We have reviewed the whole report by the Intelligence Security Committee on the killing of Fusilier Rigby, and found the conclusion that only Facebook is to blame very difficult to justify.
UPDATE (26 Feb 2015) The government has published its response to the report stressing the focus on accessing data from foreign communications
The ISC deserves credit for an extensive and thorough investigation that sheds some much needed light on the work of the security and intelligence services. The report shows the difficult and complex job faced by those responsible for tackling terrorism, in this case mainly MI5, but also the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ. But it also unearths a litany of procedural failures, including severe lack of documentation, problems of collaboration among agencies, unexplained delays and unrecorded decisions not to act on requests.
We cannot be certain of whether these would have made a difference, but neither can we see on what basis the ISC decided otherwise. They appear to simply rely on the assessment of the same services being investigated. Below we present sections of the report so you can make up your mind on whether the ISC was justified in accepting the security services' own conclusion that they could not have prevented the murder of Fusilier Rigby.
The report deals separately with the handling of each of the killers. Michael Adebolajo appears to be the most dangerous of them, and had been investigated since 2008. He had previously been arrested during the 2006 protests against cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
In July 2008, MI5 created an ‘Intelligence Summary’ on Adebolajo as part of Operation ASH. The summary contained three recommendations for future action:
(i) Acquire current call-related data on Adebolajo’s telephones.
(ii) Attempt to identify a current home address for Adebolajo.
(iii) Attempt to identify Adebolajo’s digital footprint.
But MI5 did not follow these recommendations- deciding instead to focus its resources on other individuals deemed to be a greater threat. The agency assesses that this would not have made a difference to the outcome. The ISC accepts MI5's views, but nevertheless argues that recommendations should be followed through, and criticises the lack of documentation over the process:
The Committee, following the Director General’s assessment, accepts that this may not have made any substantial difference in Adebolajo’s case. However, the Committee considers that, where actions were recommended, they should have been carried out. If the investigative team had good reason not to carry out a recommended action, then this should have been formally recorded, together with the basis for that decision. We expect MI5 to rectify their procedures in this respect. (p.15)
The ISC expands on the lack of documentation in page 19:
41 Whilst we believe the decision to stop investigating Adebolajo at that time was reasonable, the Committee found no formal written record documenting or explaining the decision: we examined the Operation ASH Closure Note (which is undated) and found that there is no mention of Adebolajo whatsoever. This was the second occasion on which we found record-keeping to be inadequate: it is an issue that arose on a number of occasions during our investigation and is covered in more detail at paragraph 184.
Michael Adebolajo appears in a series of programmes to monitor individuals who were deemed low risk yet met certain criteria and “subscribed to the Al Qaida ideology of global jihad” (p. 20).
The Committee notes that, while Adebolajo’s inclusion in Programme AMAZON was clearly an attempt to monitor the risk he posed, there was no consideration given to the possibility of Adebolajo being referred to the Prevent programme.
Michael Adebowale was under surveillance in the Spring of 2012 and the committee questions why he was not referred to a follow up programme.
W. Neither Adebolajo nor Adebowale was referred to Prevent programmes. A referral to the Prevent programme may in many cases be the best outcome for a vulnerable and impressionable individual (...)
There have been questions over the effectiveness of these extremism prevention programmes, but nevertheless it seems sensible to engage individuals at risk.
The AMAZON programme, jointly run by MI5 and the police, was closed down in 2010 due in part to the complexity of managing the numbers of people involved. Other similar programmes - codenamed BELAYA and CONGO in the report - continued this line of work, but these were stopped at the time of the Olympics:
52 Both Programme BELAYA and Programme CONGO were formally suspended in the months leading up to the Olympics (although the police have been unable to provide the Committee with the precise date of when this occurred). They remained suspended whilst a new scheme, *** – hereafter known as Programme DANUBE – was developed. This meant that from the period leading up to the Olympics until late 2013 there was no scheme in place to manage low level SoIs.
It is very unclear what effect the closures may have had in preventing the murder. By that time there were other clues that at least Adebolajo may have posed a higher threat, but less so Adebowale, as we will see below.
