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UK: Antiterrorism: where we stand

Thursday 28 December 2017, by siawi3


UK security and counter-terrorism
Nine terrorist attacks prevented in UK in last year, says MI5 boss

Head of security service Andrew Parker tells cabinet five attacks ‘got through’, four of them related to Islamist terrorism

Members of the Met police’s elite counter-terrorism firearms unit. Photograph: Handout/Getty Images

Anushka Asthana
Political editor

Tue 5 Dec ‘17 12.59 GMT
First published on Tue 5 Dec ‘17 12.38 GMT

Nine terrorist attacks have been prevented in the UK in the past year, the director general of MI5, Andrew Parker, has told Theresa May’s government.

He revealed the information during a presentation to cabinet on the terrorist threat facing the country.

“There have been five attacks that have got through – four of which are related to Islamist terrorism,” May’s official spokesman told reporters after the briefing.
MI5 chief Andrew Parker.
MI5 chief Andrew Parker. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

He said the prime minister responded by thanking MI5 for its “tireless work” in trying to “combat the unprecedented terrorist threat”.

May’s team was also briefed on the changing form of the terrorist threat facing the UK, he said.

“Cabinet ministers heard that while Daesh [Islamic State] had suffered major defeats in Iraq and Syria this did not mean the threat is over, rather it is spreading to new areas, including trying to encourage attacks in the UK and elsewhere via propaganda on social media.”

He said the home secretary, Amber Rudd, told her colleagues that the pace of attack planning had increased significantly this year, and insisted that ministers were putting pressure on social media companies to remove terrorist material and progress was being made.
Rudd highlighted Facebook’s claim that 83% of Isis and al-Qaida content posted on its platform was being identified and removed within an hour.

“She stressed, however, that there is much more for social media companies still to do,” the spokesman said.

The presentation to the cabinet came as Rudd prepared to make a statement in the House of Commons in response to a report from David Anderson, the government’s reviewer of terrorism.

Anderson has reviewed the role of the security services in the four terrorist attacks in the UK this year, including those at the Manchester Arena and London Bridge.



UK security and counter-terrorism
Key points from David Anderson report on handling of UK terror attacks

QC studied internal reviews of MI5 and counter-terror police’s handling of intelligence prior to four 2017 terror attacks

Counter-terrorism officers after the London Bridge terrorist attack on 4 June. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Vikram Dodd and Jamie Grierson

Tue 5 Dec ‘17 14.15 GMT
Last modified on Tue 5 Dec ‘17 14.27 GMT

The barrister and former terrorism watchdog David Anderson has published findings of his investigation into internal reviews by the security services and police into a wave of terror attacks in Britain this year.

Anderson studied the reviews into MI5 and counter-terror policing’s handling of intelligence before four terror attacks in Westminster in March, Manchester in May and London Bridge and Finsbury Park in June.

Here are some of Anderson’s key findings:

The attack by Salman Abedi on Manchester Arena in May, which claimed the lives of 23 people including Abedi, with hindsight may have been preventable. Anderson says: “It is conceivable that the Manchester attacks in particular might have been averted had the cards fallen differently.”
Intelligence about Abedi was misinterpreted. Anderson reports that on two occasions in the months before the attack, intelligence was received by MI5, the significance of which was not fully appreciated at the time. “It was assessed at the time not to be terrorism but to possible non-nefarious activity or to criminality on the part of Salman Abedi. In retrospect, the intelligence can be seen to have been highly relevant to the planned attack,” he says.
In the weeks before the Manchester attack in May, an exercise to examine which of 20,000 former terror suspects were worth further inquiry identified Abedi as “one of a small number of individuals … who merited further examination”.
A meeting to discuss Abedi’s case after intelligence suggested he may be worth more attention was scheduled by MI5 for 31 May, nine days after the bombing.
MI5 denies that any further investigation into Abedi would have thwarted the attack. “It is unknowable whether such an investigation would have allowed Abedi’s plans to be pre-empted and thwarted: MI5 assesses that it would not,” Anderson reports.
Three of the six attackers were on MI5’s radar. Abedi and the Westminster Bridge attacker, Khalid Masood, who killed five people in March including a police officer, were one-time suspects but reprioritised.
Only the London Bridge attacker Khuram Butt was under active MI5 investigation when he, along with two other men, launched an attack in June, killing eight people. He was suspected of potential involvement in attack planning.
Investigative actions by MI5 and police were “for the most part sound” but “many learning points have emerged”, Anderson says.



