Boston and Woolwich: We were warned
In the light of events in Boston and Woolwich, security expert Dr Dave Sloggett explores why it is almost inevitable that these events will not be the last time terrorism strikes the streets of America and the United Kingdom:
For some time now the noises emerging from the Security Services and the Counter Terrorism teams in the Metropolitan Police have been painting a worrying picture about the terrorism trends in the United Kingdom. In February the outgoing head of MI5 said that it was ‘increasingly difficult to be confident that targets were being fully watched’. A matter of weeks later Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Osborne noted that ‘the United Kingdom faces the most complex threat in its history’. Sadly as events in Boston and Woolwich have proven these comments were both prescient.
Both men will no doubt have taken little pleasure in being correct in their analysis of the situation. In the last few years despite events such as the death of Bin Laden and the killing of several high ranking leaders of Al Qaeda by strikes from unmanned aircraft flying over Pakistan and the Yemen the overall international security situation has deteriorated markedly. Across North Africa, the Maghreb, Sahel, Iraq, and Syria and into South East Asia groups affiliated to Al Qaeda are active. The monthly rate of attacks has recently increased in tempo as the violence in Pakistan, Syria and Iraq has increased.
Spread of terrorist influence
While many of these locations may seem distant, the influence of the activities of the terrorists now spreads through the Internet into the living rooms and bedrooms of vulnerable people in the United Kingdom. Powerful images that portray a daily diet of sectarian violence and murder are easily available. They can have a major impact upon individuals and groups who increasingly feel that they need to become active themselves in the defence of others who are being oppressed either by regimes or by what they perceive to be occupations of Muslim lands.
Over the last few months there has been a string of high profile court cases that have resulted in the convictions of people who had made this journey into wanting to act either alone or in a group. Both in America and in the United Kingdom the trends over the past couple of years have provided ample evidence of the inevitability of some future attack. Both the former head of MI5 and the Deputy Assistant Commissioner knew that with such increasing levels of activity it was only a matter of time before something happened. In Woolwich their worst fears were realised.
Moment in the limelight
The attack on a serving soldier in the British Army was barbaric. Both of the attackers seemed to revel in being the centre of attention of the crowds that inevitably gathered. One individual sought out a passer-by to give air to his views offering an explanation of his actions.
The narrative used was highly reminiscent of the words used by Muhammad Siddique Khan in his suicide video released after the attacks on London on 7 July 2005. The other attacker seemed less forthright standing arguing with other another passer-by. These two men it would seem were enjoying their moment in the limelight before rushing headlong at armed police officers when they arrived.
It is likely that a number of things will emerge from this gruesome attack. The first is that the whole attack was thrown together at short notice. It is unlikely that the two individuals that are alleged to have carried out the attack did a great deal of reconnaissance of the area. They already had local knowledge on which to draw. Drummer Lee Rigby was probably selected at random. This was a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The degree to which the two alleged attackers were on the so-called ‘radar horizon’ of the Security Services has inevitably caused questions to be asked as to why the attack was not disrupted. The simple answer to this is one that was aired at the Public Enquiry into the London attacks when in testimony Witness G (a serving officer in the Security Services) noted that ‘we may have targets of very great significance whose identities we simply do not know’.
Difficulty of covering all potential targets
His remarks showed at the time just how difficult it is for the Security Services to cover all of the potential targets that might be of interest. In public statements senior officials associated with counter terrorism have noted that around 30 potential terrorist cells are being monitored. If the average number of people in a cell in 4 and they have to be watched throughout the day and night each person requires a team of around 20-25 people.
A simple analysis of these figures shows that nearly all of the resources currently available to MI5 would have to be allocated to those groups alone; let alone others that appear on the periphery of various investigations. Even if the recent spate of court cases has lowered this number the issue of how to allocate resources to particular threats is difficult. In separate testimony at the 7 July enquiry another members of MI5 noted that ‘resources are limited and decision making about allocating them will always contain an intuitive element’.
These remarks make clear the difficulties under which the Security Services operate. In other public remarks by senior officials it has been made clear that around 2,000 people are currently on the radar horizon. It is possible that the two accused of Drummer Rigby’s murder were on that list. But they were not assessed as posing imminent danger.
It is likely that history will take the view that the judgement made was right at the moment it was taken. What matters however is how frequently that assessment is revisited and whether or not the Security Services have the resources to ensure a high enough repeat evaluation of those thought to be at risk. The sheer size of the problem however means that inevitably some priorities will be allocated. Herein lies the problem.
For members of the public whose understanding of the nuances of intelligence this may be hard to grasp. But it is axiomatic that intelligence will occasionally fail. This is not the fast and furious fictional world of Ian Fleming and James Bond. In reality the work of the Security Services is better portrayed by the books of John Le Carré and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For MI5 Sherlock Holmes would be almost the perfect recruit: Analytical, observant and almost obsessive in his desire to get to the truth.
Day-to-day work in the intelligence services is often quite mundane. Spotting someone suddenly undergoing a major shift in their intent is hard if the monitoring is not being carried out on a sufficiently frequent basis. Limited resources simply mean that such individuals even if they are on the radar horizon may swiftly change their behaviour and catch people unawares. Of course this becomes measurably harder if that individual is a genuine lone wolf who has managed to remain outside the periphery of the Security Service’s radar horizon.
All of this leads to one simple but inevitable conclusion. In making their statements in February and March two of the most senior people in the counter-terrorism apparatus in the United Kingdom were publically making it clear that another act of terrorism would occur. It was not a question of if only when. Sadly that situation remains the same. We have been warned.
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