In November 2010, the Kenyan police reported to the Counter-Terrorism and Extremism Liaison Officer (CTELO) of the Metropolitan Police Service based in Nairobi that they had arrested Adebolajo. He was assessed to have been attempting to travel into Somalia with a group of five Kenyan youths to join Al Shabaab (a Somalia-based terrorist group).
The CTELO informed the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), which in turn informed MI5. All of them were unaware of Adebolajo's trip prior to the arrest.
58 However, during its Inquiry, the Committee discovered within the primary material references which indicated that relevant information might have been available to the Agencies prior to Adebolajo’s arrest in Kenya.
The Committee was concerned at the discrepancy between the evidence from the police and SIS, as both organisations seemed to be suggesting that they had received this information from the other.
The problem is compounded by the fact that neither the SIS nor the police kept adequate records. In any case concerning a British national suspected of involvement in terrorism (whether in the UK or overseas) it is essential that all information – whether corroborated or not – should be properly recorded. That failed to happen on this occasion.
The committee explains in detail the structures of counter-terrorism work in Kenya and the central role played by the SIS, which includes dealing with "jihadi tourism". But SIS failed to follow up on Adebolajo's case.
63 When we questioned SIS as to why they did not take any substantive action in response to Adebolajo’s arrest, the Chief acknowledged that their “involvement was minimal” but said:
... So it is a fairly short space of time and it would not really have merited a huge investigation at that stage, because the Kenyans had it pretty well taped.75
The ISC makes their criticism of the SIS's response one of the report's main conclusions:
H. SIS has told the Committee that they often take the operational lead when a British national is detained in a country such as Kenya on a terrorism-related matter. They have also told the Committee that they have responsibility for disrupting the link between UK extremists and terrorist organisations overseas, and that in Kenya this is at the centre of their operational preoccupations. The Committee therefore finds SIS’s apparent lack of interest in Adebolajo’s arrest deeply unsatisfactory: on this occasion, SIS’s role in countering ‘jihadi tourism’ does not appear to have extended to any practical action being taken. SIS must ensure that their procedures are improved so that this does not happen again. This is particularly important given the current challenges faced by the Agencies in countering ‘jihadi tourism’ in Syria and Iraq.
Adebolajo was interviewed at the border on his return by the police's anti-terrorist unit SO15, at MI5's request. He claimed to have been mistreated by Kenyan police, and the committee severely criticised the way these allegations were handled by the services.
The report from the interviewing officer included an assessment that it is "further believed Adebolajo will attempt to travel again in the future..." (p. 31). MI5 decided to open an investigation on him, codenamed in the report Operation BEECH, but somehow it was not started for four months, until April 2011.
The report contains many explanations offered by the services for the delay, including the impact on resources of more urgent operations. But the committee is not happy with this:
I. We note our concern at the four-month delay in opening an investigation into Adebolajo following his return from Kenya. Where an individual is believed to have been seeking to join a terrorist organisation overseas, there should be no such delays. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Analysis of Adebolajo's communications in April and May 2011 linked him to senior figures of Al Qaeda in Yemen possibly planning attacks on Western targets. This led to his case being brought into the wider investigation on this network, which at some point in 2011 became "MI5’s highest priority operation."
Between May 2011 and April 2013 Adebolajo was put under diverse intense surveillance programmes, including a "technical operation" that we can assume involved planting some tracking or bugging devices. But MI5 failed to gather any evidence, and eventually closed their investigations a month before the attack.
The committee is happy to concede that the security services simply are limited both in their technical capacities and the need to justify intrusion by showing they have good reason for suspicion. Yet they take a completely different view in the case of internet companies.
K. MI5 rarely have complete coverage of their targets, even those who are under intensive investigation. In some circumstances they may not have sufficient intelligence indicating extremist intent to justify continued investigation.
MI5 cannot continue intrusive coverage against an individual unless it is necessary and proportionate to do so. On this occasion, based on the intelligence they had, it was not.
Towards the end of this period of intense surveillance MI5 became aware of Adebolajo's involvement in drug dealing and minor criminality. The committee considers that this presented a missed opportunity to disrupt his activities and reduce the extremist threat.
