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

Crispin Black
Saturday 25 May 2013 22:51
Abu Nusaybah said his friend, a suspect, was approached by MI5
Abu Nusaybah said his friend, a suspect, was approached by MI5

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?'

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments