Clive Stafford Smith: the man working to exterminate assassination lists

Malik Jalal is on a kill list. Four times, drone strikes have come close to hitting the tribal leader from Pakistan’s Waziristan region, and Jalal believes he has been added to a roster of targets drawn up by the US and UK intelligence services due to his work with the North Waziristan Peace Committee, a group that has tried to broker peace between the Taliban and the Pakistani government.

In April, the UK government knew exactly where he was — he was in England, staying with Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve and a veteran campaigner against arbitrary detention, killing and the death penalty.

“There are certain people that think that negotiating with terrorists is anathema. They think that the North Waziristan Peace Committee is creating a safe haven for the Taliban,” Stafford Smith says. “They think that Malik Jalal and his colleagues are the bad guys. They’re wrong, and if they took the time to talk to him, they’d figure it out.

There’s been a consensus since about 1640, that you don’t just draw up a list of people that you want to kill

”Since 2001, Stafford Smith and Reprieve have supported and given legal representation to detainees in the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, after suing the US government for access to the prisoners. Now, he is taking aim at this secretive kill list, allegedly drawn up in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC in September 2001. Reprieve released a report in April which claims that the UK was complicit in adding targets to the US-led ‘Joint Prioritised Effective List’, beginning in 2002 — and that the list was expanded beyond the ‘War on Terror’ to incorporate strikes on narcotics dealers.

The list, which is apparently long and opaque, includes targets in countries that are not officially theatres of operation for US or UK forces, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It is this, along with the pre- meditated — and flawed — nature of the kill list that differentiates it from UK air strikes in Libya, Iraq and Syria.

“It’s one thing to kill people in a war, but it’s very, very different to talk about assassinating people outside a warzone,” Stafford Smith says. “This is assassination. I have my problems with fairly inaccurate bombing. I think that does more harm than good. But there’s been a consensus since about 1640, that you don’t just draw up a list of people that you want to kill.”

Assassination as a tool of statecraft was largely, although not entirely, abandoned in the West centuries ago — Stafford Smith points to the long debates during World War Two about whether to try to assassinate Hitler, which resulted in a consensus that it would be ineffective in changing the course of the war. He believes that the JPEL is justified with the mistaken premise that assassinating ‘high value’ targets is an effective way to undermine terrorist organisations. In fact, he says, evidence suggests it just increases the resentment against Western powers that helps to drive radicalisation.

“What you’re really seeing here is what we’ve seen over and over since 9/11. There was a consensus that we shouldn’t torture people. Then the US government, because they got in a panic and no one’s read a history book in the government, they decided that torture was a way to get intelligence. Look what happened, it was a disaster,” he says.

“The same thing with whether we can detain people without trial… [politicians] thought that we needed to do that, because terrorism is an exponentially different threat. That’s bullshit. What this is is panic-stricken decisions made by politicians who have no concept about the broader impact of what they do.”

Stafford Smith knows that he is swim- ming upstream in trying to win over a public — and politicians — who are increasingly fearful of terrorist atrocities. The political response has been one of short-term, aggressive actions that he believes are actually making the world less safe. “They’re not just immoral policies, they’re incredibly stupid,” he says.

“I don’t expect to make myself popular. But they’re wrong. When we sued Guantanamo Bay, it wasn’t popular. We had hate mail all the time. But they were wrong, and it’s the same here. I don’t expect to persuade people overnight. But when the history books are written, they’ll show that assassination lists were wrong.”

Illustration: Matt Ward