- Prime Minister Theresa May says the Westminster Bridge attacker was previously known to MI5.
- MI5 dismissed him as “peripheral” and a “historic” case. It had no warning of the attack, May says.
- A former MI5 agent tells Business Insider that it might require 20 agents to keep track of one suspect. The UK would need 60,000 officers to keep track of 3,000 known suspects around the clock.
- Internet surveillance leaves agents “drowning” in information, she says.
Prime Minister Theresa May has just told the House of Commons that the man who carried out the Westminster Bridge attack was known to MI5 for years but had been dismissed as a “peripheral” figure.
“Some years ago he was once investigated by MI5 in relation to concerns about violent extremism. He was a peripheral figure. The case was historic. He was not part of the current intelligence picture. There was no prior intelligence of his intent or of the plot,” May said.
Her statement seems designed to ward off criticism about why the man was able to carry out his attack yesterday.
The public will be asking why he was left to wander free by intelligence agents if they knew he was an extremist sympathiser. Any future government inquiry into the attack will inevitably focus at least in part on what MI5 knew, when they knew it, and why its agents made the decision to abandon him as a priority.
But in fact, it is not unusual for terrorists to be known to the police and security forces before they launch their attacks.
When a “new Jihadi John” popped up in Islamic State in January 2016, the man killing prisoners in the video, Siddhartha Dhar, was previously known to UK security services before he fled to Syria. He had even been arrested by British police before being let go on bail.
Dhar had repeatedly shown up at Islamic extremist rallies in the UK and had appeared on TV advocating the terrorist cause.
Similarly, the first “Jihadi John,” Mohammed Emwazi, escaped from the UK to go to Islamic State/ISIS/Daesh even though he was known to MI5 and was on the Home Office Warnings Index.
And the ringleader of the Paris Bataclan attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, entered and left the UK before planning the attacks. Five other Islamists linked to Dhar left the UK undetected in the months prior to Dhar’s execution video.
So why is the UK and MI5 so bad at keeping tabs on terror suspects?
Well, they’re not. The job is more complicated than it sounds, even after a suspect has been identified. Keeping tabs on a terror suspect takes an enormous amount of agents and resources, and the security services have to make choices.
In France, for instance, former French intelligence counterterrorism chief Louis Caprioli estimated that it takes 18 to 20 officers to keep an eye, 24 hours a day, on any one suspect.
There are 6,000 employees at GCHQ and 4,000 at MI5. But there are up to 3,000 terror suspects in the UK. At the French ratio, you would need 60,000 officers to track them all. That’s almost half of Britain’s total number of police officers, 127,000 (PDF).
It’s an impossible job.
Former MI5 operative Annie Machon was once responsible for monitoring IRA suspects in the UK, in the 1990s. She worked for MI5 for six years in the early to mid-1990s. She was there for six years and worked in three different sections, first on the countersubversion desk, then the Irish terrorist desk, and then looking at international terrorism. She was the officer in charge of Irish terrorist logistics, looking at the movement of personnel and arms into and out of the UK.
She left MI5 in 1996 to blow the whistle on domestic spying and abuse of citizens’ privacy rights. She is now an author, speaker and PR consultant.
When Business Insider asked her about the resources it takes to tail a terror suspect (18 to 20 officers) she told us, “I would say that is conservative, that would be the sort of number to put someone under mobile surveillance. But if you’re that interested in someone, you’re likely to have other people coordinating operations, running operations to get into their offices, their cars, whatever, and you would have all the warrants in place to be intercepting communications. So, you know, the team could be bigger than that, that would just be the human mobile surveillance. ”
It is not a lack of staff that hinders agents the most, however. It is the reverse: the overwhelming amount of information they must sift and the wealth of targets it offers.
“I think the intelligence agencies are drowning in information at the moment and because of that they’re not specifically targeting people who might be of interest,” Machon says. “If you look at most of the attacks in the West that have occurred over the years, most of these people have at some point been on the radar of some of the agencies. Many of them have already been approached by the agencies who try and recruit them as agents or to warn them off saying, ‘We know what you are doing, stop it sonny.'”
“The resources are spread so thinly because they are doing this industrial-level data-mining trawl on all of us. ”
Previously, before the internet enhanced electronic surveillance of domestic targets, agents would have put together a strong case for an arrest or an intervention, and bid for resources to get it done.
“That’s actually quite a good process to go through because then you do actually focus on the people who might be an imminent threat, while keeping the others on your mind. ”
But the internet has let agents “hoover up as much info as they can, that’s actually hampering their work and damaging national security,” Machon says.
“Since 9/11 particularly, with the Americans ramping up the war on terror, it is getting overrun with technological surveillance and that’s where they are drowning.”
“Intelligence officers used to spend a lot of time trying to piece together someone’s life using all these different tools. Now, of course, most people just offer a lot of this up on Facebook: This is who I’m in a relationship with, these are my friends, these are my political views … The intelligence services are overwhelmed with all this info coming in. Profiling people is how you keep track of them. ”
“This dragnet, industrial-scale surveillance is drowning [agents] in information,” she says.
In addition, there are turf wars between the police and the intelligence services, both domestic and international. “They’re actually competing for resources and power. And knowledge is power, so they tend to halt and hug their knowledge close to each organisation’s individual chest. Particularly between MI5 and MI6 and between MI6, MI5, and the police,” Machon says.
More from Business Insider UK:
- How the Westminster terror attack in London unfolded
- Apple denied it has been hacked after a gang of hackers tried to blackmail it for $US100,000 (AAPL)
- Flags fly at half-mast in London to honour terror attack victims
- The CEO of a period tracking startup that’s raised $US30 million explained how she plans to start making money
- The FTSE 100 is calm in the aftermath of the London terror attack
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