By Michael Glackin
December 02, 2014,
Anyone seeking evidence of how far the United Kingdom has descended from a nation renowned for unblinking fortitude in the face of adversity to one now gripped by collective neurosis and hysteria, need look no further than two bizarre events that took place last week.
First, police started handing out leaflets at railway stations informing commuters that in the event of an Islamist terror attack they should “Run, Hide, and Tell.” If that message wasn’t clear enough, the leaflets also contained images of terrified commuters running down stairs, cowering in darkened corners, and then anxiously calling someone on a mobile phone.
It’s a long way from Winston’s Churchill’s inspirational call to arms in 1940 when Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany: “We shall fight on the beaches ... in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
From Churchillian defiance to “run, hide, and phone a friend.” Lord help us. You could be forgiven for thinking that the U.K. was already occupied by ISIS. Small wonder that the nation’s commuters lambasted the police for scaremongering and wasting taxpayers’ money.
If that wasn’t enough, we then had the astonishing verdict of a parliamentary inquiry that found an American social media website responsible for the brutal murder of a British soldier on the streets of London last year by two Islamist terrorists. This shamelessly passed the buck that should have stopped at the British intelligence services, which had monitored the killers over several years.
Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said the website, later revealed to be Facebook, failed to inform the authorities that one of the killers, Michael Adebowale, wrote of his murderous intentions on Facebook six months before he and an accomplice, Michael Adebolajo, killed army drummer Lee Rigby in May 2013 and attempted to behead him.
Facebook had closed some of Adebowale’s accounts after its automated systems flagged up terrorist concerns, but Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the ISC and a former British foreign secretary, insisted that if MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, had had access to this information there was “a significant possibility that MI5 would have been able to prevent the attack.” Rifkind accused Facebook of providing a “safe haven for terrorists,” adding that the murder “happened on this U.S. Internet company’s watch.”
In actual fact, the murder happened on the British government’s watch, and that of increasingly hapless intelligence services.
Rifkind’s diatribe served two purposes. First, it was a crude attempt to deflect attention from a string of failings by MI5 and MI6 that were highlighted in the ISC report. Second, it paved the way for the government’s sweeping new anti-terror laws, which give police draconian powers to force Internet firms to hand over details that might identify suspected terrorists and other criminals. The legislation was unveiled at the same time as the ISC report was made public.
The ISC exonerated MI5 and MI6 yet its report lays bare how much the intelligence services knew about the killers, both of whom are British citizens and are now serving life sentences.
Adebolajo, the leader of the attack, had been the subject of five separate investigations and surveillance operations by MI5. In 2010 he was arrested in Kenya while traveling to Somalia to join Al-Shabab. MI6, Britain’s overseas security service, was notified of the arrest but failed to interview Adebolajo or even sit in on the Kenyan interviews. While the ISC was scathing in its criticism of Facebook, it merely said MI6’s failure to follow up on the Kenyan arrest was “deeply unsatisfactory.”
For the next two years Adebolajo was under intensive MI5 surveillance, then inexplicably, a month or so before the murder, it stopped. It has been claimed that around this time MI5 was trying to recruit him as an informant.
Meanwhile, the other killer, Adebowale, had been investigated on two occasions. MI5 had even decided to start a new intensive “intrusive” surveillance operation against him in the weeks before the murder. However, it delayed seeking the required legal permission from the home secretary until the day before Rigby was killed.
In short, the report’s findings clearly indicate that better intelligence work and more decisive action by both agencies would have reduced the danger posed by these men, perhaps even saved Rigby’s life. But the ICS ignored its own findings and heaped opprobrium on Facebook instead.
This isn’t the first time the security services have escaped condemnation for their failings. A government inquiry into the July 7, 2005, bombings in London also absolved MI5, despite the fact the leaders of the attack, which killed 52 people, were, in the parlance of the spooks, “known” to the service.
While everyone needs to be vigilant against terror threats, it is surely not the responsibility of Internet companies to intercept individual emails. Even the security services are only supposed to be able do so when backed by a warrant, issued by the home secretary in the U.K. and by a judge in the United States.
But, as the ISC revealed, the security services did not seek a warrant until it was too late. If MI5 didn’t think the killers’ Internet activity needed monitoring, why should Facebook?
The rush to blame Facebook, and further invade Internet privacy, will merely drive terrorists to find other ways to communicate. The rush to strike fear into commuters with miserable, shameful, leaflets will convince the terrorists that they are succeeding in terrorizing the country. And the sordid rush to implement a litany of heavy-handed, coercive measures in the shape of the government’s anti-terror legislation is a victory for paranoia and fear over calm heads and leadership.
What the government and the ISC should be doing is asking whether this constant corrosion of our civil liberties would be needed at all if the intelligence services just did their job properly in the first place.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom.