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Nov
25

woolwich murderThe government has been handed ammunition to pressurise internet companies to monitor the contents of private messages and inform the security services of suspicious ones after an official report found one of Lee Rigby’s terrorist killers had written of his desire to murder a soldier.

The report, published on Tuesday, said the authorities were never told that one of the killers, Michael Adebowale, had written of his murderous intent six months before he and his accomplice, Michael Adebolajo, brutally attacked Rigby in a street near his military barracks and attempted to behead him.

But the internet company, understood to be Facebook, had not spotted the message, and so the security services were not told. The report by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC) said that if the message had been passed to MI5 it could have prevented the murder of the soldier.

David Cameron vowed to take action but an internet rights group warned against co-opting companies and turning them into an arm of the surveillance state.

The internet company concerned was accused by the ISC’s chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, of providing a safe haven for terrorists because it did not accept that it should monitor messages in case they contained threatening content.

Adebowale’s message, showing his intention to carry out a jihadi attack “in the most graphic terms”, according to the report, was exchanged with an Islamist militant based overseas.

The report said that if the authorities had been passed the message, “there is then a significant possibility that MI5 would have been able to prevent the attack.”

The report comes the day before the government announces a new package of counter-terrorism measures and triggers a new round in the debate over the balance between security and privacy that has raged since the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Rifkind led the accusations against the internet company across whose network Adebowale’s message had passed: “This company does not regard themselves as under any obligation to ensure that they identify such threats, or to report them to the authorities. We find this unacceptable: however unintentionally, they are providing a safe haven for terrorists.”

But others who had given evidence to the committee said the findings of the inquiry should not be used to support the government’s plans. Isabella Sankey, director of policy for the civil rights group Liberty, said: “The ISC shamefully spins the facts seeking to blame the communications companies for not doing the agencies’ work for them.”

In the Commons, the prime minister ratcheted up the pressure. “Their networks are being used to plot murder and mayhem. It is their social responsibility to act on this and we expect them to live up to that responsibility,” said Cameron.

The ISC said in their report: “Whilst we note that progress has started to be made on this issue, with the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 and the appointment of the special envoy on intelligence and law-enforcement data-sharing, the problem is acute. The prime minister, with the National Security Council, should prioritise this issue.”

The unnamed internet company had previously closed down some of Adebowale’s accounts.

It had an automated program to stop message content deemed unacceptable – but the message discussing murdering a soldier was not picked up. It was only found after the murder.

The committee declined to name the US-based company, because the information had been passed in confidence to GCHQ, the UK government’s monitoring service, after Rigby’s death, which then supplied it to the ISC inquiry.

Jim Killock, of Open Rights, which campaigns on issues such as online surveillance, censorship and privacy, said: “The government should not use the appalling murder of Fusilier Rigby as an excuse to justify the further surveillance and monitoring of the entire UK population.

“To pass the blame to internet companies is to use Fusilier Rigby’s murder to make cheap political points.“It is quite extraordinary to demand that companies pro-actively monitor email content for suspicious material,” he said.

The report identifies failings by the security services, but says even if they had not made these, the knowledge they had about the two extremists would not have led analysts to assess them as poised to strike.

Adebolajo, the dominant of the pair, had featured in five MI5 investigations and Adebowale in two, but none of those inquiries revealed evidence that they were planning an attack.

The ISC said MI5 had made errors and was plagued by delays, but even if corrected none of this would have helped the security service to spot the level of danger posed by the attackers before they struck.

Rigby had been returning home on 22 May 2013 at the end of a shift at an army recruiting office at the Tower of London when he was run over by a car driven by Adebolajo in Woolwich, south London. The two killers then attacked the soldier with knives.

The committee inquiry was set up to investigate the role of the intelligence agencies, which had the two men under surveillance. “There were errors in these operations, where processes were not followed, decisions not recorded, or delays encountered. However, we do not consider that any of these errors, taken individually, were significant enough to have made a difference,” the report says.

“Adebolajo was a high priority for MI5 during two operations: they put significant effort into investigating him and employed a broad range of intrusive techniques. None of these revealed any evidence of attack planning,” the committee says.

“By contrast, Michael Adebowale was never more than a low level SoI [subject of interest] and the agencies took appropriate action based on the rigorous threshold set down in law: they had not received any intelligence that Adebowale was planning an attack and, based on that evidence, more intrusive action would not have been justified.”

The committee said that at any time MI5 was investigating several thousand individuals linked to militant Islamist activities in the UK.

Ray Dutton, Rigby’s uncle, said the report confirmed his belief that his nephew’s murder could not have been prevented.

“Mistakes have been made possibly, perhaps we could have done a little bit more,” he told BBC News.

“But in my heart of hearts I can’t believe that – even with further evidence – Lee’s murder could have been stopped. Everyone in Britain at that time was in this cocoon of safety on our streets. That was smashed by these two murderers for their religious gain.”

The report also concluded:

• Given that there are 500 or more Britons fighting in Syria and Iraq, it said years of counter-terrorism policies in the UK had failed: “The scale of the problem indicates that the government’s counter-terrorism programmes are not working.”

• The ISC refused to confirm or deny claims that MI5 had tried to recruit Adebolajo as an informant. He was detained in Kenya in 2010 trying to join Islamist militants in neighbouring Somalia, and eventually came back to Britain. In its report, the ISC said: “To publish any information in response to allegations that MI5 harassed Adebolajo or tried to recruit him as an agent would damage national security – irrespective of the substance of such allegations.

“Despite the considerable public interest in this case, it is nevertheless essential that we do not comment on the allegation that MI5 had been trying to recruit Adebolajo as an agent. In relation to allegations of harassment, we can confirm that we have investigated all aspects of MI5’s actions thoroughly, and have not seen any evidence of wrongdoing by MI5 in this area.”

• MI6 – formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service – was strongly criticised for the way it dealt with the allegation that Adebolajo was ill treated in Kenya: “The committee is concerned by SIS’s approach on this occasion to allegations of mistreatment, which appears dismissive. Prejudging allegations in this way is comple=tely inappropriate.”

It continues: “Given the recent focus on the treatment of detainees, and the allegations against the UK agencies of complicity in mistreatment, we would have expected that all allegations of mistreatment would now be treated with the seriousness they merit.

“We have therefore been deeply concerned at the informal manner in which Adebolajo’s allegations were handled: whatever we now know about him as an individual does not detract from the fact that his allegations were not dealt with appropriately.”

Parts of the report are redacted but the prime minister received the full version.

The report’s final recommendation is redacted and reads: “Adebolajo’s allegations of mistreatment potentially related to a ***. It is essential that ministers are informed immediately of any allegations made against an overseas organisation for which any part of HMG [the government] bears responsibility and which is ***.”

Adebolajo’s brother, Jeremiah, has claimed he was harassed by the security services as they hunted for information on his brother and tried to turn him into an informant.

He also said greater monitoring of internet messages would not have made any difference: “My brother was constantly and closely monitored by the security services. He had almost no online presence at all, a fact that even caused the security services to request me to keep a closer eye on him.

“I think the facts of the case, the lack of publicly available evidence to support the report and the convenience with which the government will now be able to expand unpopular spying laws are all testimony to the fact that this report is nothing more than a distraction from the motives behind the attack and a way to put a particular segment of British society under further pressure and surveillance.”

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment from the Guardian, nor did it respond when directly asked if it was the subject of the ISC’s report.

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