The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament has just published its report on the terrorist attacks which took place in the UK last year. The UK suffered five serious terrorist attacks at Westminster, Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park and Parsons Green. In total, 36 lives were lost in these occurrences, with many more people injured.
Chairman of the Committee, namely the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP, explained: “Our thoughts remain with the victims and their families. We recognise, and want to pay tribute to, the many exceptional acts carried out by members of the public and by front line services personnel in response to the attacks.”
In the wake of the terror episodes, both MI5 and Counter-Terrorism Policing launched internal reviews. “We commend MI5 and the police service for taking the initiative in conducting what we’ve found to be thorough examinations,” affirmed Grieve. “Nevertheless, we regarded it as being essential to ascertain for ourselves whether mistakes were made, and to ensure that all changes and improvements required have been identified. We have therefore reviewed the conclusions made, considered the primary material – including highly-classified documents, investigation records and other intelligence reports – and held multiple evidence sessions with MI5, Counter-Terrorism Policing, the Home Secretary and the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. We’ve considered each attack in depth, with the exception of the Parsons Green attack. Despite multiple requests, the Home Office failed to provide full evidence in sufficient time for the latter to be included in this inquiry.”
On that note, Grieve stated: “This is unacceptable. From what we’ve seen to date, there were fundamental failings in the handling of this case by the Home Office, the police and Surrey County Council. This litany of errors will require a separate comprehensive review to which the Home Office must be directly answerable.”
Actions of MI5 and Counter-Terrorism Policing
n relation to the four remaining attacks, the Committee has considered the actions of MI5 and Counter-Terrorism Policing in relation to 12 cross-cutting issues which the Committee considers to have played a part in the actions of two or more of those who perpetrated the attacks. In each case, the Committee has considered what changes need to be made.
Grieve observed: “We have taken two issues, namely the use of explosives and the actions of Communications Service Providers, as examples. In relation to explosives, we found that the system for regulating and reporting purchases of the ingredients used to make explosives was hopelessly out of date in dealing with the threat posed. This facilitated the perpetrators in acquiring the materials they required. While the Committee welcomes the changes that have subsequently been made to the system, and the Government’s intention to improve co-operation and information sharing between retailers and law enforcement, this should have been done sooner and must now be kept under review.”
On the second matter, Grieve commented: “Four years ago, this Committee was the first to draw attention to the failure of Communications Service Providers to prevent their systems from being used as a safe haven for extremists and terrorists. However, we’ve seen that appeals to these companies’ sense of Corporate and Social Responsibility have not resulted in them making the changes required. Again, these loopholes were used by the perpetrators of the 2017 attacks.”
Embellishing that point, Grieve went on to state: “In this report, we recommend that pressure is instead put on the Communications Service Providers by the business community, following the example of companies such as Unilever. We strongly consider that action which affects the Communications Service Providers’ profits will hit home harder than an appeal to them to ‘do the right thing’ and could force them to take action on this crucial issue. Government efforts should now be directed towards the business community to encourage them to use the leverage they have with the Communications Service Providers.”
Case of Salman Abedi under scrutiny
Several of the other cross-cutting issues are illustrated when considering the case of Salman Abedi, the perpetrator of the attack on Manchester Arena. He visited an extremist contact in prison on more than one occasion, but no follow-up action was taken by either MI5 or Counter-Terrorism Policing. In the opinion of the Committee, known extremist prisoners shouldn’t be able to maintain links with those vulnerable to extremism. The Committee has therefore recommended that the Approved Visitors Scheme is extended to all extremist prisoners.
Grieve outlined: “We’ve also seen issues around travel arise in the case of Abedi and other perpetrators. MI5 decided not to place travel monitoring or travel restrictions on Salman Abedi which allowed him to return undetected to the UK in the days immediately before he carried out his attack. MI5 has since admitted that, given the information it held on Abedi, it should have done so. MI5 has now revisited its policies in this respect.”