One of the reasons why Adebolajo escaped police scrutiny over his drug dealing was that MI5 failed to include his house number in the file they passed to the police.
This information was channelled through to the local police in Romford, ***. However, during this process “the house number in the original form of words was accidentally omitted”.171 As a result, the police officer tasked to investigate concluded on 10 April 2013 that no further action could be taken
While accepting that MI5 has to work with limited resources, nevertheless the committee criticised the systemic problems highlighted by the Adebolajo case:
O. MI5 does not currently have a strategy for dealing with Subjects of Interest who occur on the periphery of several investigations. This is a key issue which has arisen during the course of our Inquiry which must be addressed by MI5 (...)
Michael Adebowale entered the radar of the security services in 2011 after accessing extremist materials on the internet. MI5 took 69 days to identify him, which is apparently consistent for low priority cases.
The committee believes that this systemic delay is not satisfactory:
Whilst we accept that these are low priority cases, two months is nevertheless too long. This process must be improved as a matter of urgency.
MI5 relies on expert assistance from GCHQ for their enquiries. But there were ongoing problems in the case of Adebowale:
(...) the Committee noted from the primary material that the desk officer repeatedly highlighted the need for more GCHQ resource, in order to be able to complete their tasks. We note that this concern was mentioned in five Operation FIR Case Reviews over the course of a year, suggesting that it was a continual problem. There is no evidence that these concerns were ever addressed by MI5.
177 When questioned about this issue by the Committee, GCHQ said that they had not been aware of any concerns from MI5 about lack of GCHQ support.
182 Even once the DIGINT team had identified Adebowale in November 2011, there was a further delay of five months before the Operation FIR team began their investigation into Adebowale in April 2012.
MI5 have been unable to explain this delay due to problems with their record keeping, including lack of dates in key documents.
185 MI5’s Director General has accepted that records management is an issue in some circumstances:
186 MI5 has told the Committee that they are changing their records management process as a result of these concerns:
The committee accepts the delays had no material effect on the outcome, but point at general issues with the services.
In mid-2012 an unidentified individual was picked up by GCHQ:
223 GCHQ reported that these views included references to operating as a lone wolf (or lone actor), and other general extremist remarks.
MI5 assessed that such activities were not a high risk:
The Committee questioned MI5 as to the significance they attached to them. MI5 advised that these sorts of views are in fact relatively common, and are not necessarily a precursor to carrying out a violent act.
Nevertheless the committee criticised MI5 and GCHQ for not being sufficiently prepared for dealing with independent jihadis, which they term "self-starting terrorists", as opposed to lone wolfs.
Despite the lower priority given to the online comments made by the unnamed individual above, efforts were started to identify him. But administrative mistakes meant that it took until September 2012 to find out it was Adebowale.
BB The failure of MI5 to add Adebowale’s address to his Corporate Investigative Record caused unnecessary delay in the investigation. On the basis of the evidence we have seen, we agree with MI5’s assessment that this did not have a material impact on the case. However, the fact that this failure in process happened not once but twice indicates a broader problem that must be addressed.
Different teams at MI5 passed Adebowale's case back and forth causing extra delays:
After espousing extremist views online in mid-2012, it was six months until Adebowale was investigated under Operation GUM in January 2013, during which time the case spent 16 weeks waiting in the Leads Processing Queue rather than the average of two to three weeks.
In addition the report criticises the lack of documentation over the process:
270 There is a separate question as to whether the delays were formal decisions to suspend the case or were simply due to overload. MI5 operates a formal process for when cases are suspended. This does not seem to have happened in Adebowale’s case.
Once Adebowale was put under investigation in January 2012, the committee found three "missed opportunities" to obtain important information.
The first one was focusing exclusively on mobile phone records.
281 Had MI5 requested billing data on Adebowale’s landline, it would have revealed contact with a Yemeni telephone associated with an individual believed to be in contact with AQAP (***), hereafter known as SoI ECHO. Knowledge of Adebowale’s telephone contact with someone associated with AQAP might have led to further investigative work, and further discoveries about Adebowale’s contact with this individual. The significance of these contacts is discussed later (see paragraph 367).
