Did we learn so little about jihadism from the 7/7 bombings?

In Woolwich, the police were too slow off the mark and the politicians got the wrong end of the stick. Both groups need to focus hard

Related Topics

There is a Groundhog Day feel to the aftermath of the brutal killing of Drummer Lee Rigby. It would seem that not much has changed in the eight years since 7/7. As ever, it is the intelligence implications that are the most striking. The authorities have admitted that, far from being individuals below the radar who went through a rapid radicalisation, both suspects have been known to them for several years.

It gets worse. In an interview on Newsnight on Friday, Abu Nusaybah, a friend of Michael Adebolajo, one of the suspects, suggested that he had been approached by the intelligence services to act as a source. As The Independent on Sunday reports today, this claim is endorsed by his brother-in-law. If it is true, this is perfectly proper intelligence procedure – our spooks have to deal with all kinds of people in their duties. And we need to be careful – Islamist sympathisers have a long record of trying to discredit the intelligence services which are their most formidable enemies.

If it is true, however, there are some embarrassing implications. Before an individual is approached a full picture of his or her life and attitudes is prepared. "Would you like to work for us?" is a question expecting the answer "Yes".

There are two reasons he may have been selected as a potential source. Either, his heart was suspected of not being fully behind the cause, which, without wishing to prejudge anything, on the face of it seems unlikely. Or, his handlers assessed that he was the real McCoy – a proper Islamist fanatic – but that there was some area of vulnerability in his life that could be exploited to make him at least an occasional provider of information to the authorities. During the Troubles a number of highly placed sources at the heart of the IRA were recruited in this way – their irregular sex lives or tendency to steal from the IRA's petty cash providing ideal opportunities for pressure.

If Adebolajo was felt to be real thing, when he refused to go along with our intelligence people, the book should have been thrown at him. An assessment of his life and habits should have provided multiple avenues for examination. (If this scenario were to happen with an Islamist without British citizenship, that would be the time to deport them, and the law should ensure that this is possible.)

For all the talk of it "not being physically possible to keep tabs on everyone", given how much was known about this pair, Whitehall appears fearful over the events of the last few days. All those who are involved in the details of intelligence at the heart of government become "Persons notified by the prime minister" – which imposes on them, quite rightly, a tougher version of the Official Secrets Act – one that allows no public interest defence. But members of MI6 are subject to a lifelong ban on writing or speaking in public about their work. They can only do so if specifically authorised by their parent organisation.

That the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, Richard Barrett, has been appearing on television making excuses over the Rigby killing speaks volumes. The impression I get is that our intelligence establishment is trying to be too clever. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Jihadist. Perhaps there is confusion among our political and intelligence elite about the nature of jihadism – that it can be manipulated and contained – played subtly rather than fought tooth and nail.

They certainly seem to subscribe to the doctrine that one man's jihadist is another man's freedom fighter. Abroad, we are in one place fighting it militarily – helicopter gunships and drone strikes in Afghanistan. But in other places we seem to be supporting it – such as Libya, where jihadists supported by Western air power and intelligence played a key part in the fall of Gaddafi. Craziest of all, Mr Cameron is considering arming Syrian rebels.

Boris Johnson, who at Cobra has access to the most sensitive intelligence, seems astonishingly ignorant about what lies behind Islamist extremism. On Thursday in the aftermath of Drummer Rigby's killing, he said this had nothing to do with the religion of Islam or British foreign policy. The opposite is true: the twin drivers of home-grown British jihadism are a perverted, but seemingly quite popular, version of Islam and whipped up resentment about our decade long involvement in invading "Muslim lands".

Once again, in dealing with Islamist terror there is a gulf between popular expectation and official practice. From the police we expect a more sure-footed performance than their slow reaction last Wednesday. Fourteen minutes to get armed police officers to the scene was frankly disappointing given the amount of training they are supposed to have done for the Olympics – and to prepare for a Mumbai-style attack. In this case, luckily, time did not mean that further lives were lost. Next time we might not be so lucky. They need to look at both procedures and practicalities and get reaction times down.

From our politicians we expect less multicultural waffle and more action. We still have a long way to go before we have an official zero-tolerance policy for Islamist extremism.

As for our intelligence services, perhaps the time has come for less subtlety and creativity and more reliance on old-fashioned methods. Once Adebolajo had refused to help the intelligence services he should have been put under more scrutiny to find out about his motivation. If we are entering the era of self-starting terrorism, the calculation of risk has to change.

Convictions in British courts are the best way to defeat home-grown terrorism. They also firmly anchor the authorities to the moral high ground in a way that some intelligence and military operations cannot. They should be our weapon of first and last resort.

Crispin Black is an intelligence consultant, former army officer, and author of '7-7: The London Bombings - What Went Wrong?'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'