By Rodger Shanahan
The Australian reported on its front page this morning that two Australian citizens were killed in a drone strike in Yemen in November last year. The Australian reports that, according to a ‘senior counter-terrorism source’, the two men were ‘foot soldiers for al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’, known as AQAP, but that they were not the target of the US attack.
This will open a debate in Australia about US policy, a debate that has been going on for quite some time elsewhere. Drone strikes have killed British, German, and other nationals in the past so it’s not an entirely new issue for Western countries.
Unsurprisingly, commentary is split between people who chafe about the illegality of what they consider to be ‘extrajudicial killings’ and those who argue that we are at war and that enemy combatants can be legitimately targeted in time of war. Then there is the argument that the number of civilians killed in such strikes actually creates more future enemies than the current enemies it removes. These are substantial issues and beyond the scope of this post.
The Australian Government would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power. That is one of the benefits of citizenship. In the court of public opinion, however, which is what most politicians are concerned about, most Australians will feel that if you are an Australian citizen and a member of a group which the Australian Government has proscribed as a terrorist organisation, then you have made a choice that brings with it certain risks. One of those risks is being killed in a drone strike targeting other members of the organisation to which you belong.
Would the people now condemning the lack of Australian official protest to the Americans be similarly outraged if it transpired that an Australian passport holder who was also a member of Hizbullah had been killed in an Israeli air strike targeting a weapons transhipment from Syria to Lebanon? That person may not have been engaged in direct combat, but he or she was facilitating potential future attacks by a non-state actor against another state.
Australian citizens are being killed in Syria fighting for opposition groups of various hues. An Australian citizen is also a prime suspect in a bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed six people.
The nature of the threat from Islamist terrorism means that foreign nationals will turn up in places they shouldn’t, doing things that pose a risk to other people. Citizenship confers certain rights on a person, and imposes responsibilities on a government. It also imposes certain responsibilities on an individual. Regardless of the debate about the legality or policy sense of US drone strikes, if it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of AQAP and were not deliberately targeted, then I don’t think either the Australian Government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.