The cynical delay of the publication of the Intelligence & Security Committee (ISC) report into the 2013 murder of soldier Lee Rigby in order that it would coincide with the Home Secretary’s week of counter-terrorism lectures to Parliament is complemented by the equally cynical refusal by the ISC to blame MI5 and MI6 for its long list of failures (see below) in the lead-up to the killing. Indeed, the main thrust of ISC chair Sir Malcom Rifkind’s briefing to the media, followed by prime minister David Cameron’s comments, was not on these failures but on the role of social media – specifically Facebook – for not passing on to the UK intelligence and security services details of a single posting by one of Rigby’s killers.
That the UK Government is determined to do whatever it can to bully social media companies into allowing GCHQ direct access to the information they hold on users is not in doubt. Although GCHQ and its Echelon partners deploy decryption programs against social media and communications companies it much prefers direct front door access, particularly as, post-Snowden, social media companies are attempting to assuage their users’ fears over privacy issues. Hence, the assertion from Cameron, the British police and GCHQ that social media companies are a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists and, as such, can be implicated in illegal activities.
Fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered on the streets of London in May 2013 by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. The horrific attack saw Rigby knocked down by a vehicle driven by one of his killers and then attacked with a meat cleaver in an attempt to decapitate him. Both his killers were later convicted of his murder. The ISC inquiry into the murder took just over 12 months to report and highlighted more than 20 occasions when his killers came under MI6 or MI5 radar. Adebolajo was identified as part of five MI5 operations: Operations Ash, Beech, Cedar, Dogwood and Elm. Adebowale was investigated by MI5 on two occasions as part of Operation Fir and Gum. MI6 was also made aware of Adebolajo’s arrest in Kenya in 2010 on suspicion of consorting with a terrorist organisation: Adebolajo has alleged that he was tortured by the Kenyan police, that MI6 were aware of that and that MI5 had tried to recruit him as an agent.
The posting on Facebook by Adebowale, boasting how he would like to kill a British solider, was removed by Facebook. The UK authorities have criticised Facebook for not passing on information about the posting and consequently are demanding that social media companies have a duty to alert the authorities about postings that may infringe the law. However, apart from the impracticality of the proposal – even former MI6/MI5 chief Richard Barrett agreed, given that Facebook alone has more than five billions posts a day – that would mean these companies would need to adopt a proactive policing role, which would be contentious, or, as Guardian columnist Alan Travis commented “It is one thing for US companies to co-operate with British requests for help, but how would Rifkind feel if they start handing over their customers’ confidential data to the Chinese and the Russians as well.” In other words, if Rifkind and Cameron and May had their way these companies would be partisan to British (and American) interests, which would, of course, affect their integrity. Alternatively, if Facebook and similar companies handed over all suspicious postings to the authorities of any country requiring such information, then that would include authoritarian regimes too, which is also unacceptable. Clearly Rifkind and his ISC colleagues, May and Cameron did not think this through.
Below, courtesy of The Guardian newspaper, is a timeline of the occasions when Rigby’s killers came under MI5/MI6 radar:
2006 Adebolajo arrested with a criminal associate, during a protest against the publication of cartoons in Denmark, perceived as insulting to the Prophet Muhammad
2007 Adebolajo is arrested under the Firearms Act for carrying CS spray
May to September 2008 Adebolajo is investigated by MI5 as part of high-priority Operation Ash, in relation to his contact with an MI5 subject of interest, known as SoI Alpha, who had previously met members of al-Qaida and was thought to have acquired items that could be used for terrorist purposes
2008 MI5 sought to identify individuals planning to attend the event held by Al Ghurabaa, commonly known as Al Muhajiroun, and in doing so identified Adebolajo. According to his mobile phone records, Adebolajo had been in contact with subjects of interest since 2005. MI5 create a corporate investigative record on Adebolajo
Late 2008 Operation Ash is closed and Adebolajo is no longer actively investigated
October 2008 Adebolajo’s details are transferred to Programme Amazon, a joint initiative between MI5 and the police, monitoring individuals who subscribe to the al-Qaida ideology of global jihad
August 2010 Adebolajo and Adebowale are in contact
22 November 2010 Kenyan police reported to the MPS officer based in Nairobi that they had arrested Adebolajo the previous day. He had been arrested with a group of five Kenyan youths for attempting to travel into Somalia to join al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terrorist group. Secret services are unaware that Adebolajo had travelled to Kenya
23 November 2010 Secret Intelligence Service east Africa representative arranges a meeting with a senior Kenyan police officer to ask about Adebolajo’s arrest and detention. Secret services did not seek to investigate the case further. After their meeting with the Kenyan police there is no record of further action with regards to Adebolajo arrest and detention
24 November 2010 Adebolajo leaves Kenya voluntarily
25 November 2010 Adebolajo arrives back in the UK and is immediately interviewed by an SO15 officer at MI5’s request, under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. In the interview, Adebolajo claims he had been mistreated by the Kenyan authorities while he was detained and that he was beaten, and threatened with electrocution and rape on more than one occasion
9 May 2011 MI5 makes an urgent application for further intrusive coverage of Adebolajo’s activities
July 2011 MI5 creates an intelligence summary on Adebolajo that includes known intelligence, basic details, police traces and MI5’s current coverage. There are three recommendations for the future:
- Acquire current call-related data on Adebolajo’s telephones
- Attempt to identify home address for Adebolajo
- Attempt to identify Adebolajo’s digital footprint
These recommendations were not carried out
April to June 2011 Adebolajo investigated by MI5 in Operation Beech, looking into involvement in extremist activity and attempts to travel overseas. Inquiries made to confirm where he is living
June to September 2011 Adebolajo is investigated by MI5 in Operation Cedar, which looked into a possible al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) plan to attack the west
August 2011 MI5 passes intelligence to police regarding Adebolajo’s possible intention to be involved in london riots
August 2011 MI5 requested assistance of the National Terrorist Financial Investigative Unit after suspicions arise that Adebolajo was engaged in fraudulent activity
August 2011 to June 2012 Adebowale is investigated by MI5 in Operation Fir in a low-priority inquiry into UK-based individuals with an interest in extremist media, such as the English-language online al-Qaida publication Inspire
January 2012 to May 2013 Adebowale is investigated by MI5 in Operation Gum, a low-priority investigation linked to his extremist rhetoric and potential dissemination of extremist media
June 2012 MI5 closes investigation into Adebowale. Assessed as not posing security risk
September 2011 to November 2012 Adebolajo is investigated by MI5 in Operation Dogwood, which focuses on two individuals with whom Adebolajo is a contact
August 2012 to October 2012 Adebolajo and Adebowale had been in contact approximately 30 times
October 2012 MI5 had ceased the bulk of their intrusive coverage of Adebolajo and planned to close their investigation into him
November 2012 to May 2013 Adebolajo is investigated by MI5 in Operation Elm for an associate of his
December 2012 to April 2013 Contact between Adebolajo and Adebowale was approximately 200 times
15 February 2013 MI5 believed Adebolajo was involved in procurement and distribution of controlled drugs
11 April 2013 Intrusive coverage of Adebolajo is cancelled. No indication of national security concern.