Secret strikes by RAF warplanes against jihadists in Iraq and Syria have stopped a series of home-grown terror attacks, a top commander reveals today.
Air Commodore Johnny Stringer admitted British citizens had also been killed in the missions against Islamic State strongholds.
The extremist group has a special unit dedicated to mounting atrocities in the UK and Europe, he said.
But in the latest phase of the mission to crush IS, he said RAF jets and drones were forcing the jihadis on to the back foot, saying: ‘We… have helped stop potential attacks in the UK.’
He revealed the UK had taken out Britons to stop specific attacks, adding: ‘By dint of their activity, by being members of Daesh and frankly engaging the people we are here to protect, they (British citizens) become valid military targets and that’s the way we look at it.’
Speaking from Al Udeid base in Qatar, where air operations against IS are controlled, Air Cmdre Stringer added: ‘These people know we can find them wherever they try to hide.’ The Britons that have been killed were not targeted because of their citizenship, but due to the threat they posed, the officer said.
He added that if UK jihadists were planning attacks on home soil they would be taken out irrespective of their nationality. He would not say how many British citizens have been killed as a result of the strikes.
The Mail first revealed Britons were being killed in secret RAF strikes in February. But today’s revelations are the first official confirmation by a senior officer. David Cameron caused a furore in September 2015 when he revealed that three British jihadists had been killed in Syria by a drone strike – without the approval of MPs.
In total, MI5 has thwarted 19 attacks in Britain in the last five years. Five of those were in the two months until March this year. However, the figures only apply to those stopped in the UK, and not those targeted by RAF jets and drones in Iraq and Syria.
This week, the Mail became the first British newspaper to be given access to the command and control centre in Doha, Qatar, where air targets in Iraq and Syria are decided and signed off by Air Cmdre Stringer.
Such is the size of the task that the UK is now involved in the largest air operation since the Second World War.
The officer said terror attacks in Britain, such as the bomb at Parsons Green tube station in London last Friday, gave those under his command ‘fresh resolve’ to deal with the ‘death cult’ of IS.
Personnel in Britain and the Middle East had indentified ‘threats to the UK or threats that may have materialised in the UK’. Air Cmdre Stringer said jihadi plotters were either planning to come to Britain, or have accomplices in the UK who can execute the attacks. He would not discuss the planned targets.
‘There are a bunch of people out there frankly who hate the way we live, they don’t like our values and they don’t like us and they would rather kill us,’ he said. ‘And so one of the reasons we are out here is to keep people in the UK safe and deal with that threat at range – that’s why we’re here.’
He said the UK was trying to find out who the key individuals are, and ‘engage them at range so they don’t actually get the chance for those threats to materialise in the UK’. Some of the plotters are deliberately hiding among the general population to avoid being targeted by bombs, said the Air Commodore.
Speaking from Qatar, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said: ‘I can’t go into the details of the intelligence but we’ve seen attacks against Britain and western Europe being planned from cities here in Iraq and Syria.
‘We’ve been able to take action where necessary to head those off either by taking out… buildings we know… or by striking particular individuals that we know are in the planning process.’
Asked if the UK was killing British jihadists, he said IS fighters are being wiped out ‘irrespective of nationality’.