Inquiry’s conclusions about Manchester attack are damning for MI5

Findings against UK’s domestic intelligence agency are the most serious since the fallout after Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013

Emergency services on the street after Manchester Arena attack in May. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Ewen MacAskill
Defence and intelligence correspondent

Tue 5 Dec ‘17 18.56 GMT
Last modified on Tue 5 Dec ‘17 22.00 GMT

The barrister David Anderson, who conducted the inquiry into the four terrorist attacks in the UK this year, chooses his words carefully – his tendency is towards understatement rather than anything excitable.

So when Anderson concluded in his official report that the Manchester Arena suicide attack could have been prevented, that is a serious criticism of MI5.

It is the most damning finding against the UK’s domestic intelligence agency since inquiries by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC) after the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013 and the 2005 London attacks.

Comparisons with 2013 and 2005 are striking. The Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Abedi, was known to MI5 just as those in 2005 and 2013 were known to the agency.
Key points from David Anderson report on handling of UK terror attacks

MI5 failed to appreciate the value of intelligence on Abedi on two occasions just months before the attack, just as clues were missed in 2005 and 2013.

There is no elaboration in the Anderson report on what is meant by intelligence received about the Manchester attack not being “fully appreciated”. Was the information so scanty as to make a considered assessment difficult? Or was the data misunderstood? Those seeking answers may have to wait for any court case.

There is an echo in the Anderson report of the ISC findings in the Rigby case that while the errors would not individually have affected the outcome, cumulatively they might have made a difference. He cannot say with any confidence the Manchester attack could have been stopped, but it might have been.

The comparison between the Anderson report and the one on the 2005 London attacks is even more striking. Although the ISC cleared MI5 for failing to keep the attackers under surveillance, it tellingly criticised a lack of intelligence sharing between MI5 headquarters in London and police special branch in West Yorkshire, where the attack was organised.

Anderson does not point to any specific failure to share intelligence in the four attacks this year but he notes one of the recommendations is to share intelligence-derived information more widely, including through neighbourhood policing.

Failure to share intelligence is a frequent failing on the part of intelligence agencies worldwide, stemming from a reluctance to disseminate hard-won information and a fear of compromising sources.
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MI5 knows it is always going to get a kicking after any inquiry. It would probably accept the criticism of its handling of this year’s attacks is comparable with 2013 and 2005.

The agency argues, too, it is easy with hindsight to spot mistakes but that there are thousands of potential terrorists and not enough staff to mount 24-hour surveillance.

There is another argument, stemming from alarming changes the intelligence community has identified this year.

A senior intelligence officer recently spoke nostalgically of intelligence gathering a decade or so ago as a golden age. There was less terrorist activity. Plotting was usually over a long period, making it easier to pick up. Interception of communications and monitoring was relatively easy, given the lack of encryption.

He made the contrast with this year. What worried him most was the speed of radicalisation: a potential terrorist recruit could within days see propaganda online, be diverted to a site on how to build a bomb and then mount an attack.

The response of the government and the intelligence agencies has been to make counter-terrorism a priority. At least one counter-terrorist exercise or drill is held daily in the UK, with staff and resources having been diverted from other intelligence targets.

Islamic State has more or less been defeated in Iraq and Syria. The intelligence assessment is that those Britons who survived are not heading back to the UK but to other countries in the Middle East to bombard the UK with propaganda online. This is the online front on which intelligence community is focused.

The intelligence officer says, as does everyone else in the intelligence community, that there is no way to stop every terrorist plot. “There is no silver bullet,” he said.



UK security and counter-terrorism
MI5 might have been able to stop Manchester attack, report finds

Report by David Anderson QC says intelligence about suicide bomber Salman Abedi before he struck was misinterpreted

Tributes left to victims of the Manchester Arena attack in May. Photograph: Jon Super/AFP/Getty Images

Vikram Dodd and Alan Travis

Tue 5 Dec ‘17 22.41 GMT
First published on Tue 5 Dec ‘17 13.49 GMT

Ministers have vowed to overhaul Britain’s fight against terrorism after a report revealed chances to thwart the Manchester attack were missed and the leader of the London Bridge assault struck while under investigation by MI5 as a threat to national security.

The findings followed this year’s spate of atrocities that killed 36 people, and come as the level of threat is assessed by counter-terrorism experts to have markedly increased, with warnings more attacks will get through Britain’s defences.

Internal reviews by MI5 and the police cleared themselves of making serious mistakes that allowed terrorists to strike. But a summary of the findings revealed that the attack on Manchester Arena that killed 22 people might have been prevented if different decisions had been made by MI5.

The security agency had intelligence about the suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, whose “true significance was not appreciated at the time”, a report by the barrister David Anderson QC said. He said that with hindsight, different decisions might have been taken, but it was unknowable whether Abedi would then have been stopped. He declined to endorse MI5’s view it would not.