MI5 missed the extent of the contact between Adebowale and a suspected Al Qaeda member due to mistakes in the way they handled the evidence.
285 The way investigators handle online material in investigations is one of MI5’s ‘lessons learned’. They have proposed new guidelines which include ensuring that investigators apply consistent thresholds for tasking formal reports based on online intelligence, recording which online intelligence has been seen in order to provide an audit trail, and the possibility of automatically notifying investigators when new intelligence is received.
MI5 officers investigating Adebowale considered asking the Behavioural Science Unit (BSU) for an assessment of his "expressions of support for lone wolf attacks and other extremist views." But this was not taken forward by the investigative team.
In the case of Adebolajo, "BSU advice was also requested but not provided", in what the report sees as a "failure of process".
The MI5 investigation into Adebowale considered whether charges could be brought forward over the dissemination of extremist materials, this brought the Metropolitan Police SO15 anti-terror unit into the picture.
The police concluded the evidence was insufficient for arrest and charges, partly due to the use of covert methods to gather intelligence. But also because they preferred to wait for more evidence:
Concern was also expressed during this initial meeting that an early intervention would adversely impact on the likelihood of establishing Adebowale’s true aspirations, any associates he was engaging with and the exact nature of the threat he posed. (SO15 senior officer)
On the 26th of April 2013 MI5 and the police decided to build more evidence by putting Adebowale under intrusive surveillance. But there were further delays partly due to the pressures on MI5's legal team at the time, ranging from an increase in applications to the staffing havoc created by the Olympics.:
317 MI5 has confirmed that the average length of time for a ‘Routine’ application between September 2012 and September 2013 was 6.7 working days, which is within their internal Service Level Agreement of 7 working days. (...) In Adebowale’s case, this part of the process took 15 working days (from 30 April to 21 May 2013): twice as long as it should have. This meant that the application was only coincidentally submitted to the Home Office the day before the attack.
332 It therefore seems likely that - had the seven day target for submission been met – these further techniques would have been in place during the week before, and on the day of, the attack (***).
Nevertheless the committee concludes that this would not have made a difference:
That said, there is no indication that this would have provided advance warning of the attack: retrospective analysis of all the information now available to the Agencies has not provided any such evidence.
MI5 had - before the attack - records of dozens of communications instances between Adebowale and Adebolajo, including some 200 calls between December 2012 and April 2013. But MI5 assessed that as both of them and a wider network of their phone contacts lived in South East London, this was “an indicator, although not definitive, that there may be an association through location rather than through particular extremist activity”.
This shows the difficulty involved in separating social relationships from criminal association, and should provide some pause for those calling for generalised intrusive monitoring of social networks for counter-terrorism purposes.
Third parties have made allegations that at the time of his return from Kenya there were attempts by MI5 to recruit Adebolajo, including harassment, and that this may have played a part in his further radicalisation.
The reports endorses the policy to Neither Confirm Nor Deny this kind of activities, and does nothing to clarify the issue. This is one of the aspects of the case that has generated great public concern, and it remains unexplained.
After dealing with such a long list of failures and systemic problems, the report then goes on to highlight FOUR key instances of missed opportunities that could have potentially saved Fusilier Rigby's life.
From the outside this short list appears slightly arbitrary, in the context of the events described above. In only one case - involving an internet company - does the committee find that the information could have actually made a difference.
1. It was a mistake on MI5’s part not to seek the content of Adebolajo’s 2008 communication with an individual of interest who later became a high profile and senior AQAP extremist during their investigation in 2011. However, the Committee accepts MI5’s assessment that, if they had seen it, it would not have had an impact on the investigation as the rhetoric was not unusual.
The message... is not unusual... While the message does contain a reference to martyrdom (shahada), there is no suggestion of imminence or intent, and it is a fairly standard example of rhetoric (MI5 statement).
The explanation from MI5 appears quite reasonable, so it is hard to see why this event is of particular significance, given the other mistakes raised by the report.
