The termination of "The White Widow" and the Rule of Law

For much of my early adult life, I lived under the threat of being the victim of a terrorist attack by the Irish Republican Army in London. I, perhaps incredibly, was not directly affected by it other than being inconvenienced while a close friend was saved from being next to bombs when they went off by a series of bizarre coincidences.

That was not the first time that the streets of England were not safe places to be: in the 1970s, the rise of thuggish bands of skinheads were, in fact, a much more direct threat. Before that, there were the pre-arranged pitched battles between "mods" and "rockers" that blighted England's coastal resorts and drove visitors into the open arms of package tour companies more than happy to carry them to the relative safety of Benidorm and other places where fish and chips and Watney's Red Barrel with near guaranteed absence of rain and the resulting exposed flesh introduced a usually covered-up nation to the tabloid-friendly slogan of "sun, sand and sex." British resort towns have not, fifty years later, recovered. Then again, nor has Benidorm.

Since the early 1990s, the UK has been a peaceful place: there have been odd skirmishes, various political groups blaming other political groups and rare staged battles. Sometimes it's the left (who blame the Right while justifying everyone else's conduct) and sometimes its the Right (who blame everybody); sometimes it's religious extremists seeking to apply a medieval code to 21st Century England and sometimes it's those protesting against attempts to hijack politics for religious purposes. But these things are unusual: we, the English and our non-English brethren who are, of course, British. usually settle these things over a pint in the pub (except certain religious extremists which is, of course, why we, the English, don't trust them - O.K., that's not true but some levity is always to be welcomed).

It is against this background that two things are causing concern in England. In passing, I should explain why, in this Commentary, I'm talking about England and the English: it's because the recent spate of terrorist activity has exclusively targeted England - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own specific problems including the worrying growth of international organised crime in Scotland but they have been excused being the venue for (successful?) action by so-called Islamic terrorists.

It is that so-called Islamic Terrorism that forms the first cause for concern. We, the British, were taken into Middle Eastern Conflict by a lunatic Prime Minister who was so busy practising proctology on the USA that he lost sight of his duty to his own country and took us into an ill-advised and, more worryingly, illegal military action. When the USA sends in troops, it relies on numbers and uses tactics that are, ironically, almost medieval: large numbers of men directed to walk into fire while commanders sit behind the lines. The British forces are an increasingly unified Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and the Army (it is, by definition and always has been, on paper at least, the Sovereign's Army therefore it doesn't need to be tagged as "royal" whereas both the Air Force and the Navy were, historically, private ventures that were effectively nationalised and branded as Royal).

When the British go in, they do so with far, far smaller numbers and they act with immense precision. And, unlike the USA's special forces, the British usually act under conditions of secrecy so that even the presence of the forces is unknown before, during and after the operation: there are PR needs, of course, and so there are some units whose presence is publicised.

It is the fact that the British troops are directed from London that makes England the target. But there is another issue: England has by far the densest population of Muslims in the UK and therefore, if the objective is to cow them into accepting fundamentalist forms of Islam, or to become contributors to the organised crime gangs masquerading as true Muslims, that brings attention to England, specifically.

The second thing that is a cause for concern is that, in the IRA years, there were two controversies that divided the nation: the first was the policy of internment, that is the jailing of suspects without trial and, even, without admitting that the suspect was in jail. Left (calling themselves "liberals") and Right both agreed: this was an abhorrent practice and it went against the Rule of Law that no man should be deprived of his freedom without trial. The policy was legal because statute said so but we, the English, remained uneasy about our government taking steps that, in other countries where "the disappeared" numbered thousands, we openly criticised.

Then there was the (officially publicly) disapproved "shoot to kill" policy - a policy that said, in effect, the only good terrorist is a dead terrorist. There was little doubt that soldiers who shot and killed someone who was found literally in the course of an act of terrorism in order to prevent the terrorist act being completed were acting properly. But where there was no "proximate cause" or "immediate threat," there was little doubt that to kill someone who was engaged in the planning or had been involved in but not, at that moment, the execution of a terrorist act was wrong. The consensus of the wider population outside the Westminster bubble was that such killing, even if performed subject to a Military order was murder.

And that brings us to The White Widow.

Samantha Louise Lewthwaite, a.k.a. Sally Jones or Sally-Ann Jones was English. Three names weren't enough, and nor was the White Widow nickname. She also used other names: Asmantara, Sherafiyah, Natalie Webb, Sherafiyah Lewthwaite, Umma Hussain al Britani and Sakinah Hussain. Mostly, in recent years, she has been widely known in the UK media as Sally Jones. I'll use that, too.

She was, by all accounts, a synthetic rebel looking for a cause. Born (say reports but the numbers don't add up - see later) in December 1983 in South East London and brought up in the M25 border town of Chatham, which is London's Royal Navy base, she was unaffected by the various problems set out above. She grew up in difficult family circumstances (her parents divorced and soon afterwards her father committed suicide when she was 10 years old). In 1996, when she was 13 years old, she had her first child whose father died six years later of liver disease. At 16 she left school and around the same time she fronted a post-punk band. She had another child, Joe, in 2004. No one really knows when she began using the internet and, through that, met Junaid Hussain. Equally, no one knows when she became enamoured with a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. What is known is that, when Joe was eight or nine years old, she left the UK, taking him with her, and met Hussain. That was in 2013 and she was (say reports) 50 years old.

