Here we go again. I have lost track of how many articles I have read over the last few days all written in an accusatory tone that when you distill it comes down to a very simple claim: British intelligence should have known that Salman Abedi was a terrorist and should have stopped him before he acted. Here is one such article.
The premise goes like this. MI5 was aware of Mr. Abedi’s extremist ideology. Concerned Muslims called authorities on several occasions to register their fears. The government did not act and hence 29 people, including many teen and tween girls, are dead. Hence the government blew it and we have yet another example of ‘intelligence failure’.
What is surprising, at least to me (even if I am biased) is that few if any of those casting the stone of blame have any background in intelligence or terrorism. Think about that for a moment. By analogy, political scientists should blame doctors for losing patients and soccer moms decry generals for losing wars. Make sense? I didn’t think so.
I have long complained that much of the commentary on what to do about terrorism is written or spoken by people with little firsthand or frontline experience on the subject, so I won’t repeat that here. What I will do, however, is attempt to provide an accurate picture of what really happens on the ground and put that into the context of the UK.
At any given time, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are engaged in a number of investigations (for our purposes we will limit the discussion to terrorism cases). These investigations are driven by what they know and a need to learn quickly what they don’t in order to assess risk. Not all cases are equally important and not every subject poses a serious threat, but you don’t know the answer to either problem until you carry out the investigation. There is no model or paradigm to tell you where to focus your efforts because of the high degree of variability and idiosyncrasy.
On top of this, these organisations have finite resources and are unlikely to get substantially more soon (the heyday of the post 9/11 period where money and staff were limitless are long gone). In this light, you have to make decisions on the fly. Most of your decisions are good ones as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of terrorist plots are thwarted (well above 95% I would guess). Some are not,attacks are carried out and people die or are injured.
So here is a simple way to explain Manchester. Mr. Abedi was ‘known’to MI5 (the UK equivalent of CSIS). That puts him among anywhere between 3,000 and 23,000 similar people (I have seen a wide range of estimates in open source). ‘Known’ does not necessarily mean ‘investigated’. MI5 has approximately 4,000 staff (that figure comes from their website (https://www.mi5.gov.uk/). That figure is a total number: not all 4,000 are investigators/intelligence officers (I would be surprised if the percentage of those running cases topped 1,000). It takes anywhere from 20-40 people to investigate/follow one subject of interest. Do the math. Even at the low end of radicalised people, you need between 60 and 120 thousand officers to investigate them all. MI5, one of the best, if not the best, domestic security services in the world, is hard pressed to carry out 40 investigations at a given time. Remember that terrorists do not always advertise their intent and that risk assessment models are tools, some better than others, not predictors.
That dear readers is the reality. Intelligence services like MI5 are going flat out 24/7, 365 days a year to keep UK citizens safe in a very challenging environment. And as for those calls from the community – a great thing by the way – in 2016 the UK Channel programme, a government counter-terrorism strategy, received almost 4,000 referrals. Do the math there too please. These numbers speak to a serious problem in UK society, one that goes way beyond MI5.
So no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’. It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism. It was not MI5’s fault. It was not the UK government’s fault or the fault of UK foreign policy. It was not the community’s fault. It was not Islam’s fault. It was Mr.Abedi’s fault (plus those who aided, radicalised or inspired him).
We need to stop pointing fingers in the aftermath of attacks. And the peanut gallery really needs to do one of two things: a) become more knowledgeable about terrrorism and the challenge of preventing it, or b) shut the hell up. The choice is yours. Choose wisely.