According to the Committee, the case also highlights “deficiencies” in MI5’s system for monitoring individuals of interest not currently under active investigation (and, in the case of another of the perpetrators, the system for monitoring those seen in the peripheries of more than one investigation).
Flagged for review
Abedi had, in fact, been flagged for review, but MI5’s systems “moved too slowly” and the review had not happened prior to him launching his attack. The question of how ‘Closed’ or ‘Peripheral’ Subjects of Interest are managed is a crucial issue which has been the subject of previous recommendations by the Committee. It’s the Committee’s considered view that planned improvements must now be prioritised.
“We also note in relation to Salman Abedi that, despite being known to MI5 from 2014, he was not at any point considered for a referral to the Prevent programme. This failure to use the Prevent programme is, similarly, not a new issue. We would have expected lessons to have been learned already.”
In its conclusions, the Committee notes that both MI5 and Counter-Terrorism Policing have been thorough in their desire to learn from past mistakes.
Grieve stated: “We also know and acknowledge the determination with which they approach their work, which we regard as impressive. However, it has been striking how many of the issues which arose in relation to the 2017 terrorist attacks had been previously raised by this Committee in our reports on the 7/7 attacks and on the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby. We have previously made recommendations in all of these areas, yet the Government failed to act upon them. The lessons from last year’s tragic events must now result in real action.”
Response from Counter-Terrorism Policing
UK Counter-Terrorism Policing “welcomes” the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into last year’s terrorist attacks and will now “study its findings and recommendations” carefully.
A statement issued from Scotland Yard says: “We are determined to do everything in our power to ensure that, wherever possible, anyone who played a part in the 2017 attacks is brought to justice, while continuing to support those affected and the inquests.”
The statement continues: “Every day, our staff work tirelessly to protect the UK. Since the Westminster attack in March last year, UK Counter-Terrorism Policing and MI5 have foiled 13 Islamist-related attack plus four Extreme Right-Wing attacks. In the 12 months to 30 June 2018, police made 351 arrests for terrorism-related offences, while over the same period there were a record 90 convictions for terrorist-related offences. The UK continues to be internationally recognised as a global leader in countering terrorism. However, we are deeply committed to learning so that we can refine our response to the evolving threat.”
The statement adds: “As we saw in 2017, attacks can get through at any time and any place. The focus of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s review was what the intelligence agencies knew about the perpetrators before the attacks, whether more could have been done to stop them and what lessons could be learned for the future. Although the Committee’s statutory responsibility does not include oversight of policing matters, we voluntarily contributed to this review, offering co-operation and access to assist the Committee with its detailed work.”
UK Policing and MI5 Operational Improvement Review
The Intelligence and Security Committee’s review follows on from the UK Policing and MI5 Operational Improvement Review, carried out in the aftermath of the attacks, with independent oversight provided by David Anderson QC, as well as external examinations such as the Kerslake Arena Review.
The national head of Counter-Terrorism Policing, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, stated: “We are grateful for the depth and breadth of this review. We will now look in detail at the full report, which we will need to take time to consider carefully. There will be further scrutiny and examination into the circumstances of these attacks, including coronial inquests and other potential criminal proceedings, which may preclude us for the time being from commenting publicly on some specific points raised. In the meantime, we would like to reassure the public that, ever since the attacks of last year, we have sought to learn from what happened before, during and afterwards, and then improve upon our wider operating model and ways of managing and mitigating the risk from terrorism.”
Basu concluded: “We will not let the terrorists who carried out these appalling attacks to succeed in scaring and dividing us. Working ever more closely with the Security Service and learning our lessons, we will do everything we can to reduce the chances of this happening again.”
Counter-Terrorism Policing’s work includes piloting multi-agency centres (NMAC) to share intelligence, which is welcomed in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report, improving intelligence handling and assessment and examining the better use and exploitation of data.
The UK continues to face an acute threat from terrorism. It’s one which is multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly and operating at a scale and pace not seen before. Currently, there are over 700 live investigations involving some 3,000 individuals posing the biggest threats, with another 20,000 individuals who remain “of concern”.