Press release

Legal basis for striking terror targets set out

Attorney General Jeremy Wright will set out the legal basis for British military strikes against terror targets overseas

Attorney General Jeremy Wright will tonight set out the legal basis for British military strikes against terror targets overseas.

Speaking in central London, the Attorney General will, for the first time, outline the legal considerations that would be discussed before action is taken in self-defence against an imminent attack.

And he will stress that it is vital for the UK to retain the right to deploy lethal force in self-defence against terrorists who would do us harm.

In a landmark speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Jeremy Wright will tell the audience that the challenges the UK faces in protecting our national security are increasing.
The world is changing fast and we face new and different threats, as we have seen from the wave of recent attacks across the world.

Attacks can be directed quickly that previously would have taken months of planning. And it is essential that international law can adapt to respond to modern threats.

The Attorney General will say: “The UK is a world leader in promoting, defending and shaping international law – and for the first time we are setting out how we determine whether an attack is imminent.

“We are a long way from being able to see troops massing on the horizon. Technology has made it easier for terrorists to carry out attacks. The law has to keep up with the changing times.

“The Government has a primary duty to protect the lives of its citizens. But, it can only use lethal force where there is a clear legal basis for doing so.”

Lethal action will always be a last resort, when there is no other option to defend the country from attack and no other means to detain, disrupt or otherwise prevent those plotting acts of terror, for example law enforcement measures.

A state may use force in self-defence not only in response to armed attacks that have occurred, but also in certain circumstances, to prevent attacks before they occur.

In 2013 Sir Daniel Bethlehem, former Legal Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office set out a series of factors that he argued should be taken into account when assessing whether an attack was imminent.
These include:

  • The nature and immediacy of the threat;
  • the probability of an attack;
  • whether the anticipated attack is part of a concerted pattern of continuing armed activity; the likely scale of the attack and the injury,
  • loss or damage likely to result therefrom in the absence of mitigating action; and
  • the likelihood that there will be other opportunities to undertake effective action in self-defence that may be expected to cause less serious collateral injury, loss or damage.

In his speech tonight, the Attorney General will say the UK Government endorses that view.
He will say that any government determining whether to take action must consider how certain it is that an attack will come, how soon it will be and on what scale. And he will say that it must then be determined whether anything could credibly be done to prevent the attack, and whether it is the last clear opportunity for preventative action.

The Attorney General will conclude that these are the right questions to consider in asking whether or not an armed attack by non-state actors is imminent.

Attorney General speech on Legal basis for striking terror targets set out - with references

This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology. Request an accessible format.

If you use assistive technology (such as a screen reader) and need a version of this document in a more accessible format, please email correspondence@attorneygeneral.gsi.gov.uk. Please tell us what format you need. It will help us if you say what assistive technology you use.