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Could Britain have carried out Bin Laden raid?

Mark Urban | 19:21 UK time, Thursday, 5 May 2011

Would Britain have been able to mount an operation like Monday's? Almost certainly not, according to those with knowledge of this country's secret counter-terrorism operations.

It's not a matter of blowing your way in and shooting members of al-Qaeda - the SAS and SBS are evidently quite good at that. It isn't even due to Britain's lesser intelligence gathering or aviation capabilities. All of these practical difficulties could probably be overcome - even if that required some American help.

The real issue for any British leader planning such an audacious and violent mission is to do with the legal constraints that exist on the way British intelligence agents and troops can operate.

Insiders say there are three areas where they are governed by quite different rules to the Americans: in passing or receiving intelligence that may involve the torture or killing of suspects; in using British troops to strike in countries in which we are not engaged in hostilities, without the permission of the government there; and in the rules of engagement that govern UK special forces operations.

Let's deal with those issues one by one.

The issue of intelligence and torture is an intensely controversial one.
Sir John Sawyers, Chief of MI6, has said publicly that Britain cannot pass secret information to countries that might use it to arrest and torture someone.

The ban is pretty clear. It is not just theoretical. I am told that two recent foreign secretaries obtained legal advice about passing specific information to governments that might mistreat detainees. In both cases the decision was to withhold that intelligence.

We know from Wikileaks that not too long ago Britain stopped American spy flights using British bases to fly over Lebanon because of the possibility that such flights might produce information that might be passed to Lebanese security agencies who might mistreat someone.

So while the world criticises Pakistan one might ask: if Britain had intelligence about that house in Abbottabad, would it have been passed on? Not to Pakistan, it seems. But what about to the US?

Now to that second issue - mounting military missions in foreign countries without the host government's permission. Those who've been involved with sensitive operations tell me that American drone strikes in Pakistan would not be considered legal under British law.

On one level it's pretty obvious that the UK takes a different view, since it has its own drones based in Kandahar and clearly does not chose to use them to hit targets in Pakistan. The issue, I'm told, is that the UK does not consider it legal to use them, except in support of UK forces involved in combat in an area of armed conflict. Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia do not currently count as such.

Finally there is the question of the rules of engagement. When Task Force Black, the British special forces squadron group in Baghdad was operating, the rules governing their operations were eased somewhat. This allowed them to kill suspects on the basis of intelligence, rather than waiting for that person to 'demonstrate hostile intent', for example by grabbing a gun or shooting at them.

But even then, people who were there have told me, Britain's rules were tighter than the American ones. Two items of hard intelligence were needed about the presence of a particular violent terrorist, whereas the Americans would storm or bomb a house on the basis of one.

We know from Leon Panetta that, remarkably, there was no specific intelligence that Osama Bin Laden was even in that compound. It was rated as a 60-80% probability, based on circumstantial information.

And yet, on that basis some around the White House table were willing to advocate obliterating the building and those inside with bombs. A British government would have required more substantial intelligence.

Of course the British equipped with similar information about that compound, might have tried to exploit it in different ways. But a similar raid could have been blocked for a whole host of legal, political, and diplomatic reasons.

Amen to that - the Archbishop of Canterbury and millions of other Britons might say. One figure within the ring of secrecy told me, "our views on counter-terrorism are fundamentally different to the Americans' and we might as well just accept that".

That may produce a warm glow of virtue, but it also causes frustration in some of the more secret parts of the government and military machine.


  • Comment number 1.


    Britain found a way to dispossess the Chagos Islanders of their homeland. If we can do that (killing their spirit) I think we would find a way to kill that looked like something else. We might get our proxy torturers to help?

    And when US and UK combine, the numbers killed are beyond count.

  • Comment number 2.

    When Osama Bin Laden was on the run in late 2001 a joke was doing the rounds in Northern Ireland and the West of Scotland.

    The gist of it was that if Osama was captured by the Brits they would appoint him Minister of Education.


  • Comment number 3.

    Paul Craig Roberts - serious guy :-

    Its all over the place.

