The Daily Star
Monday, March 2, 2015
By Michael Glackin
It is hard not to fear for the defense of the realm these days. When the head of the government body charged with overseeing the British intelligence services is daft enough to be duped by reporters pretending to be directors of a fictitious Chinese company you really are in trouble.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the powerful chairman of Parliament’s Intelligence Services Committee, along with a former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, one of the loudest cheerleaders for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, both offered to “use their influence” as senior politicians to help the fictitious company in return for payments of at least $7,500 per day.
Rifkind, who was forced to resign as chair of the ISC following the revelations, told the undercover reporters he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world. He said he could meet “any ambassador that I wish to see” in London. “They’ll all see me personally.”
Luckily it was a bunch of reporters exposing his sordid avarice rather than a terrorist group posing as a fictitious company. The headlines could have been very different.
With someone like this in charge of overseeing intelligence and security, it is unsurprising that the services themselves are facing criticism for being inept. The intelligence and security services consistently warn that the greatest threat to national security comes from British jihadis who become radicalized fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and who then return home bringing the violence they have learned to the streets of Britain.
Yet intelligence and security services appear incapable of stopping not just British nationals going to Syria and Iraq in the first place, but even known terror suspects.
The ISIS executioner known as “Jihadi John,” who was finally publicly named by the Washington Post last week as Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, is a case in point. Emwazi, a 27-year-old from west London, was able to escape to Syria despite being on an MI5 terror watch list which prohibited him from leaving the United Kingdom. In fact, Emwazi was so well-known to intelligence services and detained so often by MI5 that he actually filed a formal complaint against them with the Police Complaints Commission in 2010.
Yet the former University of Westminster computer student, who MI5 had linked to a number of Islamist terror groups including Al-Shabab, managed to slip out of the United Kingdom unnoticed in 2012 to join ISIS. He is the best known of an estimated 2,000 Britons thought to be fighting alongside Islamist extremists and butchering innocents in Syria and Iraq.
The latest recruits appear to be three runaway schoolgirls from London. Clearly the intelligence services cannot monitor everyone, and, unlike Emwazi, the schoolgirls had no record of terrorism. However, one of the schoolgirls is believed to have been recruited through Twitter by Aqsa Mahmood, a so-called “jihadi bride” who fled Glasgow for Syria two years ago.
Mahmood’s social media have been monitored by intelligence agencies ever since she disappeared. This is not lost on her family, who said the security services had “serious questions to answer” over her alleged contact with the missing schoolgirls.
It gets worse. It is understood that the schoolgirls were also in contact via social media with a school friend who ran away to Syria in December. The government, not slow to see an opportunity, insisted that the case reinforced its argument to grant greater powers to the intelligence services so they could intercept social media and digital messages. Prime Minister David Cameron wants encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat to be opened up to the security services.
But Steve Hewitt, an expert on security intelligence and counterterrorism at the University of Birmingham, recently told me that mass eavesdropping programs such as Tempora, through which GCHQ secretly gained access to millions of private communications, could actually be hampering intelligence work.
“One of the issues raised by the Snowden disclosures is the vast amount of information the intelligence agencies take in. Frankly it is way too much, and they simply cannot process it all. They need to prioritize more,” Hewitt remarked.
They sure do. Emwazi is merely the latest terror suspect of whom the intelligence services have lost sight, only to see him return to haunt them.
Despite extensive so-called “intrusive” surveillance of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both men slipped through the intelligence net and murdered an off-duty soldier, Lee Rigby, in broad daylight on a busy London street in 2013. Like Adebolajo, Emwazi has also claimed MI5 tried to recruit him.
The leaders of the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, which killed 52 people, were also on the radar of the intelligence services, but again slipped through the net. After the attack, MI5 insisted two of the bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, were just “petty fraudsters.” However, at least one surveillance transcript of the pair later emerged which contained eight pages detailing plans to train for and take part in terrorist attacks.
These are systematic failings. Hewitt adds: “It’s inevitable that some suspects could slip through their net, and that the occasional lone attacker may not stay on their radar and then later emerge to attack someone. But ultimately that is preferable to hundreds being killed in a single incident, and the security services have successfully prevented those sort of terror attacks.”
Maybe so, but as the old adage goes, the terrorists only have to get lucky once, and the more of them that are allowed to slip through the net, the luckier they are likely to be.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 2, 2015, on page 7.