The Defence Secretary spoke on the Today Programme this morning about the action taken to keep the streets of Britain safe as part of a counter-Terrorism operation in Syria. His words can be found below.
James Naughtie, Presenter: Can we have more detail as to what the Attorney General’s advice was on… before this decision was made?
Michael Fallon, Defence Secretary: Well, first of all, the Prime Minister came to Parliament yesterday and explained this action, and was questioned for over two hours, so there has been plenty of scrutiny. We don’t publish the legal advice that the Attorney General gives the Government, but he did describe the advice. He did set out that action like this has to be necessary, it has to be proportionate, and it has to be based on the right of any country to defend itself against an armed attack that’s being planned against it.
JN: So this action was taken in the knowledge of an armed attack which was being planned.
JN: Well, in that case, it can't be, as has been reported widely, something connected with VE Day or VJ Day, because the attack was authorised and took place after those events had occurred.
MF: Well, I'm not going to go into details of which specific public event or attack, you know, was involved here. These were terrorists who had been planning a series of attacks on the streets of our country, some involving public events. There are other terrorists making similar plans and we have to do what we can to keep these… to keep our streets safe. Imagine the outcry if we’d known an attack like this was likely, if it then took place, and it transpired we’d done absolutely nothing to prevent it.
JN: Since these men, and this particular individual, was in Syria, we have to assume from what you say that they were operating with people who were, and maybe are, in this country.
MF: Yes. They’ve been directly involved in plotting these armed attacks with people who are here on our streets in our country.
JN: And have any arrests been made in connection with the plans which caused you take action against Reyaad Khan?
MF: Well, I can't go into specific, I'm afraid, details of, you know, who may be involved in assisting these two on our streets here. There have been a number of similar plots over the last few months and our security agencies have been working extremely hard to try and forestall them, but I can't, I'm afraid, go into details.
JN: Would you do it again?
MF: We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. If we know there is an armed attack that is likely, if we know who is involved in it, then we have to do something about it.
JN: But just to make it absolutely clear – I know what the Prime Minister said yesterday – this is the first time that an attack of this kind has been authorised with the loss of British lives as a consequence.
MF: No. We've used strikes like this in Afghanistan and Iraq in the previous conflict…
JN: Sorry, I meant… yes…
MF: This is the first time it’s happened in a country where we haven't so far been involved in military operations.
JN: OK. You heard the point that was made by Kat Craig from Reprieve a moment ago and it’s this: that things have been changed, action is being taken without the express approval of Parliament, and that actually breaks, really, the agreement that there was after the last vote. I know that you’ve said to the House that Reapers and Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft would be authorised to fly surveillance missions over Syria to gather intelligence, and you added this: “Reapers are not authorised to use weapons in Syria. That would require further permission”. Now, if you were a Member of the House of Commons you could read that, quite easily and maybe well intended to read that, as permission from Parliament. None was sought and none was given.
MF: Well, we don’t have general permission to carry out military operations in Syria, but at the time of the debate last year, the Prime Minister made it extremely clear that where there was a vital national interest at stake, we wouldn’t hesitate to take action – rather than seek prior permission, to take action and then come and explain to Parliament afterwards, and that’s exactly what happened yesterday.
JN: Do you accept that what occurred yesterday opens the possibility of more action of this kind and, therefore, it’s something that Parliament should discuss?
MF: Well, Parliament did discuss it for two long hours yesterday. The Prime Minister was…
JN: Well, they were also discussing migration in the two hours, so don’t give the impression it was two hours on this, because it wasn’t.
MF: No, the Prime Minister came to Parliament, he’s accountable to Parliament, as I am, for the actions that we take and, you know, there were other terrorists in other plots that may come to fruition over the next few weeks and months, and we wouldn’t hesitate to take similar action again.
JN: So there is a list of names that you’ve got of people who are involved, you believe, in planning activity in this country and if you find out where they are, you will go for them in the way that you did in this case?
MF: Well, the list is the other way around. There are a group of people who have lists of targets in our country, who are planning armed attacks on our streets, who are planning to disrupt major public events in this country, and our job, to keep us safe, is to… with the security agencies, is to identify who they are, to track them down, and if there is no other way of preventing these attacks then, yes, we will authorise strikes like we did.
JN: So just to go back to this point, you know of individuals who are planning attacks, you know that they are in Syria, you know who they are, and if you find out where they are, you will attack them?
MF: If we have no other way or preventing an armed attack that’s likely to take place on our streets other than using a military strike to prevent it then that’s what we’ll do.
JN: And how many people are in that category, roughly speaking?
MF: Well, I don’t want to go into numbers and details, I'm afraid, in public, but there are a number of terrorists out there in Syria, based in and around Raqqa, ISIL’s headquarters, who are actively involved in planning attacks on our streets, who have been planning attacks on the streets of Australia and on the streets of the Unites States, so it is more than just the individuals that have been the subject of this strike.