  • Comment number 4.

    he would be on benefits within the week and a generous housing allowance....only in blighty

  • Comment number 5.

    Only if it had been in Bradford!

  • Comment number 6.

    I was very disappointed in this segment. I thought the presentation was overly-simplistic and certainly lacking in any institutional, historical or comparative context.
    Bobbit (on World Tonight), Holder and other US commentators have given very specific justifications for the action by referencing both UN and USA resolutions. laws (in US case Executive Orders and legislation).

    I thought both interviewees made it clear that there was a 'lawful' basis in international terms for any lack of agreement with Pakistan (we still don't know whether there was), so the sovereignty issue is not clearcut. Re specific rules of engagement, both the US and UK derive these from legal interpretatons: the route for doing so in the USA is much clearer than it is in the UK ( UK Departments 'take' legal advice but it is never made public; the US system is quite transparent in terms of routes, citations and public debate).
    Most informed UK commentators seem to see the shooting as a 'normal and legitimate reaction' to a situation where a soldier confronts someone known to have operational experience with suicide vests, booby-traps, etc.
    Both interviewees made further points on the legal grounds for this - which were never pursued. Nothing was systematically unpacked.

    I thought Kirsty's comments on them being able to 'see' whether he was armed and her attendant attempt to set up a comparative situation with terrorists fleeing to the USA showed a singular lack of serious thought.

    The UK has a very mixed history from Northern Ireland( torture, internment, Diplock courts and 'shoot to kill' - with the Stalker report never published), to Iraq (where details of SAS actions remain undiscussed) to its current role in Libya. In the latter case, it seems clear that the recent bombing was an attempt to kill Gaddafi; it seems most likely that it was either a French or British airplane that delivered the NATO bomb. Cameron seemed/seems to argue that removal of Gadaffi was licensed by the UN resolution.

    I felt quite 'let down' by the piece: these are serious issues and we have never had a serious debate about ROE, how they are constructed, monitored, etc. At least in the USA there is informed and widespread debate.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hmn, I looked from 'Whathavebeennighty' to 'Almostcertainlynight' but already it was impossible to say which was which.

    Almost makes you feel Rumsfeld was on doing something, knowingly.

  • Comment number 8.

    I could not believe that Kirsty had questioned the legality of the operation to capture Bin Laden, which obviously ended with his death. This was a man who had created the most evil and cold blooded terrorist organisation that the world has witnessed, one that did not care for legality or for the lives of innocents. Here the west had a chance to rid the world of this mad man forever.

    Do you really think that the US where going to wait to see if this operation was legal or whether the British would have acted in such a way, NO.

    The rules have changed in this global war on terror because the terrorist have moved the goal posts. An we as the west have to respond in a way that is decisive and effective.

    Please newsnight please do not question legality when such risks are at stake.


  • Comment number 9.


    I think it is legitimate and important to ask on what legal grounds the attack on Bin Laden took place, but it has to be a serious and systematic discussion.
    Too many British commentators produce the narrative of the US acting 'outside the law' and operating with a 'wild West' form of justice. That is so endlessly repeated or assumed that it is tedious.

    The US government must and always does produce a thorough legal justification for its actions: citing sources, producing arguments in terms of both international and US law. It is quite transparent about this. People may disagree with the interpretation of the relevant law (for example, I profoundly disagreed with the Bush administration's justifications re torture), but a serious discussion examines the bases for the interpretation offered (both interviewees mentioned specific bases in international law for aspects of the action). This was not done: specious comparisons provide more drama, but offer little illumination. I think Kirsty may have been poorly served by the research.

    I think Mark Urban's piece (as much as I respect his work) leaves too much unanswered. It actually reenforces a view of UK operations as shadowy, arbitrary or capricious. We are very unclear about who makes these determinations and the procedures through which these determinations are made. He makes reference to a very vague legal advice and framework - without any citations. Since we do know that legal interpretations are very variable and contestable, unless we know what are the key grounds on which interpretations are made, we cannot even begin to understand or challenge UK policy.
    Unlike the USA, where such formal grounds and procedures are much more transparent and therefore widely and seriously debated in the USA - even on quite ordinary blogs.

