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French Jihadists in Syria Might Have Been Killed by French Government Airstrikes

France, which insists that it is not targeting individual jihadists but rather the Islamic State, seems eager to avoid the controversy surrounding extrajudicial executions, the legality and morality of which has been hotly disputed.
Photo via État-major des armées/armée de l'air

The United States has killed American citizens abroad who are suspected of fighting alongside terrorists, and last month Britain killed two of its own citizens in drone strikes in Syria. Now it appears that France has probably done the same.

French airstrikes against an Islamic State training camp southwest of the Syrian city of Raqqa could well have eliminated French nationals. Reports suggest that six French fighters were among the dead of the attack, which was carried out overnight on Thursday. A French military source told AFP that he could not confirm these casualties, suggesting that they had been provided by a non-governmental Syrian organization. But he conceded the possibility that French citizens could have died at the camp, which is said to have been involved in the planning of suicide missions.


"There might well be French jihadists among them," he said.

Speaking Sunday from Jordan's capital Amman, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that France would continue to strike IS targets "in the name of self-defense."

Related: French President Considers Bombing Islamic State Positions in Syria

"We do not ask this or that person for their passport," Valls told reporters. "We strike anyone preparing attacks against France."

The attack on the camp was part of the second wave of French airstrikes against IS positions in Syria. On September 27, French fighter jets struck an IS training camp near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor after several weeks of surveillance flights.

Extrajudicial executions
Ever since it announced the launch of its operations in Syria, the French government's official line has been that it is not targeting individual jihadists but rather IS as a whole.

"We are not fighting individuals but a terrorist group made up of [fighters] with different nationalities, under the rules of international humanitarian law," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in September.

France seems eager to avoid the controversy surrounding extrajudicial executions, the legality and morality of which has been hotly disputed in both the UK and the US.

On September 7, the UK announced that a Royal Air Force drone strike in Syria had killed two British Islamic State fighters who were allegedly plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth. This strike reportedly marked the first extrajudicial execution by an EU state of one of its citizens fighting in Syria.


In 2011, Yemen-based al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki became the first American citizen to have been deliberately targeted in a US drone strike. Human rights defenders questioned the constitutionality of the killing, arguing that every American citizen had the right to a fair trial according to the Constitution. In 2013, a leaked Department of Justice white paper concluded that such killings could be justified if the target was found to pose "an imminent threat."

Law professor Paul Tavernier runs the Centre of Research and Studies on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the University of Paris-Sud. He explained that while the "moral legitimacy" of France's killing of French jihadists is questionable, the legality of such killings is harder to challenge.

"If it is proven that France is facing threats of attacks that are coming from these jihadist training camps," he said, "the presence of French nationals [in these camps] doesn't make much of a difference [legally]."

These thoughts were echoed in September by professor Didier Maus, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Aix-Marseille.

"There is no legal ban, no legal argument in this very specific armed conflict context… that prohibits a government from targeting its own nationals, if it deems them dangerous," Maus told France 24 after news of the killing of the British citizens broke.

But in an interview with French daily Le Monde later that month, attorney Patrick Baudouin said that those whose relatives were killed in French airstrikes in Syria could potentially sue the state for murder. According to Baudoin, who is honorary president of the International League of Human Rights, families could argue that the French government is going too far in its interpretation of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which condones "individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations."

Follow Lucie Aubourg on Twitter: @LucieAbrg Raid against an IS training camp in Syria on the night between October 8 and October 9 viaÉtat-major des armées/armée de l'air