David Davis writes in the Guardian about the failings of the security services when investigating terrorism


As published in The Guardian:
If MI5 sticks to outdated tactics, Emwazi won’t be the last British security failure

It is extraordinary that Mohammed Emwazi, a man as evil and delusional as it is possible to be – a man who so callously beheads innocents in pursuit of flawed beliefs – escaped the attentions of the security services. But the fact is, we now know that he didn’t: he was known to MI5, he was known to be associating with fanatics, and he was even on a terror watchlist.

It has also been reported that MI5 tried to recruit Emwazi after it was suspected that he was attempting to join a Somali extremist group. Somehow, despite supposedly being unable to leave the country, he was still able to make his way to Syria and join Islamic State in 2013.

These failures are part of a worrying pattern. Prior to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center at least two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were known to the American authorities, and known to have entered the country before the attacks.

Similarly, one of the 7/7 London bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, had been scrutinised, bugged and monitored by MI5. Unfortunately, it was determined that he was not a likely threat, and he was not put under further surveillance. And prior to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the intelligence agencies of Britain, the US and India had all picked up signs of an imminent terrorist assault, and even had some of the terrorists under surveillance.

The Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre, were part of the “Buttes-Chaumont network”, well known to the French authorities and kept under surveillance, on and off, as far back as 2005.

Michael Adebolajo, one of the men who brutally beheaded Fusilier Lee Rigby in broad daylight in Woolwich, was also known to the security services. He too was supposedly a recruitment target for our intelligence agencies. After he was arrested, his family claimed he had been “pestered” by MI5, which wanted to make him an informant infiltrating radical Islamic extremist groups.

Given the numbers who appear to have slipped through the net, it is legitimate to ask: how many more people must die before we start to look more closely at the strategy of our intelligence services?

The problem is not new. The fact is that the intelligence services have long utilised tactics that have proved ineffective. The issue dates back at least to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where the intelligence agencies relied on disruption and interference more than prosecution and imprisonment.

One of the results of this policy is that it leaves known terrorists both to carry out evil deeds and to recruit more conspirators. As a result, the problem on the street grows progressively larger.

So every time this policy is pursued by a counter-terrorist or counter-insurgency organisation, it leads to greater risk to the public and a progressively more difficult task for agencies. The number of “persons of interest” who remain in circulation grows beyond the ability of the agencies to monitor them. When this happens, some slip through the net, as seems to have happened with Emwazi.

This policy also leads to a confusion of aims, with a conflict between the desire to keep sources in circulation, and pursuing and removing dangerous people from circulation.

A much better method is that currently used by the Americans, whose laws require them to pursue, convict and imprison those who endanger the public. Unfortunately, for a variety of institutional reasons Britain has never been quite so robust in its counter-terrorism policies.

As it stands, there is little chance of any reform or review of our current tactics. Parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) has announced that it will be looking into how Emwazi slipped so easily out of the country, and why MI5 didn’t act sooner to prevent him becoming radicalised. But there are significant questions as to whether the ISC is capable of effectively investigating this latest failure.

To start with, the committee is currently leaderless now the chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has stood down after being named in the latest cash-for-access allegations. But the sad truth is that the committee has shown itself to be incapable of holding the intelligence agencies to account.

Whether it is the ISC’s review of the intelligence on the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, which required a second report to deal with the first’s failings; its inability to detect the UK’s complicity in torture; its failures to correct Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier; or its lack of insight, let alone oversight, into the surveillance programmes revealed by the Snowden revelations – the ISC has been too timid and unwilling to criticise.

The time has come to learn from the pattern of failures across the globe and apply the appropriate lessons: namely that we need to prosecute, convict and imprison terrorists, and that all our policies should be bent firmly towards that end. We should use “disruption and management” only as a very poor second choice.

As the US experience shows, this policy is both safer for citizens in the short term and more effective at destroying terrorist organisations in the long term.