    Having read these debates in the USA and listened to Bobbit on the World Tonight, I am convinced this was a lawful operation.


  • Comment number 10.

    What legal constraints stopped the British involvement in renditions and torture. Did none of these victims suffer (die?)
    I don't care what insiders say. Are not British military involved in the mission (illegal) creep in Libya, a creep that has far surpassed UNR 1973?
    Sir John Sawyers, Chief of MI6, has said publicly that Britain cannot pass secret information to countries that might use it to arrest and torture someone, but you & I both know that M16, CIA, RAW and MOSSAD operate like four horseman of the Apocalypse - disease, pestilence, death - whatever is needed.
    (We are poor little lambs that have lost our way...)
    I would be most pleased if you could site me one, just one instance where British & American intelligence is not in goose-setp (I mean lock-step). So I ask: if Britain had intelligence about that house in Abbottabad, would it have been passed on?
    No, at least not to the soverign country where it should have gone.
    Yes, to the United States because Americans and Brits are locked in goose-step (I mean lock-step) in their foreign policy. Britian, poor fools, believes it has something to gain by riding the American coattails.
    The Americn drone strikes are not legal under any law; they simply go on because they can, and the Americans don't care about collateral damage. I have yet to see one British politician compain in the House or before the United Nations. Has there been one?
    The Uk has its drones - in Kandahar and clearly does not chose to use them to hit targets in Pakistan. So what do the British use them against? Are they mere psychological toys, decorations of power? The UK does not consider it legal to use them, except in support of UK forces involved in combat. Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia do not currently count as such. I sure to God hope that Brits stay on that American coattail because otherwise, if you displease the US, you might just get droned - with depleted uranium yet.
    When Task Force Black, the British special forces squadron group in Baghdad was operating, the rules governing their operations were eased. This allowed them to kill suspects on the basis of intelligence. No trial, no evidence- sounds a bit primitive to me. We know from Leon Panetta that, remarkably, there was no specific intelligence that Osama Bin Laden was even in that Pakistan compound. It was rated as a 60-80% probability - sounds a bit primitive to me.
    A British government would have required more substantial intelligence, like Americans telling them: "Go bomb the s...t out of

  • Comment number 11.

    Esta and Max37uk - Can you tell me exactly and factually how you know that Bin Laden was killed in this raid that lead you to your thinking here ?

    Did you study any of the science behind buildings collapse re 9/11 ? did you know that building 7 collapsed and nothing hit it - the strong inference is that it was very expertly demolished about 5 - 7 hours after the other two and while on fire . The question is: did it already have very high temperature explosives expertly planted or were they able to do it while on fire and with in the hours time frame ?

  • Comment number 12.

    If we are going to deal with issues, should we not start at the very beginning, the issue that caused this idiotic but deadly war on terror?
    Nineteen Arab hijackers, managed by Osama bin Laden, crash airplanes into steel skyscrapers.
    Why (according to George W, Bush) because they “hate our freedom to consume”.
    Jet fuel - basically kerosene - burns at about 400c, metamorphosed into an agent that could and allegedly did vaporize 70 tons of aircraft into a puff of smoke and causing 110-story buildings to collapse - neatly downward.
    This is just too stupid to believe, but most Americans did believe it, most of the world appears to have believed it. The power elites of the US Government used controlled demolition to demolish the towers. Arabs had little or possibly nothing to do with it, though they certainly did have grievances against American imperialism and hegemony.
    Jet fuel could never bring down these buildings
    Then came the American exploitation = Let's attack Iraq, a country that certainly had nothing to do with 9/11. Why not attack Saudi Arabia? Why not Bahrain?
    But NO ONE, not even Professor Steven “Cold Fusion” Jones has managed to duplicate this terrorist attack - 110 stories of steel and concrete collapsing straight downward into rubble.
    If Americans cannot accept this reality, they will never be able to face the fact that the killing of the long-dead and buried Bin Laden is just another lie.
    If the truth could just come out, there would be justifiable charges against the powerful elites that wanted this war on terror - to sell arms, steal oil, get rich.