Reviews of the four UK terrorist attacks between March and June this year were overseen by Anderson to provide assurance to the government that the internal reviews by the police and MI5 were thorough enough.

The attacks came as MI5 faced a surge in jihadist activity, facing more plots in the first half of 2017 than in all of 2016.

The plots thwarted since March now have reached nine, with two more charged on Tuesday with an alleged attack plot.
Salman Abedi
Salman Abedi’s significance was ‘not appreciated at the time’. Photograph: AP

The attack that MI5, which leads intelligence gathering on counter-terrorism, is most troubled by was the one in Manchester, where Abedi detonated a suicide bomb in the worst atrocity in Britain since the 2005 attacks on London’s transport system.

Anderson said: “It is conceivable that the Manchester attack in particular might have been averted had the cards fallen differently.”

In the weeks before the Manchester attack on 22 May, an exercise to examine which of 20,000 former terror suspects were worth further inquiry identified Abedi as “one of a small number of individuals, out of a total of more than 20,000 closed SOIs [subjects of interest], who merited further examination”. But the meeting to discuss this was not scheduled until 31 May.

Intelligence received by the counter-terrorism unit for the north west was not fully appreciated and thought to concern gang-related criminality, not terrorism.

Anderson said: “On two separate occasions in the months prior to the attack, intelligence was received by MI5 whose significance was not fully appreciated at the time. It was assessed at the time not to be [related to] terrorism but to possible non-nefarious activity or to criminality on the part of Salman Abedi.
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“In retrospect, the intelligence can be seen to have been highly relevant to the planned attack.”

But the volume of work faced by counter-terrorism investigators means resources are being shifted as suspects rise and fall in the danger they are assessed to pose. “The reason why the judgements can be tough is that they are made against a background of imperfect information, and yet frequently require staff to choose which of a number of current and potentially deadly threats is more deserving of scarce investigative resources,”, Anderson said.

From Anderson, the home secretary and a family of one of those murdered, there was sympathy for the complexity of the task faced by MI5 and the police.

Dan Hett, whose brother Martyn died in the Manchester attack, said: “I can’t imagine the kind of complexity that these services deal with, and the level of decision that they need to make constantly ... Applying 20/20 hindsight to a difficult and stressful scenario is tempting but needs to be framed within the wider context of what they’re dealing with daily.”

Khuram Butt was under active MI5 investigation when he struck with the two other London Bridge attackers in June, and was suspected of potential involvement in attack planning. He was also on bail for criminal matter.

He was an acolyte of the extremist preacher Anjem Choudary, himself jailed for urging support of Islamic State.

Butt was described as increasing his operational security and by 2017 worked at the Ummah fitness centre in east London, where he met his fellow attacker Rachid Redouane. He taught Qur’an classes to youngsters alongside his other co-conspirator, Youssef Zaghba.

MI5, in the weeks before Butt and the two others struck at London Bridge, was still trying to gauge what danger he posed.

Anderson said: “The unpalatable lesson of London Bridge is that even priority subjects of interest in respect of whom sound decisions are being made ... may retain the ability to conceal their attack planning from the authorities.”

The reviews concluded that Khalid Masood, the Westminster attacker, and Darren Osborne, the Finsbury Park attacker – who was motivated by an extreme rightwing ideology, could not have been stopped, even with hindsight. Masood was the third person known to MI5 to attack in 2017 and was a former suspect, who used YouTube to help prepare his attack.

Anderson stressed the warning from security and police chiefs that not everything can be stopped. The attackers behind Westminster and Finsbury Park “would have been far from the top of any rationally compiled threat grid are always likely to emerge and strike opportunistically with readily available weapons”, with the deaths inflicted by car, knives and readily available chemicals to make Abedi’s bombs.
Candles lie along Westminster Bridge
Candles lie along Westminster Bridge following the terror attack in March. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

In the Commons, home secretary Amber Rudd Rudd signalled a shift in the government’s approach, promising counter-terrorism policing would have the funding it needed and confirming her intention to bring in new counter-terrorism laws next year.

The new emphasis includes much greater sharing of intelligence data between the security services and local authorities, with the first multi-agency panel to be piloted in Manchester. She said there would also be a new approach to managing domestic extremism, particularly extreme rightwing groups, where their activity met the definition of terrorism. Greater attention will be made to assess data available on suspects past and present, such as their online activity.

Rudd kept open the possibility of a further inquiry and parliament’s intelligence and security committee is expected to investigate.

Counter-terrorism policing is facing a 7% budget cut and police chiefs warn neighbourhood policing, crucial to getting intelligence, is threatened by a financial squeeze.