2. GCHQ’s failure to report an item of intelligence which revealed contact between an unknown individual (later identified as Adebowale) and the AQAP extremist CHARLIE was significant.
GCHQ’s Director told the Committee that they had looked at their procedures and agreed a number of measures to try to prevent such mistakes in future.
It would have led to different investigative decisions regarding Adebowale, although it is difficult to judge what impact these might have had.
MI5 themselves explain what would have changed:
Adebowale’s attempt to contact [SoI CHARLIE] is the only post-incident intelligence that could have been available to investigators prior to Woolwich... [it] would have raised our concern about Adebowale’s activities and we judge it likely that the resulting investigation into Adebowale would have increased in priority and that we would have sought to increase our coverage of activities.
3. MI5 failed to request retrospective billing data for the landline at Adebowale’s home address when they were investigating him in January 2013. Had they done so, they would have discovered the telephone contact between Adebowale and SoI ECHO. This might then have led them to be aware of further discussion between the two about potential extremist activity.
This was covered in detail earlier in the report. MI5 told the Committee that the telephone contact itself would not necessarily have been of high importance:
This would of course have been relevant to the investigation, although it would not necessarily have materially increased the urgency of Operation [GUM] at this time.
However, the significance of this is that, had MI5 found this telephone contact (from the billing data), it would probably have led them to seek further communications data, which would have revealed previous contact or attempted contact with this number on five other dates since 26 September 2012. It might also have led them to seek traces with other partners who might have been able to provide further information on the communications with SoI ECHO, including discussions about potential extremist activity.
Accepting that all the previous "missed opportunities" by the security and intelligence agencies could not have saved the life of Fusilier Rigby, in the following section the ISC completely changes its approach on analysing the only issue that - apparently - was out of the control of the agencies.
4. After the attack, information was provided to GCHQ by a third party revealing a substantial online exchange between Adebowale and FOXTROT (an extremist thought to have links with AQAP) in December 2012, in which Adebowale expressed his desire to murder a soldier in the most explicit and emotive manner. The Committee has seen this exchange and was shocked by its graphic nature.
Although FOXTROT was not known to the Agencies at the time, he is now thought to be a *** extremist with links to AQAP.
Adebowale expressed his desire to murder a soldier – in the most graphic and emotive manner – because of UK military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
FOXTROT encouraged him and suggested several potential attack methodologies, ranging from a martyrdom operation to use of a knife.
The report accuses the unnamed company, now known to be Facebook, of failing to report Adebowale to the authorities. But lets take a closer look at the contents of the report:
The company on whose systems this exchange took place had not been aware of the exchange prior to the attack.
However, they had previously closed some of Adebowale’s accounts because their automated system deemed them to be associated with terrorism – yet they neither reviewed those accounts nor passed any information to the authorities.
In the months following the murder, GCHQ has been able to obtain further data on Adebowale’s accounts from a partner agency (***):
[these included the]. Account on which FOXTROT exchange took place. Shortly after the exchange, Adebowale closed the account himself.
In relation to the account on which the FOXTROT exchange took place, we were surprised that it did not meet the company’s criteria for closure, particularly when the accounts they did close do not appear to reveal much indication of extremist activity.
The report itself presents a more complex picture than the headlines painting Facebook as simply failing to pass on critical information to the authorities.
The committee considers whether this would have changed everything:
In oral evidence MI5’s Director General suggested that, had MI5 been aware of Adebowale’s exchange with FOXTROT in December 2012, then this:
... hypothetically would have been a good example of a priority 1 operation.
However, MI5’s Director General has cautioned against predicting any alternative chain of events:
It is genuinely difficult to – and I think in the end just not possible to – make reliable predictions about alternative realities... there are limits we get [to] pretty quickly about how far we can get by speculative construction of alternative realities.
The ISC takes this nuanced view from MI5 and reaches a very different conclusion:
If Adebowale’s exchange with FOXTROT had been seen by MI5 at the time, then we believe that the investigation would have increased to Priority 1, unlocking all the extra resources this would have entailed. This is the single issue which – had it been known at the time – might have enabled MI5 to prevent the attack.