JN: And I realise you're not going to go into details about numbers, you’ve made that pretty clear, but from what you say, would it be right to infer that we’re not just talking about two or three, we’re talking about more?
JN: How dangerous is the possibility of the kind of attack that you say was foiled by the action you took yesterday?
MF: Well, it is extremely dangerous because these are attacks that are being, have been, and are being planned, as I said, against major public events on our streets. They are potentially attacks on members of our armed forces and others, which would be extremely dangerous and would, obviously, involve the loss of life. And Government has a duty where it has information and the ability to prevent such attacks, Government has a duty to deal with it.
JN: Are you at all concerned by the history of what has happened in the United States with the increasing use of attacks by unmanned drones, with consequences not always against American citizens, of course, but around the world and indeed drones being used on American soil, which is disturbing a lot of people, not simply, you know, people who are on the, if you like, on the left of politics, but many people, for example, on the right, many people in the military establishment, and that you are taking a step here which could lead to us being involved in operations of a kind that Parliament hasn’t authorised and none of us had expected.
MF: Well, we did warn last year that where there was a national interest at stake, where the security of our country was at risk that we would take action and explain to Parliament afterwards. But let me deal with the point about unmanned aircraft, unmanned aircraft still have pilots. The pilots are based here in the United Kingdom; those pilots have to conform the rules of engagement that I set, just as the pilots of the Tornadoes who are flying over the skies themselves. They have to conform with very clear rules of engagement, and any military strike like this has to be carried out in accordance with the rules that we set out, and the Attorney has advised us, it has to be absolutely necessary, it has to be proportionate, it has to avoid civilian casualties and it has to be planned and executed meticulously, as this one was.
JN: Doesn’t the Attorney General have a duty to face the House and explain precisely how he sees the legal position with, for example, respect to Article 51 of the UN Charter?
MF: Well, governments have not previously published the advice of the Attorney General, but the Prime Minister, yesterday, explain what that advice was.
JN: When your party was in opposition, it put a lot of pressure, quite rightly, on the Blair government to go into detail about the advice on which the Iraq decisions were taken.
MF: Yes, they published… we asked for them to publish a summary of the advice.
JN: Yeah, well, why don’t you do the same, what you asked the last government to do?
MF: That is what the Prime Minister did yesterday, he summarised the advice of the Attorney General.
JN: Surely, the Attorney General should answer questions.
MF: Well, it is for the Prime Minister who, you know, is in overhaul authority over operations like this, on behalf of the whole Government. But the, you know, the advice here…
JN: … is an independent figure.
MF: Well, he is, but the advice here is absolutely clear that any country has the right to self-defence, to protect itself against armed attacks. That is the same basis, by the way, on which our troops can use lethal force, the same basis on which armed police in our streets can use lethal force, if it is absolutely necessary, and there is no other way of preventing potential loss of life.
JN: Do you intend to reopen the question in the Commons of authorisation for military action in Syria?
MF: Well, at some point I think the new Parliament will have to rethink the absurdity of us not being able to strike against ISIL in Iraq, but not being able to strike ISIL’s command and control centres in North-eastern Syria, and the…
JN: If you think this is an absurdity…
MF: … supply route into Iraq.
JN: If you think it is an absurdity, you must want to get Parliamentary approval to do that.
MF: Yes, but to get Parliamentary approval, we have to be absolutely sure that we would win the vote, that we would establish a sufficient majority for it. Now, last time we asked Parliament, Parliament actually turned this down.
JN: Well, you have got a majority; you have got a Conservative majority now. Do you not believe you can persuade your own MPs to back the Government on this?
MF: Well, we have got to persuade MPs from…
JN: That is extraordinary.
MF: No, it isn't, we have got to persuade Parliament. This is a democracy, we have got to take Parliament with us, we have a very small majority and we have got to…
JN: What you are saying is you don’t believe that all Conservative MPs would support you if you put this to the House. That is what you are saying.
MF: Well, they didn’t last time, there were some 30…
JN: I know.
MF: … Conservative colleagues and a lot of Labour MPs who voted against. Now, the circumstances have moved on. That was a motion about tackling Assad. This is… the issue now is whether or not we’re prepared to deal with ISIL. We are prepared as a Government to take action against ISIL where it is directly threatening our streets and risking a loss of life here. But we also have to think, I believe, as a new Parliament, we have to think much more deeply about how we deal with the very centre of ISIL, the brain cell that is driving this operation and indeed making our operations in Iraq in more difficult.
JN: Secretary of State, thank you very much.
We have also outlined today our recent air strike activity over Iraq as part of the UK's counter-ISIL operations in the Middle East. This activity is entirely separate from the strike conducted against the individual who was planning a series of attacks in the UK - see more here.