On 15 January, Emily Knowles, Director of the ORG’s Remote Warfare Programme, joined a panel of experts to provide oral evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee’s inquiry on Global Islamist Terrorism, with a focus on the UK’s contribution to counter-terrorism operations. Emily was joined on the panel by David Patrikarakos, author of “War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century”, and Chris Woods, the founder and Director of Airwars.

In response to questions posed by the Committee, Emily explained how government strategies over last nine years have often been based on a sound assessment that countering the threat from terrorism requires long-term responses. The 2011 Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS), for example, set out the need for the UK to building the capacity of, often weak, partners on the ground now, so that in the future they could provide security for their own countries and regions. This, Emily described, aimed to ensure that countries were not “locked into an endless cycle of international military intervention”.

The challenge, however, Emily suggested, is that a short-term counter-terrorism approach is dominating discussions around building partner capacity. This is leading to a situation where British activities aren’t doing justice to the strategies because approaches are being dominated by military responses focused around narrow counter-terrorism objectives. Ultimately, a gap exists between the aspirations being set by governments and the activities that are being carried out on the ground.

[a televised stream of the oral evidence session can be found here]

As part of her list of recommendations for UK Defence and military communities, Emily advocated for:

  • Explore ways to implement a more credible and effective approach to civilian casualty monitoring as part of broader review of the outdated Protection of Civilians strategy which pre-dated a move towards remote warfare in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan era;

  • The military to learn lessons from contemporary campaigns about how it can better train partner forces for operating in urban environments (this should be incorporated into Joint Doctrine);


  • The government to relax its “no comment” policy around the use of its special forces – as well as many other areas of its military activity – which runs counter to the government’s ambitions to win the battle for the narrative as well as the battle on the ground. “You have to ask yourself how much the UK government is really hamstringing itself in having this narrative around military engagements by having this ‘no comment’ approach”, she said.

The Remote Warfare Programme was invited to give evidence off the back of extensive field research it has conducted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya and Mali examining the effectiveness of UK approaches to building partner capacity.