Steve Shaw

As the UK government continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia despite warnings from human rights groups that British-made weapons are being used to commit war crimes in Yemen, a VICE News investigation has exposed how the country is also directly involved in a covert US counterterrorism program.

Through interviews with more than two-dozen current and former British, American, and Yemeni officials, the investigation appears to contradict years of denials by the British government with regards to their involvement in Yemen and details how UK personnel are supporting secret US drone strikes.

In 2014, Ministers denied involvement, telling MPs that there were only two UK military personnel present in Yemen. In the same year, the Ministry of Defense told the UK human rights organization Reprieve: “The UK does not provide any military support to the US campaign of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) strikes on Yemen”, and that “use of RPAS strikes for counter-terrorist purposes is a matter for the states involved.”

In response to the investigation, David Davis MP and chair of the UK's All-Party Parliamentary Group on drones, told VICE News that Britain’s involvement should be made clear to parliament. “If we know we're handing intelligence over which will be used in a killing then we ought to be confident that it meets our own rules and guidelines. If there are deaths of civilians there's a moral and legal problem," he added.

The covert counterterrorism campaign in Yemen began in 2001 after the UK and US intelligence agencies identified al-Qaeda training camps. The CIA carried out its first drone strike the following year. With the campaign still in operation 15 years on, the result, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is 1,651 people dead, including up to 261 civilians.

The British connection began at an intelligence-gathering capacity but later evolved to include taking part at an operational level in order to learn about potential threats to the UK. Working alongside the CIA, UK intelligence services help to find and fix targets, assess the effect of strikes, and train Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program. 

This level of support shows that Britain is providing intelligence for a kill list, and according to VICE’s report, a former senior Yemeni diplomat said the UK did not want it to be known that the country was taking part operationally.

The investigation also reveals how Britain is mirroring a method used in the US whereby military personnel are temporarily transferred to intelligence services in order to carry out activities under the aegis of the Foreign Office. Once they are seconded, a British official said, the Ministry of Defense “loses any control over what they get up to.”

Britain’s support of US drone strikes has continued despite reports of large numbers of civilian casualties. An investigation by Reprieve in 2014 found that it is common for multiple people to be killed in strikes by the US drone program, even when there is only one intended target. The group recorded some 1,147 unknown people killed in Pakistan and Yemen when targeting just 41 named individuals.

Jen Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve, said in a statement: “For years, the government has denied any involvement in US’s covert drone war in Yemen, saying it’s ‘a matter for the states involved.’ It’s now beyond dispute the UK is one of those states – working hand in glove with the Americans to create the very 'kill list' that drives those strikes. Even more disturbing, the UK has copied wholesale the US model of outsourcing the military to the intelligence agencies in order to hide their involvement and avoid any accountability.”

Gibson continued: “There needs to be an urgent inquiry into just how far the UK’s involvement in this covert drone program goes – both in Yemen and beyond.”

The White House is expected to soon release its first estimate of the numbers of civilians killed by US drones. President Obama has publicly stated that there is “no doubt” that civilians had been killed by US drones.

Steve Shaw is a freelance journalist living in Manchester, England. He has worked internationally for The Tibet Post International and The Shan Herald News Agency; his work has focused primarily on human rights, injustice and conflict. He is also a contributor to the Bhutan News Agency and the business publication P1.