The assessment at the heart of the report published by the Intelligence Sub Committee of the House of Commons into the death of Drummer Lee Rigby was a forgone conclusion. The Security Services, collectively, were bound to be exonerated.
For the establishment it simply would not do to undermine the day-to-day work of these important agencies in the fight against international terrorism. Despite their obvious shortcomings their reputation must remain intact. In such circumstances it is understandable if grieving relatives of the victims of such attacks ask fundamental questions about the ways in which the Security Services operate. The report published by the ISC however provides little comfort that the problems that arose with preventing the attack on Drummer Lee Rigby will be solved. Most can be attributed to an organisation struggling with a workload that far exceeds its resources.
Readers of the report however may be tempted to read between the lines of the report. While the language is mild and non-confrontational those with a mind to analyse the events that led up to the attack on the British Army serviceman in broad daylight in a street in Woolwich may draw a different viewpoint. Mistakes were clearly made, but the suggestion they are indicative of systemic failures at the heart of the British intelligence system simply does not exist.
That is a step too far for the establishment to take given the current heightened risk from terrorism. With British Transport Police handing out leaflets at railway stations advising the public of what to do in the case of a Mumbai-style attack this is not the time to rock-the-boat.
Are we then to draw the conclusion that aside from some obvious failings the security of the United Kingdom is safe in the hands of the agencies involved? The problem is that there are some worrying signs that suggest this conclusion is not an easy one to reach.
In December 2013 when the head of the Security Service emerged from Thames House to give his annual address at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London the internal reporting within the service would have no doubt flagged the likely lines of criticism that were to emerge once the report was published. Damage limitation would have clearly been one of the aims of the Director as he stood to give his address. Using a footballing metaphor he wanted to ‘get his foot in first’. Manage public expectations in a way that protected the reputation of his service.
His address which lasted for just under an hour contained one point of real note. The public, the Director of the Security Services said “have unrealistic expectations of my service”. With hindsight it is clear this message was part of a pre-emptive and highly pro-active approach to setting stage for the coming report. When it was published with the inevitable entourage and barrage of media attention he could say well I did warn everyone life is difficult in the intelligence field.
In such a situation it is reasonable to ask is that a fair defence of his service? Is this ‘defence’ a reasonable ‘catch all’ excuse that allows further attacks to occur without his organisation facing even deeper public scrutiny? Despite being given vastly increased resources by successive governments is this a reasonable line to take or could more be done?
Partially on the radar horizon
At the heart of this issue lies the problem of detecting the activities of lone wolfs before they strike. The reputation and activities of the Security Services when it comes to disrupting the actions of groups of people involved in terrorism is unquestionably good. Figures in the public domain suggest that close to forty mass casualty attacks have been prevented by the Security Services. This is an impressive achievement. But the weakness of terrorist attack planning by groups is well known. More opportunities exist for those involved to come onto the radar horizon of the Security Services.
The problem however, as illustrated by the Drummer Lee Rigby attack, is how to monitor and disrupt the attacks planned by someone who is partially on the radar horizon of the Security Services or operating below it. The numbers of people that exist in this grey world is truly huge.
Official figures suggest that some 3,000 people live in this radicalisation no-man’s land somewhere on a journey to being fully radicalised. Events that can act as a catalyst that suddenly propels someone thought to be on the journey to the end are difficult to predict. Many individuals experience what are quite personal moments where they realise they must act and become involved in planning an event. Trying to detect any form of indication that such a rapid transformation in their views has taken place is difficult unless they are being closely watched?
Allocating fixed resources to monitor such a large pool of people potentially undergoing radicalisation is an understandably and unenviable problem. Mistakes will almost inevitably occur. Hence the pre-emptive ‘defence’ offered by the Director of the Security Services. But does that mean we just accept that viewpoint? Or do we look to ways of trying to monitor behaviour that might be indicative of the journey and provide a way of directing limiting resources to those most believed to be at risk?
Time and time again the Liberal Democrats have prevented the legislation often referred to (unhelpfully) as the ‘snooper’s charter’ from becoming law. It is possible to suggest that passionate commitment to this viewpoint has denied the Security Services the kind of intelligence sources that may provide indicators of increasingly radicalised behaviour by a lone wolf.
For those like Roshonara Choudhry who self-radicalised through the Internet it is reasonable to suggest that clear behavioural indicators would have emerged in their on-line activities that could have signalled her increasing commitment to what she defined as a cause. This is just the kind of information that might have helped prevent her (unsuccessful) attempt to kill the Member of Parliament Stephen Timms.
For anyone with an open mind on the current levels of sentiment analysis that can be carried out with social media content the potential for some new and emerging technologies are worthy of greater exploration. Sadly the Security Services (collectively) seem unable to grasp the potential of such solutions. Internally the organisations are riven with people who whilst academically talented are incapable of thinking outside the box. They seek perfect solutions that are academically ‘pure’ from the outset rather than giving some degree of research a chance. This is an approach that is decidedly conservative with a very small ‘c’. In today’s complex world this is simply not an acceptable approach.
This is the (unwritten) systemic failure that exists at the heart of the Security Services that is missed by the mainstream media. Success against the lone wolf is not going to be achieved by scapegoating those who operate under the limitations and huge workloads of the current systems.
That can only be accomplished when the correct legal frameworks exist to allow on-line behavioural indicators to be exploited by people with some imagination and ability to grasp their potential. Until then (sadly) we face the potential of more attacks by lone wolfs and yet more grieving parents. In such a situation the ‘defence’ of the Security Service outlined by its Director at RUSI nearly a year ago will increasingly look very thin.