Robin Simcox, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London—who wrote this guest post for Lawfare last year about control orders in the UK—writes in after last week’s horrific terrorist attack in London about the burden on the British intelligence community and the difficulties of preventing and prosecuting domestic terrorism cases:
As Lawfare readers surely know, a British soldier was hit by a car and then hacked to death with machetes in Woolwich, London last week.
The assailants, two naturalized British citizens from Nigeria named Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, demanded that passers-by film their justification for the attack (which consisted of largely standard al-Qaeda inspired rhetoric). At present, this seems to be a homegrown plot without direct instruction from international terrorist groups.
The fallout from these events in the UK has been significant, particularly because British intelligence agency MI5 was aware of one perpetrator’s radical leanings for around eight years. Adebolajo had been arrested in Kenya in 2010, apparently while trying to connect with al-Shabaab. He had also attended meetings in the UK organised by al-Muhajiroun, a now-banned Islamist group, and in 2007, he had been arrested for involvement in an al-Muhajiroun protest.
The headline in Britain’s foremost conservative broadsheet newspaper read “Why was he [Adebolajo] free to kill?” This was followed up by a story on a variety of supposed MI5 blunders implying that Adebolajo was not treated with sufficient seriousness. Prime Minister David Cameron has now ordered an investigation to be carried out by the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee, attempting to find out “what went wrong.”
There is certainly a need for the police to investigate whether the murderers were part of a wider domestic network. Arrests have been made, yet no charges have been brought as of yet. However, how much can MI5 really shoulder the blame for what happened in Woolwich?
Criticisms of MI5 have an added resonance because two of the July 2005 bombers had also been under surveillance, only to be later assessed as not being an imminent threat. However, the agency has been perfectly clear about the problems they have to manage. There are approximately 2,000 individuals who pose a national security threat, yet current funding levels mean authorities can only “hit the crocodiles nearest the boat.”
It would be more concerning if the London killers were not on MI5’s radar. Asking it to identify terrorists and then predict with near-certainty who is going to make the transition into violence is an unrealistic expectation. There is not always an obvious trigger; I am yet to see a satisfactory explanation as to why someone such as Adebolajo, who had been on the fringes of extremist activity for at least eight years, would suddenly decide to carry out an attack.
Furthermore, anyone who thinks Adebolajo’s trip to Kenya and connections with al-Muhajiroun are enough to lead to his conviction in a UK court has not been paying attention to either British legal precedents or handling of terrorism cases. There have been individuals who have been actual members of al-Qaeda or who have fought alongside its senior leadership, who, for a variety of reasons have not been prosecuted. Adebolajo’s activities prior to last week are small fry in comparison.
It is also worth remembering that a host of other legal rulings have made it harder for MI5 to operate effectively. Britain has had significant problems with being able to deport foreign terror suspects: Abu Qatada remains in London, despite Labour and Conservative governments attempting to deport him for over a decade. Detention without trial has been struck down as an alternative in the House of Lords.
In 2005, control orders were introduced as a last resort in an attempt to monitor those who posed a national security threat but who also could not be deported or convicted. However, they too were sacrificed in 2011 as part of a political compromise that enabled the Conservative and Liberal coalition government to endure. The successor regime, Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, retained some of the key functions of control orders, yet it lost the crucial ability to relocate terror suspects to a different part of the country.
In summary: there are a lot of suspected national security threats in the UK; only a small minority can be prosecuted; there are not enough resources to place them all under surveillance; the law is insufficiently robust; and no foolproof way exists of knowing who will make the transition from expressing radical sentiments to actual terrorist plotting. There is no easy way out of this quandary.
MI5 has helped to thwart at least one major al-Qaeda inspired terrorist attack in the UK virtually every year for the last decade, and it should clearly still aspire to operate more efficiently. Yet to lambast the agency now—for not noticing a plot that essentially only needed a car and a machete to succeed—is to place a degree of expectation on it that no free society can reasonably request.