Copycat Killing: Turning London into a War Zone?

Abstract: Following the ruthless killing of an innocent Brazilian in London by British police in July 2005, it rapidly emerged that for many years Britain had secretly adopted a shoot-to-kill policy to deal with suspected human bombers. The policy was implemented following lengthy consultations with and training by members of the Israeli security forces, who themselves are frequently accused of gross human rights abuses. With the civil police force in Britain adopting the brutal tactics of occupying armies, is the UK effectively being turned into a war-zone?

Introduction

On 22 July 2005, while searching for four men suspected of allegedly attempting a series of bombings the previous day; London police fired 7 bullets from point blank range into the head of Jean Charles de Menezes, instantly killing the innocent Brazilian electrician. The day after the shooting, the Metropolitan Police admitted that de Menezes had not been carrying explosives, nor was he connected in any way to the attempted bombings. They issued an apology describing the incident as “a tragedy, and one that the Metropolitan Police Service regrets.”

In the days that followed, it emerged that de Menezes had been shot and killed as part of a new police procedure introduced to deal with suspected human bombers. Using the logic that a head shot is the only way to disable such a bomber without risking detonating his explosives, new guidelines were developed for identifying, confronting, and dealing forcefully with such a situation. These guidelines, which came after lengthy consultations with and training by Israeli security forces, were given the code name “Operation Kratos”.

Israeli Shoot-to-Kill

The Israeli army began operating a shoot-to-kill policy against the Palestinian population very soon after the beginning of the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000. Israeli shoot-to-kill tactics have resulted in the deaths of almost 4000 Palestinians, over half of whom were civilians and a quarter of whom were children.[1] Although Israel officially denies that it operates such a policy, a growing number of dissidents or refuseniks within the army have confirmed that the policy is in place.

In September 2005, Israeli military prosecutors opened criminal investigations following allegations by soldiers that they carried out illegal shoot-to-kill orders against unarmed Palestinians. The 17 separate investigations were prompted by testimony of dozens of troops collected by Shovrin Shtika (Breaking the Silence), a pressure group of former Israeli soldiers committed to exposing human rights abuses by the military in suppressing the Palestinian intifada.[2] Excerpts of the soldiers’ testimony were also published in the Guardian.[3]

Some of the soldiers say they acted upon standing orders in some parts of the Palestinian territories to shoot to kill people, including children, regardless of whether they were armed or not, or posed any physical threat, and without fear of reprimand from superior officers.. Many incidents occurred during periods of calm when there was no threat to themselves or colleagues.

The soldiers say that in some situations they were ordered to shoot anyone who appeared on a roof or a balcony, anyone who appeared to be kneeling to the ground or anyone who appeared on the street at a designated time, literally “anything that moved”. One soldier, Moshe, said that even on his sergeant’s training course, there was “pressure to get kills” and ambushes were set up in Jenin in May 2003 to get them. Among those killed by soldiers acting on shoot-to-kill orders were young children such as Asma Moghayyer, 16, and her brother Ahmed, 13, who were shot dead as they went to collect clothes from a rooftop washing line. The Israeli army insisted the children had been blown up by a roadside bomb. However, journalists visiting the morgue saw only single bullet wounds to the head.

Briefings before operations also included express instructions to shoot the first person who climbed upon armed personnel carriers as they lumbered through the narrow streets, as children often did, though there was no military threat involved. The soldiers described a child of 12, later said to be 8, who climbed on and was shot dead by “one of our sharpshooters”.

A common theme in the soldiers’ testimony was the desire to avenge Israeli casualties and inflict collective punishment on Palestinians. For example, following a series of successful attacks on Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip, operations took place in which thousands of Palestinians were evicted from their homes. Fifty were killed of whom between a quarter and a half were civilians. According to Rafi, an officer in the Shaldag, an elite unit connected to the air force, the whole mission was about revenge. “The commanders said kill as many people as possible,” he said.

Culture of Impunity

The soldiers described the culture of impunity running through the army. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem notes that the IDF does not maintain printed rules of engagement and what rules do exist are kept secret. Despite the killings of almost 4000 Palestinians by the IDF in 6 years, the army has only investigated an estimated 150 cases of soldiers misusing firearms, resulting in 18 indictments and seven convictions.

An incident from October 2000 in which an innocent Palestinian coffee-merchant, Mansur Taha Ahmed (21), was shot and killed as he unloaded cargo from his vehicle in Hebron is characteristic of such a climate. An army video which recorded the whole episode disappeared shortly afterwards. One soldier Avi explains that “the company commander decided to silence this event. He made the video cassette vanish and the soldier had to do 35 days of chores … after which he came back to the company.”

