May 24, 2013 8:06 pm

Fears of policy panic as secret service accused of errors

MI5's London offices©Alamy

MI5's London headquarters

Few would doubt that the slaughter of Drummer Lee Rigby as he walked out of Woolwich barracks on Wednesday was a horrific event.

But is there a risk of over-reaction as British politicians and the media respond to the return of terror to Britain’s streets?

This is one of many questions being debated by security experts in the wake of an attack that has highlighted the risks posed by Islamist-based extremism in the UK and the difficulty of tackling it.

The fact that MI5, the domestic intelligence agency, had the two suspected killers on its files but failed to regard them as a serious threat has led to calls from parts of the press for more draconian counter-terrorism laws.

However, Nigel Inkster, a former intelligence official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, urges caution.

“We need to try and put this in context,” he says. “This was the first terrorist death on the UK mainland in eight years. That’s pretty good going for the security services. They can never give an absolute assurance that an attack will not get through.”

Eight years ago, Britain was certainly in the throes of a serious problem with homegrown jihadism. On 7 July 2005, 52 people were killed and more than 770 others injured in attacks on the London transport network carried out by four men from West Yorkshire. They had been radicalised by al-Qaeda and exposed the nature of the threat from homegrown terrorism for the first time.

Since then, however, analysts argue that two things have happened. First, Britain’s two security services, MI5 and MI6, have enjoyed a considerable increase in funding and resources. As a result, they solve on average one complex plot every year, according to officials.

Comment: An open society can always defeat this warped savagery

Security agencies are adept at picking up large-scale plots, but not at finding ‘lone wolves’, writes David Gardner

Secondly, some experts say that thanks to a range of policies – such as the UK’s tougher stance on Islamist clerics preaching violence – the number of Muslims being radicalised to take violent action is coming down.

Professor Peter Neumann, a leading expert at King’s College, London, says that back in 2007, MI5 believed there were around 2,000 Islamist extremists capable of violence. That number, in his view, has now come down to around 1,000. He says the UK’s tougher stance on Islamist clerics preaching violence has helped bring this about. So too has the increasing denunciation of jihadism by the vast majority of the British Muslim community.

“One of the things that has not been focused on enough is that one of the soldier’s [suspected] killers, Michael Adebolajo, converted to Islam back in 2001. In other words, he was probably hanging around in radical extremist groups for something like 12 years, but only decided to undertake a violent action this week. In that sense, he can’t be seen as representing some new generation of British-based jihadists.”

Terror mood hits travel

Uk train

Two incidents on the motorway network and at one of London’s main rail stations underlined the national mood and led to further travel chaos at the start of a bank holiday weekend, writes Mark Odell.

Warwickshire police were forced to close the M6 motorway in both directions during the rushhour on Friday evening after a suspicious vehicle was reported at Corley services on the northbound carriageway.

The police said the services were evacuated while they investigated the report but indicated just before 7pn that they expected to re-open the motorway shortly.

In London, police began evacuating London Bridge station at 5.20pm at the height of the rushhour after a member of the public reported seeing someone wielding an axe. The evacuation was cancelled nine minutes later when it the report turned out to be a hoax.

Whitehall officials say that the problem of violent radicalisation of young British Muslims has certainly not disappeared and they dispute that the number of violent extremists in Britain is going down.

While core followers of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani tribal areas have largely disappeared, al-Qaeda franchises in Syria and Africa are growing and jihadist preachers are inspiring followers over the internet.

Meanwhile, even if the heart of al-Qaeda has been decimated, the smaller-scale attacks of the kind seen this week are a challenge. MI5 has been very successful at tackling complex jihadist plots. But sudden and spontaneous attacks by “lone wolves” are harder to track.

“Frankly, it is extremely difficult for the police and security services but it’s not impossible for colleagues and friends,” said Lord Blair, the former head of the Metropolitan Police. “In a sense ... the lone wolf will only be identified when friends and family and colleagues confront the thought that either this person is having a breakdown or he or she is turning into a terrorist.

Lord Blair believes Britain needs to think again about reviving data communication legislation – dubbed a “snoopers’ charter” by critics – that would give MI5 greater powers to survey internet traffic.

But Jamie Bartlett, an expert on Muslim radicalisation at the think-tank Demos, is another of those who fears an overreaction.

“There is a risk that we will use this one example of a couple of guys with a big knife and a gun to draw big lessons and change our counter-terrorism legislation. That would be a big mistake.”


List of ‘lone wolves’


The Woolwich murder appears to have been the latest in a series of ‘lone-wolf’ attacks, in which perpetrators act independently or at arms-length from terrorist groups.

• Nidal Malik Hasan

Still awaiting trial, the US soldier is charged with killing 13 in a 2009 shooting in Fort Hood, Texas. Despite prior communication with radical muslims, the Department of Defence has not classified the attack as an act of terrorism.

• Mohamed Geele

The Somali broke into Kurt Westergaard’s flat in 2010 seeking revenge for the Danish cartoonist’s illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad. Westergaard survived by retreating to a fortified panic room, and the axe-wielding intruder was convicted of attempted murder and terrorism.

• Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly

Members of a British mosque confronted al-Abdaly about his radical views in 2007, three years before he detonated two bombs in Stockholm. The blast killed him, and injured two.

• Roshonara Choudhry

The high flying undergraduate student stabbed MP Stephen Timms at his constituency surgery in 2010. She told police she wanted “to get revenge for the people of Iraq”. Mr Timms voted in favour of the invasion seven years earlier.

• Anders Breivik

The far-right extremist’s bombing and mass shooting killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. The massacre was aimed at stemming muslim immigration into Europe.

• Mohammed Merah

In a series of shootings, Merah killed seven French soldiers and Jewish civilians in France in 2012. He blamed Israeli oppression of Palestine and France’s involvement in the Afghanistan war.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.


Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in