This position seems simply based on imagining what if Facebook had a completely different system in place for handling terrorism. This is not a "missed opportunity" but an exploration deep into the realm of alternative realities.
Even if Facebook had shared with MI5 that several accounts had been closed for terrorism activities, it is far from certain that this would have led to the discovery of that precise conversation taking place in a different account.
Even if internet companies were to notify the authorities of closed accounts due to terror related alerts, this does not mean they would have to handle all the communications from those accounts. And another very difficult issue highlighted by many commentators is the jurisdiction to apply. Should Facebook have to notify the UK, why not other countries such as Uzbekistan or Myanmar?
Despite its alleged "graphic" nature the conversation did not trigger automated alerts. One very plausible explanation is that it may have been a private message, not a public posting. Routine monitoring of private messages would be very hard to justify. For example, we would expect mobile companies not to analyse what we send in our SMS messages.
Had MI5 received the conversation transcript at the time, it is far from clear that this single piece of information would have been considered serious enough to unlock the required resources. We saw references to jihadi rhetoric being dismissed throughout the report.
But we forget that the information did actually reach the UK security services, through a "partner agency" which we can only assume is the US National Security Agency. But this only happened after the event.
The report criticises the "partner agency" for failing to collaborate enough in the investigation by providing the content of other accounts.
Why is there no further discussion whatsoever about the role of the NSA and intelligence sharing in preventing the attack? This would be far more realistic than speculating about Facebook's policies.
For example, the list of closed accounts linked to Adebowale was given to GCHQ by the NSA after the event. But it is not clear whether Facebook themselves had previously linked the accounts, or whether only wider surveillance methods used by the NSA allowed the accounts to be connected.
The following section of the report on the difficulties on obtaining information from foreign internet companies seems to have been bolted on after the investigation was finished. This issue is not included in the initial lists of issues the report is considering.
This section includes broad research and policy proposals on the technical and legal means for obtaining data that seem to be quite out of scope for a report on the murder of Fusilier Rigby. It is hard to justify its inclusion in this report other than for complex political reasons.
The section expands on the themes GCHQ's director Robert Hannigan raised in his op-ed in the FT some weeks ago, and appears to be part of a concerted effort.
The ISC makes many sensible recommendations, asking the services to improve their records management, decision making procedures and timescales for decisions.
The report devotes a whole section to the allegations of mistreatment by Adebolajo during his arrest in Kenya. The report is highly critical of the way SIS dismissed the allegations without any investigation, and also of the framework for considering such risks of mistreatment. The police, MI5 and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's consular services all come in for scathing criticism in their handling of the case.
However, the ISC also makes some very illiberal proposals, such as asking for intrusive surveillance of all people accessing extremist materials, even when MI5 is clear that not all such cases lead to anything more serious and this would be disproportionate.
But overall, the report loses its credibility by straying from investigating the death of Fusilier Rigby in order to provide cheerleading support for the security services' war on the internet.
The report also shows that the ISC is limited in its investigative capacity, and on many occasions has to simply accept the word of the directors of the agencies that particular events did not fundamentally alter the outcome.
The ISC is reporting to the Prime Minister, with the public taking second priority. This is not the best position for elected members of Parliament, who should be accountable to their constituents, Parliament and the public. A fully public report for Parliament may have been more selective in its redactions and provided more explanations.
The ISC stakes out its new territory in the report, making use of the powers it obtained in the Justice and Security Act 2013.
The Committee is conscious that it is the only body that can investigate intelligence matters on behalf of Parliament and the public. (p. 11)
But as we have seen above, they report first to David Cameron, and only afterwards to the public. The ISC even claims to operate a quasi judicial role.
In seeking to provide the Committee with all the available evidence, the Agencies have conducted the same level of search that they would do for proceedings in the law courts. (p.10)
The ISC does not have sufficient independence. Not as a parliamentary committee, let alone to claim quasi-judiciary functions that could be invoked as due process. Reform of surveillance oversight mechanisms must involve a complete re-design of the ISC as a parliamentary committee fully independent from the executive.
The full report can be downloaded as a PDF file here