The Israeli army has also refused to conduct an open inquiry into the deaths of British journalists Tom Hurndall and James Miller, both of whom were killed in 2 separate incidents in April/May 2003. Hurndall was wearing an orange day-glo jacket in broad daylight when he was shot in the head by the Israeli army. Miller was shining a torch on to a white flag and wearing a helmet with ‘TV’ on it in large bright letters when he was shot by Israeli soldiers.

A secret IDF document obtained by the Observer points to this culture of impunity.[4] In the paper, an IDF Commander, now one of the most powerful generals in the army, appeals to the Chief Military Attorney to quash an open inquiry in the deaths of five children saying the exposure of soldiers to the legal system would damage troop morale and ‘completely paralyse the IDF’s abilities to take combative action’. As we shall see, similar reasoning was later adopted by senior British police officers and politicians to try and justify attempts to impede an independent inquiry into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes under Operation Kratos.

Operation Kratos: The Israeli Connection

Details of Operation Kratos are extremely speculative, due to the fact that officials have stated very little on record about the policy. Members of SO19, the Armed Response division of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), were advised at a parade after the July 7 bombings that “they should expect a Kratos call.” Also, a secret email was sent out after the attempted bombings of July 21 reminding officials of the Kratos policies.[5] Although it appears to have been officially activated immediately after the bombings, the policy was introduced many years earlier without being subjected to any public or parliamentary debate. The change in policy was not even discussed with the Metropolitan Police Authority, the reasoning being that “at the end of the day some things we have to keep secret about because if people knew exactly what we’re doing, then obviously they can take action to stop us.”[6] The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has claimed that details must remain secret “for operational reasons” but that “the tactics are intended to be used on an intelligence-led basis.”[7]

Although there was no official public debate about Operation Kratos, the shoot-to-kill policy and Israeli involvement in its design were mentioned in the British media as far back as December 2001.

In December 2001, the Evening Standard reported that Deputy Assistant Commissioner Barbara Wilding was sent to Israel to meet senior security chiefs from the Shin Bet, Israel’s counter-intelligence and internal security service, to gather intelligence on the methods they use to defeat suicide bombers.[8] The Guardian added that the “decision to seek advice from Israeli security forces was taken by Assistant Commissioner David Veness, head of special operations, who is developing an anti-terrorist strategy to deal with a post-September 11 world.”[9]

In May 2002, The Sunday Times revealed the current thinking of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ suicide bomber working group: “One suggested tactic is to use snipers to shoot suicide bombers in the head, aiming to sever the brain stem.”[10] The Guardian followed-up its previous report stating that “a group of Scotland Yard officers, led by the [sic] deputy assistant commissioner, Barbara Wilding, visited Israel and Sri Lanka recently for advice on strategy to cope with suicide bombers.”[11]

In January 2003, The Sun became the first paper to hint at the meaning of the new policy in an article about an al-Qa’ida plot to kill the Queen or Tony Blair, stating that “armed cops have been ordered to shoot any potential suicide bomber on sight”.[12] 

The Sun’s claims were backed up by an article in Police Review magazine on new guidance for police, “Officers will be given information on what they should do in the event of a spontaneous attack, as well as how to respond if police are given prior warning of an incident…” but “For security reasons, guidance details are not being made public, but the general advice to officers will be not to intervene or challenge a suicide terrorist.”[13] They quoted Barbara Wilding on the guidelines: “It is very simple. Do not intervene and do not challenge…” before noting that “Ms Wilding has also liaised with the authorities in Israel, Russia and Sri Lanka on the subject of suicide attacks.” The Police Review article was referred to in The Daily Telegraph, including the oblique statement that “Armed officers would also be deployed”.[14]

On 8 February 2003, the Sun, claimed to have seen the police’s “confidential training dossier” calling it a “chilling manual telling how to trap and kill suicide bombers”, but the article did not use the term ‘shoot-to-kill’ instead quoting the police’s euphemistic instruction to “deliver a critical head shot” because the “aim is to identify, locate and neutralise the threat.”[15] They also quoted an example scenario claimed to be from the manual where an Algerian woman mumbling in prayer blows herself up in an Israeli demonstration in Parliament Square because of a police officer’s refusal to shoot her.

