Preventing small scale terrorist attacks by one or two perpetrators

Preventing small scale terrorist attacks by one or two perpetrators

Recent small scale terrorist attacks lead to asking the question whether authorities could have prevented these attacks.

On 22 of May 2013, Fusilier Lee Rigby was killed after being hit by a car and stabbed with knives by two attackers who told passers-by that they had killed a soldier to avenge the killing of Muslims by the British armed forces. Both perpetrators – Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were shot and subsequently arrested. Immediately following the attack, the intelligence community and the police launched an investigation into the two attackers. The goal was to find out whether they were part of a larger network and to assess the risk of more of such attacks by others. At a later stage, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament looked into the question whether it could it have been prevented? Its aim was to establish what knowledge the intelligence community had or should have had of the two men before the attack and why they did not intervene.

This question is an important one that is frequently asked after incidents such as this one, in which the perpetrators were known to the authorities for radical ideas. This question was also quickly asked after the Charly Hebdo killings and might also be the core of investigations into the case of the Copenhagen shooter. Such inquiries are essential in order to establish whether mistakes have been made and to ensure that lessons are learned.

The report of the Intelligence and Security Committee showed that Adebolajo and Adebowale featured in seven agency operations. According to the Committee, there were a number of errors that – when taken together - were significant enough to have affected the outcome. And there was one particular piece of information that – when collected and shared with others could have changed the course of events. This was an online exchange in December 2012 between Adebowale and an extremist overseas, in which Adebowale expressed his intent to murder a soldier in the most graphic and emotive manner. According to the Committee, one party which could have made a difference was the company on whose system the exchange took place. However, this company – Facebook - does not believe to be under any obligation to ensure that they identify such threats, or to report them to the authorities. The chair of the Committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, used harsh words saying “We find this unacceptable: however unintentionally, they are providing a safe haven for terrorists.” Furthermore, the Committee was surprised that MI5 – the British security service - did not at specific times place (one of) the two men under surveillance or increase their coverage of them. (Adebolajo was on the radar from mid-2008 up until the attack, amongst others in relation to a possible attack by Al Qaeda in the West. Adebowale was known for his interest in extremist media since August 2011.)

Perhaps the most important outcome of the report is its eight lessons learned that can be beneficial to all involved in counterterrorism. These include dealing with increased security consciousness among extremists, the emerging threat of ‘self-starting terrorists’ which requires closer cooperation between the intelligence community and local police and to increase community engagement, and to give priority to people who have returned from – what the Commission calls – “jihadi tourism”. The latter issue is probably not necessary given the current high number of jihadist foreign fighters that have flocked to Syria and Iraq.

Responding to the report, Prime Minister David Cameron said the government would commit an extra £130m over the next two years to monitor and disrupt so-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorists. He also said internet companies should do more to combat extremism.

Perhaps investigations into the attacks in Paris and the one in Copenhagen will lead to similar reports and similar findings. Obviously the complex interplay between various (new) developments such as the rise of the phenomenon of lone wolf terrorism or ‘self-starting terrorists’ and that of ‘jihadi tourism’ or foreign fighters, combined with the use of the Internet, social media and increased security consciousness of extremists will not make it easier to prevent small scale attacks by one or two perpetrators comparable to the tragic attack on fusilier Lee Rigby.

Note: For more information on the study of lone actor terrorism, see the Countering Lone Actor Terrorism (CLAT) project, http://www.icct.nl/activities/projects/lone-actor-terrorism; and the Predicting, Interdicting and Mitigating Extremism (PRIME) project, http://www.campusdenhaag.nl/ctc/onderzoek/prime.html.