rights that followed 9/11. His attitude is a product of fear and is a simple impulsive reaction. Executing persons based on the suspicion that they are a threat, without giving them the opportunity to defend themselves under the legal system of a democratic country, simply has to be considered as extrajudicial assassination. It has already been reported that other countries – such as the United States, France and Australia – have abandoned their rule of law on this issue and have ordered their special forces operating in Iraq and Syria to hunt down and kill ISIS fighters identified as their nationals. This practice has been further confirmed by Britain’s defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, who more recently declared that he intends to “destroy and eliminate” all Britons accused of terrorism. The Sunday Times has reported that the Special Air Service Regiment has been given a “kill list” for this purpose.
Just what do these statements mean? This policy has never been fully explained or debated by the British government, and it appears that not all officials support it based on preliminary reports. The wording of the statements made to the media have been the only evidence of this practice and it is unclear how it is to be accomplished. For example, certainly no objections will be raised if any British ISIS fighters have been killed during the fighting for Mosul and Raqqa. No one probably knows if any fighters killed during these battles were British or, if they had been identified as such, it would have been after their death in battle. Other questions, however, remain about Stewart and Williamson’s cloudy statements. Does this mean that British special operations soldiers are scouring sites holding ISIS prisoners with a list of names designated by some committee in London for elimination? Or, if a fighter is wounded in a battle, would they given their right to treatment under the Hague Convention; or would they executed instead? Does the policy of killing extend to children and women if they are assumed to have been indoctrinated because of their migration to the Islamic State?
In Canada, the main reaction to the issue has centred about what the government plans to do about returning jihadis. The Canadian government has rejected the option of selective execution. Ralph Goodale, Public Safety Minister, more specifically and to his credit has clarified that “Canada does not engage in death squads.” Instead, it would apply appropriate legal means to stop or convict Canadian terrorists returning from abroad and would probably attempt to reintegrate families if they were to return. A clearly defined program does not seem to have been developed on this issue as yet. At the moment, it seems that the government will probably attempt to steer a course that is consistent with Canadian law while putting in place measures for public safety in dealing with returning jihadis.
Up to this time, the issue of killing Canadian citizens who support ISIS has not been relevant. Up to February 2016, Canadian CF-188 Hornets operated with the US-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State, making 251 combat sorties. A number of ISIS fighters would have been killed as a result of these sorties, some of them possibly Canadian citizens, but there is no indication that any were specifically targeted during these missions. At least seven Canadian jihadis have been reported killed while fighting for ISIS, but these were the result of US air strikes. On the ground, Canadian Special Forces have been and continue to be involved with the fight against ISIS in support of the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq. As a matter of military security, up to now the extent of their involvement in front-line action is not clear. However, any actions taken by these troops would have had to be consistent with Canadian military doctrine which incorporates the international Law of Armed Conflict, and only allows killing enemy combatants (regardless of citizenship) during combat. At the same time, this Law prohibits killing enemy fighters who have surrendered and put down their arms. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has stated that the Canadian Armed Forces have not issued any directive to target specific foreign fighters. Killing an enemy fighter in circumstances other than battle would constitute a war crime.
The problem of how to deal with these people still needs to be resolved; but at least in Canada the rights of all citizens remains intact. Rosa Parks, former counsellor to the US undersecretary of defense, put it best when she wrote: “Do we want to live in a world in which every state considers itself to have a legal right to kill people … secretly and with no public disclosure or due process, based on its own unilateral assertions of national security prerogatives?” Unfortunately, we have entered a new phase in the history of warfare in which the old values have become blurred.
T. Robert Fowler, author, Canadian military history