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said: “Real-term cuts to the police budget must stop and increases are given to reflect the greater work load and the growing threat,” he said.

Anderson said the reforms were more urgent given the increased terrorist activity: “In an increasingly high volume business, where success and failure depend on tiny margins, there will almost certainly be future cases in which these recommendations tip the balance in favour of the security forces.”



UK facing most severe terror threat ever, warns MI5 chief

Head of intelligence service says more attacks are inevitable as Britain sees ‘dramatic upshift’ in Islamist terrorism
MI5 chief warns of ’unprecedented’ UK terror threat – video 01:06

Vikram Dodd
Police and crime correspondent

Tue 17 Oct ‘17 19.11 BST
First published on Tue 17 Oct ‘17 18.00 BST

Britain is facing its most severe ever terrorist threat and fresh attacks in the country are inevitable, according to the head of Britain’s normally secretive domestic intelligence service in a rare public speech.

Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, said the UK had seen “a dramatic upshift in the threat” from Islamist terrorism this year, reflecting attacks that have taken place in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge.

The spy chief said: “That threat is multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before.”

He added: “It’s at the highest tempo I have seen in my 34-year career. Today there is more terrorist activity, coming at us more quickly, and it can be harder to detect.”

MI5 is under pressure to demonstrate its effectiveness after four Islamist terrorist attacks escaped its detection this year.

Parker’s speech to specialist security journalists on Tuesday was his chance to frame the debate about Britain’s battle against Islamist terrorism at a time when the agency’s staff numbers are already expanding from 4,000 to 5,000.

This month the government will receive reports on whether chances to thwart the atrocities were missed and what lessons could be learned. Ministers and the National Security Council wanted independent oversight of the review, in essence not allowing MI5 or counter-terrorism police to assess themselves. Oversight is being provided by the barrister David Anderson QC, a former government appointment as independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.

Parker said MI5 had stopped far more terror plots than those that caused mass casualties this year. He said 20 plots had been thwarted in the last four years.

Seven plots had been stopped before jihadists could strike in the last seven months alone, Parker added. “The threat is more diverse than I’ve ever known. Plots developed here in the UK, but plots directed from overseas as well. Plots online. Complex scheming and also crude stabbings; lengthy planning but also spontaneous attacks. Extremists of all ages, gender and backgrounds, united only by the toxic ideology of violent victory that drives them.”

He also defended the decisions made by his staff about which suspects posed the most danger to the public. “They get up and come to work every single day to make terrorist attacks less likely and to keep the country safe. They are constantly making tough professional judgments based on fragments of intelligence; pinpricks of light against a dark and shifting canvas. That is the job of MI5.”

The flurry of Islamist attacks this year claimed 36 lives. As well as the atrocities at Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge a bomb was left on a tube train at Parsons Green, west London, but failed to fully explode. On top of that was the Finsbury Park attack, which is blamed on an extreme rightwing motivation.

Parker added that military defeat in Syria and Iraq for Islamic State did not mean its threat would wane. “Meanwhile, Daesh [Isis] itself is under military pressure and is rapidly losing ground in its heartland in Syria and Iraq. So much so that it’s now advising would-be fighters to choose other countries … At the same time the Daesh brand has taken root in some other countries where areas of low governance give it space to grow.”

He said 100 Britons were believed to have died fighting for Isis and fresh danger was posed by the potential return of 850 more who had travelled to its territory, although a large influx had not yet materialised.

Asked if a future attack in the UK was inevitable, Parker said: “I think we have to be careful that we don’t find ourselves being held to some sort of perfect standard of 100% because that just isn’t achievable.” He said it was likely attacks would occur.

The formal terrorism threat level remains at severe, meaning an attack is highly likely. Twice this year it has been raised to its maximum level, meaning an attack could be imminent, after the Manchester and Parsons Green attacks. In both cases there were fears among officials that suspects or bomb related materials could be at large.

Amid concerns that Brexit could damage security cooperation, Parker said working with European partners remained crucial to MI5’s mission. “We share intelligence. We run joint operations. Every single day.”

The spy chief was careful in his tone towards technology companies such as Google, Facebook and YouTube which have been accused of not doing enough to help thwart criminals and terrorists using their technologies.

Parker said that as technology advances, social media companies have an “ethical responsibility” to do more to help suppress terrorism. He warned that “an unintended side-effect is that these advances also aid the terrorists, whether it’s the ease of online purchasing, social media content or encrypted communications. No company wants to provide terrorists with explosive precursors.

“Social media platforms don’t want to host bomb making videos. And communications providers don’t want to provide the means of terrorist planning, beyond the sight of MI5.”