  • Comment number 13.

    #11 Also did you know that JP Morgan HSBC and other big banks had massive naked short (betting what they didn't have) position in silver, but silver was going up and up and up therefore they stood to loose 10's if not 100's of billions . So at the same time as the Osama story we had this :-

    And the days before:-

    'Going on since Last week'

    'The Treasury Department was calling all the commodity firms and other investment banking and brokerage firms that do commodities for others and they told them that they wanted them to recommend to their clients that they close all gold and silver and commodity positions, they also raised margin requirements double'

    'This is a definite transparent attempt to rig the market'

  • Comment number 14.

  • Comment number 15.

    Leaving aside for a moment the fact that we do not have Blackhawks or an aircraft carrier, which would have made it logistically difficult, I imagine we would have sent in special services to conduct an interview during the course of which Mr. Bin Laden accidentally slipped and fell on two bullets. Of course, it would have been kept quiet for as long as it took for the Attorney General to come up with a legal justification.

  • Comment number 16.

    Britain could never have done it, we dont have enough kit to carry all the required diversity consultants into the combat zone to ensure (heaven forbid) no cultural or religious sensibility is offended while the state santioned execution without trial is carried out in front of his children and wives while the government watches live via web cam from 10,000 miles away.

    It would, naturally and quite rightly be assumed that nobody would be bothered to take offence at the state sanctioned execution itself or the grandstanding of said event for the gratification of an elite on sofas 10,000 miles away providing it was not done during a religious festival or without proper washing of the body.

    A similar thing applies to the international activities of financial institutions and treasuries, you can send a nation crashing into poverty and suffering, providing the peripheral financial rituals are observed nobody will do anything.

    Such is the utter foolishness of early 21st century humankind.

  • Comment number 17.

    This article in the Daily Telegraph directly contradicts what Mark Urban has said.

    It not only says that his ' senior defence source' said that Britain would have conducted a 'kill not capture' raid, but also that the bombing of the building would have been approved.

    Who is right? Sean Raymant or Mark Urban? There is no way to know or even weigh the probabilities.

    If after over 25 years, the Stalker report remains unpublished and very under-discussed, what hope is there for more transparency about the more recent past in Iraq and current SAS activities in Yemen, Afghanistan and Libya?

    There are different constraints in Europe - eg indicated by the success of challenges to the British government in the European Court of Human Rights by relatives of some of those killed in Northern Ireland by the RUC and the more mixed reaction to SAS activities in Gibraltar.

    However, none of this makes it clear that Britain(or many other European countries ) would/would not carry out such attacks.

    Best to be more guarded in suggesting that the US is a 'cowboy' nation when we simply do not know and cannot know who would do what (resources permitting) given that we don't have access to what criteria are used to determine legal advice and ROE.

    Maybe Mark Urban could update his OP.

  • Comment number 18.

    I know Musharraf keeps a low profile but given that attempts were made on his life and he must almost certainly have passed within hundreds of metres of bin Laden he may have a balanced view both of Western suspicions and ISI outrage that they are being scapegoated. By the sounds they did a lot of the donkey work with the phone call tracing and so on though they were blind.

    Clearly the intelligence gathered on site is not fully analysed.

    Could it even be that al Qaeda who used to have CIA contacts have maintained an inside person/people who for instance may have tipped of bin Laden during the cruise misile strike years back?

    But it sounds as though the truth will out and presumably a lot of cells are getting itchy feet and thinking about panicking.

    I wonder whether we know also the inside story in Saudi as presumably the romance of bin Laden coupled with the Arab Spring must be cutting down on recruits.

  • Comment number 19.

