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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 

The real face of 21st century insecurity.

(This is almost 2,000 words.)

To believe in most conspiracy theories, you need also to believe in the concept of all powerful government.  9/11 couldn't possibly have been the work of 19 men armed only with boxcutters and rudimentary knowledge of flying planes, that's far too implausible.  Instead, it was an inside job, possibly involving explosives that were planted in the twin towers when they were built, possibly involving holograms that looked like planes, all in the aid of justifying war and/or wars designed to take control of more Middle Eastern oil.  Or maybe the owner of the WTC wanted the insurance money, and was so motivated by greed he felt no compunction about the lives of the people in the buildings he was going to first have planes flew into, and then demolished remotely.

Except, as anyone who pays the slightest attention will quickly realise, government is not all powerful.  The intelligence agencies, despite having incredible powers of surveillance are not all knowing, let alone an panopticon.  In fact, for the most part they're just as stupid as you or I.  They rely chiefly for many of their outlandish claims on how the vast majority of the public don't remember the last time they were told about just how massive the threat level is, not to mention how the media for the most part repeats those same claims without hesitation.  More to the point, why shouldn't they when those wishing us harm say that's precisely what they intend just before they kill their latest victims?

We are then facing perhaps the most severe level of threat ever, says Theresa May.  Since 7/7 40 major plots have been disrupted, including ones we know about, such as the liquid bombs one, as well others we might not, like a Mumbai-style massacre, which could be a reference to the on-going Erol Incedal semi-secret trial.  This is the most severe level of threat since the last most severe level of threat.  For I recall former Met commissioners telling us how the "sky was dark", such was the scale of plotting going on, former MI5 heads warning of 30 on-going plots, of 2,000 individuals associated with extremism.  To be taken in by this nonsense you need to completely forget about the IRA, and more or less, every single past agitator either inside or outside the country.  In reality, the only thing that distinguished Islamist extremists from other terrorists was they didn't issue warnings, and were prepared to kill indiscriminately.

Now even that claim doesn't properly stand up.  As the Intelligence and Security Committee's report into what did or didn't go wrong with the security services' dealings with the two men convicted of killing Lee Rigby makes clear (PDF), the most pernicious threat right now is not so much from "lone wolves", those who have no contact whatsoever with other extremists, but "self-starters" (page 80, para 232).  Self-starters are those without major links to an al-Qaida franchise or Islamic State, but who are inspired by their example and decide to do something, anything.  They will be known to other extremists, probably having appeared on the periphery of investigations carried out by the police or MI5/GCHQ, just not considered an imminent threat.  Without the support and resources available to those with direct links to an AQ franchise, they're likely to think smaller and go for something achievable rather than spectacular.  Such as killing a soldier, or perhaps beheading the first person they don't like the look of.

This raises the question of just what is and isn't terrorism.  Within hours of Lee Rigby's murder his death was being defined as a terrorist act, rather than a homicide egregiously justified by his killers as revenge for British foreign policy.  The implication seems to be all someone needs to do is shout "Allah akbar" or the equivalent for their violence to be deemed terrorist inspired.  Any other factors can then be disregarded, and lessons must be learned from the failure to prevent the attack in the first place.

In the absence of there being anything or anyone to blame, or the refusal to apportion blame where it would most obviously lie based on the evidence, something else can always be found.  When it's done in such a transparent, utterly flagrant way as it has by the ISC and the government though, it just insults everyone's intelligence.  The first part of this week has been designated as a time to highlight "the threat" and demonstrate why yet more new powers are necessary, with the ISC report at the core, despite it having been ready for publication for weeks if not months.  It's a brilliant report, in that in the style of the very best it provides documentary evidence of how incompetent MI5 and MI6 can be, taking months to process intelligence and follow it up, leaving crucial details out of reports provided to the police, removing Michael Adebolajo from his status as a subject of interest, despite his links to 5 other major investigations and so on, and then reserves its real ire for Facebook for not passing on what it considers the one key piece of intelligence the security services believe could have prevented the attack.

It does this despite openly contradicting itself.  The key intelligence not passed on by Facebook was a conversation between Michael Adebowale and an extremist with links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, where the former spoke of wanting to kill a soldier and received advice on how to go about doing so (page 127, para 378).  It seems fairly damning, until you consider how a similar piece of intelligence on Adebowale was used, or rather not used.  Back in 2012 GCHQ reported an unknown individual, not at that time identified as Adebowale, had been espousing "views includ[ing] references to operating as a lone wolf (or lone actor), and other general extremist remarks" (page 77, para 221).  The ISC notes at first sight this seems "striking", only for the committee to be reassured by the director general of MI5 that "those sorts of things said, and worse, on these sorts of [sites] are very common" and "[T]he vast majority of it, *** translates into no action at all". 