The Sunday Times stated “Officers at SO19, the specialist firearms unit, have received detailed briefings on how to respond to the threat of a suspected suicide bomber. Marksmen have been told to shoot to kill by firing straight into the suspect’s head rather than into his upper body, which may be wrapped with explosives. Confidential briefing documents, circulated to police across Britain, state that snipers will be deployed as soon as a suspect is sighted.”[16] The same “critical head shot” document was quoted.

In August 2003, Police Review reported that “officers are to be instructed on how to spot and deal with suicide bombers”, the guidance would be “included in a forthcoming Home Office counterterrorist manual” and would cover “how to gather quality intelligence to spot potential suicide bombers.”[17]

The Sunday Telegraph was the first paper to cover this, in a front page article that began “Police have been ordered to ‘shoot to kill’ suicide bombers following intelligence warnings that an al-Qaeda terrorist attack in Britain may be imminent”. It stated further that the then head of the MPS “Sir John [Stevens] has now ordered that the hundreds of armed officers in the capital must shoot to kill if they believe that someone is trying to detonate explosives carried on their body or in a vehicle. His instructions do not alter the law or the rules governing police use of firearms, but they make clear that if officers fear loss of life they will be justified in killing the suspect.” As if that wasn’t clear enough they added, “One senior officer said: ‘He’s made it plain that if we think we are facing a suicide bomber, we should shoot first and ask questions later.”[18]

These reports clearly show that Britain’s shoot-to-kill policy is largely based on Israel’s own policy in dealing with the Palestinian population, a policy which is built on anti-Arab racism and institutional Islamophobia. That part of the reasoning used to track de Menezes (and to ultimately kill him) was his fitting a certain profile the police were looking for shows the deadly consequences of such a policy.

The Death of Democracy

Israeli shoot-to-kill has also been used as a tool to silence political dissent. There are numerous incidents in which unarmed Palestinian protestors have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers, the most recent being the deaths of 2 women in Beit Hanoun after the IDF opened fire on female demonstrators in November 2006.

Although unlikely right now, we should be wary that such tactics do not become the norm in the UK in the future. That calls were made for the adoption of such tactics in March 2004 are indicative of how desensitised Britain has become to the principles of the preservation of human rights and civil liberties. After two Greenpeace activists climbed the clock-tower at the Houses of Parliament in March 2004 to coincide with a Stop The War Coalition march through London, the News Of The World reported that, “Furious MPs last night demanded to know why police ignored ‘shoot to kill’ orders and allowed two potential terrorists to climb Big Ben.”[19]

A few days later The Daily Mirror front-page carried what it claimed were details of the response to this security breach: “The planned replacement of Westminster’s historic iron railings by a forbidding 15ft-high barrier topped with razor wire is stark evidence of the security threat now facing Britain […] Police with shoot-to-kill orders will patrol Parliament’s perimeter”.[20] Inside the paper they had more of the same beginning “Machine gun-carrying police instructed to shoot to kill are to patrol in front of Parliament’s new ring of concrete. […] A shoot-to-kill policy is being planned following the ascent of Big Ben by two anti-war protesters. A minister close to Operation Fortress Commons said: ‘If somebody scaled the White House, they would be shot immediately. We must start taking security here seriously if we want to avoid a strike at the heart of our democracy. Shoot-to-kill sounds incredibly extreme but until people see that we have such measures in place we will continue to be seen as a joke. The intruders at the weekend were lucky not to be made an example of.”[21]

Another similarity between the Israeli shoot-to-kill and Operation Kratos is the desire to grant immunity to officers. In December 2004, The Daily Mail reported on a speech given by Ian Blair: “Armed police who shoot and kill members of the public by mistake should not be charged with murder, according to the future head of the Metropolitan police. Sir Ian Blair said officers who open fire by accident should be treated like surgeons who make errors on the operating table.”[22] Although the reasoning behind such an analogy is understandable, as we have seen in the Israeli case, it can easily lead to a climate of impunity where gross human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings go unpunished and most of the time, uninvestigated.

