A familiar pattern has taken shape in the aftermath of last week’s terrorist murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. Familiar because it replicates to a large extent what we saw following the July 7 bombings in London eight years ago. First, there is the shock that such a horrific attack could take place on the streets of our capital. Then there is the awful realisation that it was carried out not by people coming from abroad, but by British residents.
The killers are denounced by most mainstream Muslims, who say they were not acting on their behalf. Imams insist that nothing in the teachings of Islam would ever condone such barbarism, though some more radical Islamists are less condemnatory than they should be. At Westminster, there are demands for tougher counter-terror laws, for “preachers of hate” to be silenced, jailed or deported, for Muslim groups to be proscribed, for extremist websites to be shut down and even for broadcasting bans to be imposed.
Marches are staged by Right-wing organisations and sporadic attacks are reported against Muslims and mosques.
Questions are then asked about who knew what about whom and when. Did the security services take their eye off the ball? In the days after the London transport attacks killed 52 people in 2005, it was said to begin with that the perpetrators were unknown to the police or MI5. However, it emerged that Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the four suicide bombers, and his lieutenant Shehzad Tanweer had been placed under surveillance by MI5 because they had been peripheral players in another terrorist plot then under investigation. Two security service officers had even trailed Sidique Khan to his home in West Yorkshire but he was ruled out as an imminent threat. They had intended to delve further into his background but were diverted to another plot.
When it became clear that MI5 knew more than they had let on, or even appreciated, about the 7/7 bombers, they were accused of attempting to cover their tracks, a criticism that rankled with the top brass at Thames House, MI5’s headquarters in central London. This time, they were quick to acknowledge that the two men under arrest for the murder of Drummer Rigby had been “on the radar” but had not been subjected to a full-scale investigation.
Michael Adebolajo had been known to the security services and police for almost 10 years and was even arrested six years ago after violent protests by extremists outside the Old Bailey. In November 2010, he was detained in Kenya trying to travel to Somalia, allegedly to join the terrorist network al-Shabaab. Kenyan authorities say they returned him to British intelligence officers, who failed to take their concerns seriously. The second suspected killer, Michael Adebowale was also known to police and the intelligence services.
David Cameron has ordered an inquiry to be carried out by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee to establish what, if anything, went wrong. Almost certainly we do not know the full story and cannot be told it in any case: unlike the 7/7 killers, the two Woolwich suspects are still alive and are to be put on trial for murder. For MI5 to reveal what it knew could risk prejudicing the prosecution. Despite the video evidence and the determination of the alleged killers to publicise their actions, due process needs to be observed.
But we are entitled to ask questions about whether enough was done to monitor the two men and whether the political response has been sufficiently robust. After 7/7, Tony Blair announced a 12-point plan which was high on rhetoric and pretty low on achievement. It included a promise to crack down on the “preachers of hate”, an ambition that eight years on we are no nearer fulfilling.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has pledged a fresh attempt to shut them up and the BBC has rightly been denounced for giving airtime to Anjem Choudary, the Islamist routinely trotted out as though he were somehow providing a balanced and thoughtful commentary. No one could possibly have been unaware of Choudary’s fanaticism. He was the leader of al-Muhajiroun, a now-outlawed organisation. As long ago as 2003, when two British Muslims carried out a suicide bomb attack in Israel, he told the BBC that Muslims had an obligation to support their fellow believers in jihad and the greatest sacrifice they could make was to lay down their own lives while taking those of others.
Choudary was disowned by mainstream Muslims. Islamic scholars queued up to emphasise the peaceful nature of their religion and leading Muslims feared his inflammatory remarks would harm inter-community relations. But Choudary’s comments were a warning that a disaffected, radicalised group of young men was growing up in Britain listening to rabble-rousers preaching holy war, either at the local mosque or on the internet.
Three decades of misplaced multiculturalism allowed fundamentalists to insert themselves into Muslim communities with the tacit encouragement of the British establishment. Even after 7/7, officials running the Labour government’s ill-starred Prevent programme took the view that some of these groups were part of the solution rather than the problem.
Britain is a society that prides itself on letting people speak their minds, whatever their opinions. Choudary and his fellow preachers overstepped the line between what should be tolerated and what is unlawful a long time ago, yet little has been done about them. As a society we seem to have lost the plot. We put people in jail for racist rants aimed at no one in particular but which have been uploaded on to YouTube or tweeted on Twitter because they fall foul of “hate” speech crimes. Yet we have allowed radical imams to pour anti-Western poison into the ears of impressionable young men with impunity. Mrs May apparently wants to ban them from the airwaves, as the IRA leaders were. While this might starve the extremists of “the oxygen of publicity”, it will have little impact on radicalisation as most is done through the internet.
The seeds of this whirlwind were sown a long time ago, in the mid-Nineties. In view of the number of home-grown terror plots that have been thwarted – or, as in the case of 7/7, succeeded – we should hardly be surprised by what happened in Woolwich, however horrific it was. Indeed, its gratuitous nature was part of the intention – to engender as much terror as possible.
In response, the Government is talking about reactivating its plans for a “Snooper’s Charter”, which would require telecoms companies to store details of messages sent on social media, webmail, voice calls over the internet and gaming interactions, in addition to emails and phone calls. The data to be retained would include the time, duration, originator and recipient of a communication and the location of the device from which it is made. Britain is the only country attempting to gather communications data in this way, but the security service and the police are adamant that it would be a crucial counter-terrorism tool.
But how this would have saved the life of Lee Rigby is by no means clear. Since the two suspects were known to MI5, they could have been – and almost certainly were – placed under surveillance. At some point a judgment will have been made to wind down the operation if they had neither done anything wrong nor looked as if they were planning a terrorist outrage. They could have been placed under control orders – or their replacements, Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (Tpims) – but these are hugely resource-intensive and a case would have had to be made for their use. Moreover, these are not prison sentences and would not stop fanatics carrying out the sort of attack perpetrated against Drummer Rigby, which could have been planned in an afternoon and would not have necessarily generated any intelligence chatter.
The most rational counter-terrorism argument for mass collection of data is that it would allow fishing expeditions for potential terrorists not known to the security services. Yet this is the one thing that the Government says it does not want to do. Not only would it be grotesquely illiberal, it would target the entire population when the problem is with just a tiny proportion. Attempting to identify a lone-wolf jihadi is like trying to find a needle in a haystack; this would merely increase the size of the haystack.
As happened eight years ago, the politicians are reaching for solutions that are hard to justify in a free society without strong evidence for their effectiveness. But more could be done to prosecute so-called hate preachers and to deport those who are not British citizens, like Abu Qatada. Above all, though, the best protection against the terrorists in our midst is not more law, since we have enough already, but a combination of luck, vigilance – and top-quality intelligence work.
Philip Johnston weighs up the official reaction to the death of Drummer Lee Rigby and the threats posed to a free society.