You can of course argue that going into the specifics of an attack is very different to vaguely talking of wanting to be a lone wolf, as does the contact with someone with links to AQAP, although at the time the intelligence agencies didn't know that was the case.  The same argument as made by Andrew Parker could though surely be applied to the exchange on Facebook; the vast majority of such talk would similarly translate into no action at all.  The real difference seems to be GCHQ obtained the first conversation, while Facebook didn't until after the murder discover the interaction between Adebowale and "Foxtrot", despite a number of Adebowale's accounts being automatically closed due to links to terrorism.  Adebowale closed the account used to contact "Foxtrot" himself.

Just then as Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ used his first day in the job to describe social media companies and other tech giants as "facilitators of crime and terrorism" so today David Cameron was denouncing the likes of Facebook for providing a "safe haven" for terrorists, intentionally or not.  All this cant seems purely down to how accessing the personal data, meta or otherwise of everyone has been made harder by the shift towards greater encryption by the data companies.  Despite the efforts of GCHQ to master the internet, the ISC report claims in what seems to be the first official confirmation of the existence of Tempora, without naming it as such, in theory, "GCHQ can access around ***% of global internet traffic and approximately ***% of internet traffic entering or leaving the UK" (para 410, page 135).  James Ball suggests Edward Snowden believed GCHQ could access 20% of UK internet traffic, although as neither Adebowale or "Foxtrot" were under investigation at the time they wouldn't have known what to look for anyway.

Quite what the real aim is remains far more opaque.  As Alan Travis and others point out, what GCHQ and the government seem to be demanding is either that social media companies do their job for them, which is an impossibility; or, far more dangerously, that they let governments and their intelligence agencies do whatever they like with the data passing through the servers.  Even if we accept they have the very best of intentions, why should a US company hand over information without objection to a UK government agency and not say do the same for the Russians or Chinese when their requests would no doubt be made on the very same terms?  The argument they already do so when it comes to child exploitation is bogus, and more to the point, as we saw with the raids on Tor, disrupting paedophile networks still appears to come second to the war on drugs.

The report also downplays or accepts "national security" excuses for why MI5's attempts to recruit Adebolajo can neither be confirmed or denied (page 44, para 117).  Despite this, the ISC "investigated all aspects of MI5’s actions thoroughly, and [has] not seen any evidence of wrongdoing by MI5", so clearly any suggestion the "harassment" of Adebolajo may have contributed to his actions must similarly be dismissed.  MI6 was also wholly uninterested in Adebolajo's claims he was mistreated when arrested in Kenya (page 153, para 461), presumed to be intending to join up with al-Shabaab with Somalia, with the ISC concluding "we would have expected that all allegations of mistreatment would now be treated with the seriousness they merit" and that "whatever we now know about him as an individual does not detract from the fact that his allegations were not dealt with appropriately".  Again, any impact the alleged mistreatment could have ultimately had on Adebolajo's actions, considering the links between the UK and the anti-terrorism unit in Kenya codenamed ARCTIC, must obviously be disregarded.

As the Graun puts it, the "bleak truth is that it's possible nothing would have saved Lee Rigby from his awful fate".  Despite the government or the agencies themselves occasionally repeating the old adage that whereas they have to be lucky every time, the terrorists only have to be lucky once, protecting the public in the face of such odds remains one of the few things they continue to boast about.  It doesn't matter that governments wilfully redefine terrorism to be almost anything, raising the stakes even further, to the point where schools are deemed not to be doing enough to tackle extremism if sixth form societies have Facebook pages with links to radical preachers, still everything must be seen to be done, even if it turns out to be counter-productive or worse.  Continuously ramping up the perceived threat helps no one, and yet successive governments have done it.  When the intelligence agencies then fail, as they will, the blame has to be diverted.  If that in turn further helps the securocrats who are never satisfied with the material they have access to, so much the better, again in spite of how Tempora is useless against one determined person armed with a sharp knife.  All the technology, all our powers of surveillance, all our intelligence, brought low by men armed with a car, an unloaded gun and a few blades.  There is the true insecurity of the 21st century, and it's not the stuff conspiracy theories are made of.

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