A Police Review article in the same month revealed that “the Met decided to ‘urgently revisit the legal basis’ of the anti-terror Operations Kratos and Clydesdale after members of the force’s firearms unit laid down their weapons […] it is understood that they involve senior officers ordering a police marksman to shoot suicide bombers in London.” This was part of an “eight-point action plan Sir John Stevens, Met commissioner, personally helped to put in place last month to get the firearms officers back on duty. […] Police Review understands that the SO19 officers were concerned about their legal position if they were ordered to take a ‘head shot’ of a suicide bomber.”[23]

In February 2005, The Independent on Sunday reported that Ian Blair, newly promoted to Commissioner, repeated his call “for a change in the law to give police marksmen who shoot dead innocent people greater protection from prosecution. […] He said: ‘These are such split-second decisions. But is it reasonable to put a man on trial for murder in those circumstances? I say it’s not.’ […] He said the mistakes which resulted in the loss of life were ‘appalling’ tragedies for the officers concerned as well as relatives of those killed.”[24]

Conclusion

It is deeply worrying that in its efforts to keep the UK safe from a terrorist attack, the British police have resorted to imitating the policies and behavior of an occupying army with one of the worst human rights records in the world. The British police force is a civilian institution which is there to serve and protect the British public. The Israeli Defence Force is a military army illegally occupying the sovereign territory of another people and committing the most egregious breaches of international human rights law in its efforts to cement that occupation.

Calls by British MPs for political protestors, such as the Greenpeace activists, to be shot dead signify a very worrying development where political dissent and civil disobedience will become capital offences. With reports from April 2004 that “thousands of Glock guns and Heckler and Koch rifles have been stockpiled to arm 2,000 police should an emergency be declared” and that the “elite firearms unit – SO19 – has been ordered to train the Metropolitan Police to deal with ‘every eventuality’ … includ[ing] how to use weapons – including a shoot-to-kill policy if a suicide bomber is identified.”[25], one wonders how dissimilar the streets of London will actually be from the Gaza Strip in the months and years to come.

The author expresses his gratitude to Jeff Parks for his detailed collation of the media coverage of Operation Kratos, parts of which were used below. The original article can be viewed at http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/london/2005/09/324742.html

[1] Statistics available from B’Tselem website
[2] ‘Israeli troops say they were given shoot-to-kill orders’, Guardian, 6 September 2005
[3] ‘Israeli soldiers tell of indiscriminate killings by army and a culture of impunity’, Guardian, 6 September 2005
[4] ‘Secrecy over shoot-to-kill fear in Gaza’, Observer
[5] “Met adopted secret shoot-to-kill policy in the face of a new and deadly threat”, Financial Times, 25 July 2005.
[6] Sir John Stevens, former Commissioner of Metropolitan Police Service, interviewed on Today Programme on Radio 4, 19 September 2005
[7] “Met adopted secret shoot-to-kill policy in the face of a new and deadly threat”, Financial Times, July 25 2005
[8] “Yard expert targets suicide bomber threat”, Evening Standard, 19 December 2001
[9] “Yard sends officers to Israel”, The Guardian, 28 December 2001
[10] “Police Sniper Plan To Foil Suicide Bomb Attacks”, Sunday Times, 12 May 2002
[11] “UK Plays Down Attack Report”, The Guardian, 23 May 2002
[12] “Snipers Guard Queen & Blair: Al-Qa’ida Assassination Threat”, The Sun, 23 January 2003
[13] “Police Issued With Guidance On Dealing With Suicide Bombers”, Police Review, 24 January 2003
[14] “Rules For Police On Suicide Bombers”, Daily Telegraph, 25 January 2003
[15] “How To Kill Bombers”, The Sun, 8 February 2003
[16] “Britain Fears Attack At Home”, Sunday Times, 23 March 2003
[17] “New Guidance Will Help Officers Spot Potential Suicide Bombers”, Police Review, 6 August 2003
[18] “Police Given Shoot-To-Kill Orders In New Terror Alert”, Sunday Telegraph, 10 August 2003
[19] “What A Bloody Farce: MP Fury As Gun Cops Fail To Stop ‘Bombers’ Break-In”, News Of The World, 21 March 2004
[20] “Fortress Commons: Parliament Will Get 15ft Wall To Thwart Terrorists”, Daily Mirror, 24 March 2004
[21] “Shoot To Kill: Order To Armed Parliament Cops”, Daily Mirror, 24 March 2004
[22] “Met Chief’s Gun Police Plea, Daily Mail”, Daily Mail, 03 December 2004
[23] “Suicide Bomber Operations Under Review After Suspensions”, Police Review, 15 December 2004
[24] “Met Seeks Immunity For Armed Police”, Independent On Sunday, 27 February 2005
[25] “Yard’s Gun Arsenal To Fight Terror”, Daily Mirror, 10 April 2004

Fahad Ansari

Researcher at the Islamic Human Rights Commission