    You know what, Mark, I can't imagine any other country being as stupid as the United States of America.
    Now it's being said that Pakistan may grant the US access to 3 wives of Osama bin Laden, who were with the AL-Qaeda leader when he was killed last week. Where does this info come from: "an unnamed US official familiar with the matter".
    Whereas senior Pakistani government officials said that no decision had been made yet on the US request because they are still investigating the attending females and who they are. Off that the United States has names and even the count of thirteen children that went totally unnoticed by neighbors.
    The Obama administration is DEMANDING access to operatives of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, as well as bin Laden's "wives" to try to obtain more information on AL-Qaeda, as it probes bin Laden's support network in Pakistan.
    What kind of command centre was this so-called Bin Laden running in Pakistan without electricity, cable, mobile phones , computers...and how much "intelligence" could the United States possibly have obtained from this electrical-less environment?
    The "wives and several children" may or may not be Bin Laden's. All we can say is that The United States says these people were among 15 or 16 people taken into custody by Pakistani forces after US navy SEAL commandos raided bin Laden's so-called compound. So, why did they US commandos not take bin Laden's relatives with them to be interviewed - even one or two relatives?
    No, the entire plan was to embarrass and humiliate Pakistan, but ask yourself what I've been asking myself since this assassination occurred: How the AL-Qaeda leader was living in Abbottabad, a short distance from the main military academy, for up to six years.
    Pakistanis don't quite belief it; Iran doesn't quite belief it; Russia and China are sceptical. And then there's that violation of its sovereignty of Pakistan by the US commando team, which didn't even trust its ally sufficiently to forewarn.
    Granting, or pretending to grant, access to Bin-Laden's wives might help re-stabilize relations between Washington and Islamabad, but I doubt it because I don't believe these were wives or children of Bin Laden, else what were they doing there in the alleged home of a man who has been dead sine December, 2001.
    This story just gets more and more ludicrous...until you remember that the US has wanted an AfPak war for some time now to establish an oil corridor.

  • Comment number 20.

    I believe the UK would be perfectly willing to conduct a "Kill" mission on a terrorist
    of Bin Laden's status if the individual had killed as many british as he did americans on 9/11.
    Whether we would have the capability is a another matter. although we have the Special Forces, we lack the intelligence asset's and special force's air and logistic unit's. The US SOC forces are large and comprehensive.
    but if such a person was within reach the legal niceties would be ignored, afterall both Britain and France are targeting Gaddafi.
    I expect from now on the Western Powers will be more ruthless in dealing with threats from terrorist's and rougue states.

  • Comment number 21.

    Left-overs is the word to use!
    Bin Laden is dead - ten years dead.
    On Alex Jones Show, Dr. Steve Pieczenik stated that he was directly told by a prominent general that 9/11 was a false flag operation. Dr. Pieczenik declared that he is ready & willing to go before a grand jury & name names, including Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Hadley, Elliott Abrams, and Condoleezza Rice (amongst others).
    Pieczenik served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in 3 different administrations - Nixon, Ford and Carter. He also worked under Reagan and Bush Sr. He still works as a consultant for the Department of Defense. Pieczenik served as a senior policy planner under Secretaries Henry Kissinger, Cyrus Vance, George Schultz & James Baker.
    When this man says FALSE FLAG, INSIDE JOB RE 9/11, it behooves us to listen, to investigate.
    Pieczenik told the Alex Jones Show that in 2002, Bin Laden had been “dead for months,” and that the government was waiting for the most "politically expedient moment to roll out the corpse". Osama Bin Laden died in 2001, “Not because special forces had killed him, but because...he had marfan syndrome complicated by kidney disease.” This means (in case you missed it) that the US administration KNEW Bin Laden was dead before they put their boots on Afghanistan soil.
    Why the Bin Laden resurrection now?
    Obama's plummeting approval ratings, the birther issue, but more important to kick-start the AfPak War that The USA needs to establish its oil corridor through Pakistan and Afghanistan.
    Next to 9/11 itself, the so-called assassination of Bin Laden is the greatest, cruelest farce dumped on the public. Bin Laden was used, the same way that 9/11 was used to mobilize the American people in order to go to a war that absolutely needed to be justified by George W. Bush.
    Pieczenik: I will go in front of a federal committee and name the name of who controlled 9/11 so that we can break it open, adding that he was “furious” about these lies that take millions of lives. He said that we need to unravel these things legally, not with some stupid 9/11 Commission used to bury the truth.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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