Copy of my article in The Conversation
about the ISC report
into Fusilier Rigby's murder below.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of Parliament
has now released its 191-page report
into Lee Rigby’s murder. The report concludes that even though the ISC
“discovered a number of errors,” the murder could not have been
prevented by the intelligence and security services.
Instead, the blame seems to have been put decisively on Facebook
which one of Rigby’s killers apparently used to discuss “killing a
soldier” several months prior to the murder. This despite the fact that
the security services were apparently well aware of the killers and
their motives, independent of their social media presence.
Michael Adebolajo, the controlling mind in the murderous attack on Fusilier Lee Rigby, was first arrested in 2006
at a protest against Danish cartoons he perceived to be insulting to
the prophet Muhammad. By the autumn of 2008, he was on MI5’s radar as
having potential connections with al-Qaeda and by 2011 was the object of
Between then and April 2013 – when the intensive surveillance of
Adebolajo was cancelled since there was “no indication of a national
security concern” – he had multiple encounters with police and security
services. A month later, Rigby was brutally murdered.
Adebolajo claims MI5 attempted to recruit him as an informant –
claims the UK government refuses to comment on, citing national security
– and accuses MI6 of tacit complicity in alleged beatings and torture threats
he received when detained by Kenyan police in 2010. He had travelled to
Kenya with the apparent intention of joining extremists in Somalia.
Adebolajo’s partner in the murder, Michael Adebowale, came to MI5’s
attention in August 2011 as a result of his interest in online extremist
material and the intelligence services were aware of the two’s close
connections. They nevertheless eventually considered Adebowale a
low-level threat unworthy of their continuing attention.
By detailing various communications problems between police and
security services and between the various branches of the intelligence
services themselves and the inferences drawn from knowledge of the
activities of Lee Rigby’s attackers, the report does a decent job of
illustrating that security and intelligence systems are imperfect.
We can never be 100% secure, because these systems and agencies can
and do fail – they fail naturally through human and technical and
communications errors and they can be made to fail by actors with malign
and, in this case, murderous intent.
What seems odd about the report and the ensuing media frenzy,
however, is how Facebook has been framed as the single entity that could
have prevented the murder.
Paragraph 17 of the report notes:
We have found only one issue which could have been
decisive. This was the exchange – not seen until after the attack –
between Adebowale and an individual overseas (FOXTROT) in December 2012.
In this exchange, Adebowale told FOXTROT that he intended to murder a
soldier. Had MI5 had access to this exchange, their investigation into
Adebowale would have become a top priority. It is difficult to speculate
on the outcome but there is a significant possibility that MI5 would
then have been able to prevent the attack.
Paragraphs QQ to VV of the recommendations and conclusions go into
this claim in a little more detail, saying: “Adebowale expressed his
desire to murder a soldier “in the most explicit and emotive manner.” It
then criticises US big tech companies for their lack of cooperation
with government on fighting terrorism.
Happy though I usually might be to criticise Facebook or big tech –
if more for their own anti-privacy practices than their lack of
co-operation in counter-terrorism – it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest a
giant beam of enlightenment would have engulfed the security services
if Facebook had only shouted loudly enough, “look at this!”.
They were already aware of extreme views expressed by Adebowale on
the net – and even Adebolajo, considered the more dangerous of the pair,
was providing no continuing indication of a national security concern.
For David Cameron and Theresa May to turn the deranged murder of a
young soldier by damaged extremists into a political device for
rehashing discredited surveillance proposals is unconscionable. It’s
also not supported by the report: two members of the ISC have already criticised the notion
that their work supports the further expansion of surveillance powers
the government is now proposing.
Of course, with an election round the corner, we should hardly be
surprised that party managers might be encouraging senior figures to
ramp up their “tough on terrorism” rhetoric. The sad thing is to see how
the media has uncritically swallowed the “blame Facebook” mantra hook,
line and sinker.
Lee Rigby, who dedicated his life to defending the freedoms we enjoy
in the UK, deserves better from our political leaders, from our media
outlets and frankly, from all of us.