Hussain was a computer hacker and a leading ISIS/Da'esh asset. It was he who obtained details of more than 1,000 US military personnel, many serving in the UK on US Air Force duty. He was British, of Pakistani descent.

They married under Da'esh rules and lived in Da'esh controlled territory, moving around as circumstances demanded. Jones became a major propaganda asset for Da'esh. Using multiple social media accounts she planted messages to activists, ran recruitment campaigns targeted at, in particular, the young and women and issued warnings of terrorist acts to come, but only in the vaguest terms so acting in the true nature of terror - to instil fear.

Da'esh has military strategists who control the activities of those living under its wing. One of the schemes they developed was to counter, and use, the fact that Western Military drones can see things in extraordinary detail. Incredibly, the story behind the Helen Mirren / Alan RIckman film "Eye in the Sky" is very accurate. Because of this, Joe was required to accompany Hussain and/or Jones whenever they went out together or alone, using an assumption that there would not be an attempt to kill either of them if the child would also killed. One day, in 2015, Hussain went out alone and was killed by a drone. He was 21 years old.

However, films surfaced from which it is suspected (no higher than that) that Joe took part in Da'esh instigated acts including the murder of prisoners. Although he never became a specific target, he was no longer regarded as a total innocent and his safety was no longer assured.

Jones, with Joe always in the background, moved around even more, most recently deep in Da'esh held territory in Syria. But as Da'esh territory has shrunk, hiding became ever-more difficult. She announced a desire to return to the UK - simultaneously issuing veiled threats of terrorist acts on the London Underground. There is no doubt that no one wanted her back in the UK spreading her message. She claimed to lead "a battalion of jihadist (sic) women" and aimed to use women to reach deep into the fabric of British society.

She was high on the USA's "kill list" - what they call high value targets who are to be shot on sight. There is little to suggest that the British authorities disagreed with that assessment. Equally, there is little doubt that the kill order would have been made without the, at least tacit, consent of the British authorities.

Yesterday, the USA said that in June, as she tried to flee Raqaa en route to the relative safety of Mayadin. a Predator drone killed her (and, it is suspected but not established, Joe) . An announcement had been delayed in part to try to obtain information as to the situation regarding Joe. Equally, though, the USA says that it cannot be certain that she was killed: proof often takes the form of a DNA sample but it was not feasible to obtain that in this case and no attempt was made.

However, her current value to Da'esh is in doubt: the last public message that has been formally attributed to her was in September 2016.

The British authorities are at least complicit in a shoot-to-kill policy: at least six British subjects have been killed by targeted Predator attacks in the fight against Da'esh.

There is a further legal dimension: media reports repeatedly say "we are at war." That is not true. "War" in terms of military conflict has a very precise meaning and dealing with Da'esh does not meet that definition. It follows, then, that to kill a Da'esh supporter is not in the course of war. It is, in the absence of specific legal authority at least unlawful and probably illegal. It is here that morality and law collide.

Going back to Henry II, the state has opened itself up to criticism where it kills or hints that killing might be welcome. "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest" has long been regarded as the watershed of actions encouraged by the State.

This is exactly why civilised countries strive to have strict separation between the executive (which, in almost all democracies, encompasses both the legislature and the civil service, now represents the state rather than an absolute monarchy), the church and the judiciary.

The military does not have carte blanche to act in whatever way it chooses: that is reserved for countries under martial law.

Here's where both ends of the political spectrum meet in a surprising unity: neither left nor right agree with summary killing of citizens. They are unified, along with the middle, in saying that so-called extra-judicial killings are an affront to human dignity and are always, always, always illegal. This is why the United Nations really annoys both the USA and Israel by declaring state-sponsored killings to be murder.

Are left, right and centre, mostly, glad Jones is (probably) dead? Absolutely.

Do they think it's right that the decision to do this was done without judicial consideration? Absolutely not.

Britons, largely, think the death penalty is wrong (there are occasional incidents that cause a blip in this general opinion but those quickly fade) and are pleased that we do not have it, except in very specific narrow circumstances. If we do not have the death penalty, the argument goes, how can we even begin the process of approving a killing without trial?

The question is fundamental to English law: justice must be seen to be done. A decision assessing guilt made behind closed doors in a non-judicial setting is a breach of the most sacred of our legal principles.

There is a solution: in the UK, the death penalty still exists in the case of a conviction - by a Court - for treason. Charges could be laid in the case of those like Jones who are beyond the reach of domestic authorities, and a trial held in absentia. Evidence, not mere intelligence, should be led. If guilty, then the death sentence could be passed.

Then, and only then, should someone send in the drones.

It's not rocket science: it's the law.