THE report by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is short and to the point: the Security Service could not have prevented the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby.
The 192 page report does not pull any punches. The Security Service (MI5) made a number of errors: the Secret Intelligence Service’s (MI6) apparent lack of interest in Michael Adebolajo’s arrest in Kenya was ‘deeply unsatisfactory’; while a possible opportunity to disrupt Adebolajo’s drug dealing in Romford was missed when the house number was accidentally omitted from the paperwork provided to the police – who decided that no further action should be taken because in the words of the policemen ‘[I] cannot find the [house] number… and this is a long road…”
Michael Adebolajo, one of two individuals currently serving a prison sentence for the murder of Fusilier Rigby appeared in no less than five different Security Service investigations. The number is high but not unique and he was not always the subject of interest, often only skirting the periphery of a group or network. Adebolajo’s own interest in violence waxed and waned over the years and investigations related to him, according to the ISC report, did not always meet the threshold for constant intrusive activity. There were multiple occasions when MI5 did not have sufficient cause for such action as they did not meet the rigorous thresholds set down in law, and were unable to demonstrate that the action was both necessary and proportionate.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
With the benefit of hindsight, a report like this - rich in data and information – may lead us to conclude that someone must be culpable for what happened. But the police, the security and intelligence agencies were making do with a partial intelligence picture, an existing grid of priority investigations and finite resources. The report raises three issues worth reflecting on; the rise of so-called ‘self starters’ and lone actors; what to do with people who remain on the periphery of counter-terrorism investigations and pose no immediate threat and lastly how the agencies work with some industries to tackle an increasingly security consciousness community of violent extremists.
The British government has, in the past, been successful in preventing al-Qaeda attacks in the UK. These attacks tended to be complex and involve a large number of people. The more people the larger the footprint and thus greater opportunities to target them and exploit their communications. The tragic incident in May of last year reminds us that the opposite is also true and, in the past few years, have become starkly apparent. A few people operating independently or even a lone actor reduces the ability of the security and intelligence agencies to detect them. Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway remains one of Europe’s deadliest terrorist attacks. Today the Security Service faces a broad spectrum of attack plotting necessitating a prioritisation system that categorises investigations on the basis of assessed threat, and then allocates resources accordingly. It is a mix of judgement, science and good luck. That is the nature of intelligence work.
A second issue is how, faced by finite resources, MI5 manages low priority operations. Inevitably, the ISC report concludes that ‘lower priority casework is dealt with in a slower timescale’ but the Committee concludes that there should be an effective process in place to manage the large number of individuals who pose a risk to national security, but are not under active investigation. Part of the answer lies in how government prevents people from becoming radicalised and supporting violent extremism. The Government does have a number of initiatives which can and are successfully diverting individuals from the radicalisation path. But greater investment is needed. Putting one initiative - the Channel Programme - on statutory footing is long overdue.
The final issue is complex and sensitive with no simple solutions or easy answers. As part of their comprehensive inquiry the ISC considered material that came to light after the attack. The Committee saw a graphic exchange between Michael Adebowale (Adebelajo’s accomplice) and a contact of his overseas about him wanting to kill a soldier. MI5 did not have access to this information. But a company in the United States, now known to be Facebook, did. This graphic exchange took place on a social media platform and could have been flagged by the company but was not done so. Furthermore the company is not obliged to respond to a warrant obtained under UK legislation unless in specific circumstances – and the threshold was not met. This is clearly a cause for concern given that many CSPs are based in the United States and may be unwittingly hosting calls and communications by terrorists. Working with global CSPs is a pressing requirement for governments around the world. Better cooperation, as the Committee makes clear is needed, urgently.
The report makes for sober reading, the complex challenges of counter-terrorist investigations unpicked by the ISC in the cold light of day. Fusilier Rigby’s death could not have been prevented but the tragic lessons of his brutal murder must be understood and acted on as the police and intelligence agencies focus their efforts on the next set of priority counter-terrorism operations.
• Charlie Edwards is Director of National Security and Resilience studies at RUSI