With its vigorous, fractious media and political environment, the UK is a nation of second guessers. Nowhere is that more evident than in the response to the vicious murder of Lee Rigby.
A parliamentary inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee has concluded that MI5 could not have prevented Rigby’s killing – even though it had previously been investigating the two men who attacked him in a London street in May 2013, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale.
Optimistically, the report might offer a meaningful push in the direction of reality for the national conversation around counter-terrorism, particularly around the capabilities of the security agencies.
Past precedent, however, suggests this won’t happen. We have certainly seen this sort of discussion before. There seems to be an assumption in the media, and possibly among the wider public, that coming to the attention of the police or security services automatically equates to 24-hour-a-day surveillance in which suspects are under a constant spotlight.
This just isn’t the case in reality. Without unlimited resources, modern counter-terrorism in a democratic society demands triage.
The same problem arose ahead of the July 7 2005 bombings in which four terrorists murdered 52 people in London. Again some of the perpetrators had come to the attention of the security services but again parliament found the attacks could not have been prevented. The bombers had been deemed a lower priority in relation to other investigations. And indeed, ahead of the report’s release, home secretary Theresa May said that 40 terrorist plots had been uncovered over the past nine years.
This is the crucial problem. Judgements constantly need to be made, and priorities set. Although there is room for criticism, realism must be a constant corrective to hindsight. And that’s particularly true in cases where the lack of information in the public domain makes informed criticism difficult.
As the Intelligence and Security Committee itself noted in 2009, several hundred thousand security agents would be required to mount continual surveillance on the several thousand known terrorist suspects. MI5 currently has fewer than 4,000 employees.
In needing to prioritise, there must be an emphasis on stopping major plots that risk casualties in the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands. Such a focus means by definition that attacks by “lone actors” or small numbers of people, which because of their size are difficult to detect and prevent, will at times succeed.
The media and politicians could play a useful role by emphasising the low risk to the public from such attacks as these. Such realism could help reduce the fear, hysteria and overreaction the terrorists hope to achieve in the first place.
Ultimately, the idea that a free society can ensure absolute security from terrorism or crime in general is patently ridiculous. It is certainly not one that would have been entertained by the UK in the past, when generations endured far worse terrorist atrocities courtesy of the Irish Republican Army.
November 21 was the 40th anniversary of the still-unsolved Birmingham pub bombings, in which 21 people were killed by terrorists. Counter-terrorism agencies are doing everything possible to stop attacks, particularly on this scale, from occurring. But the public, media, and politicians must recognise that a risk, albeit small, remains and will always do so.