MI5 could have stopped the Manchester terror attacks, but intelligence will always be imperfect

The report by David Anderson QC into the four terror attacks to have hit London and Manchester this year is an important piece of work.

Based as it is on Anderson’s assessment of nine internal reviews conducted by MI5 and counter-terrorism police, it will garner headlines primarily for what it says about the missed chances to prevent the Manchester Arena bombing in May. Those who have been left bereaved as the result of Salman Abedi’s murderous actions will find Mr Anderson’s conclusion – that the assault might have been averted if “the cards had fallen differently” – hard to bear.

It was already known that Abedi had been a “subject of interest” to MI5 in the past. David Anderson’s report goes further in describing how the security services had twice received intelligence about Abedi, the significance of which was “not fully appreciated”. Mr Anderson, who was formerly the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, concludes that “in retrospect” the intelligence can be seen to have been highly relevant to the attack.

What’s more, since Abedi was not the subject of a port alert he was not questioned when he returned to Britain from Libya just four days before he committed mass murder.

Plainly, then, there are lessons to be learned for the future. And it is reassuring at least that the key security agencies appear genuinely open to doing so. Not only have they carried out reviews that David Anderson concludes were thorough and relevant, it is plain that the reviews have led to concrete proposals for improving working practices. That all this should have happened within months of the attacks taking place is commendable, even if for those who have lost loved ones it will be of little comfort.

Of course, Mr Anderson is right to highlight the fact that intelligence is always imperfect. His report reminds us as well that the number of people living in this country who have been subject to MI5 investigation since 2009 is in the region of 20,000. It is inconceivable that so many individuals can be kept under surveillance indefinitely: indeed, it can potentially be counterproductive, both in terms of spreading the available resource too thinly and by pushing people who would otherwise not pose a continued threat into the arms of radicalism.

In the past four years, 20 Islamist-inspired plots have been disrupted by the authorities; six of those have resulted in criminal convictions for would-be terrorists….

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