25 Nov 2014

Is Facebook being scapegoated for Lee Rigby’s murder?

A parliamentary inquiry slates a US internet company for failing to help prevent the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. But is Facebook being blamed for intelligence service failures?

But the inquiry, by the intelligence and security committee (ISC), concludes that there was a “significant possibility” MI5 could have prevented the May 2013 Woolwich attack if it had been aware of a Facebook exchange in December 2012 in which one of the killers, Michael Adebowale, “expressed his intent to murder a soldier in the most graphic and emotive manner”.

In the exchange with an overseas extremist with links to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Adebowale said he wanted to kill a soldier in retaliation for UK military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commitee chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind says: “This was highly significant. Had MI5 had access to this exchange at the time, Adebowale would have become a top priority. There is then a significant possibility that MI5 would have been able to prevent the attack.”

Sir Malcolm says it is “highly unlikely” the security agencies “could have discovered this intelligence before the attack”, but what “could have made a difference was the company on whose system the exchange took place”.

‘Safe haven for terrorists’

He adds that this firm, not named by the committee but believed to be Facebook, did not regard itself “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.”

A Facebook spokesperson: “Like everyone else, we were horrified by the vicious murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. We don’t comment on individual cases, but Facebook’s policies are clear, we do not allow terrorist content on the site and take steps to prevent people from using our service for these purposes.”

Sir Malcolm says major US communications service providers it approached (Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Twitter and Microsoft) did not feel they needed to comply with UK warrants. “Therefore, even if MI5 had sought information – under a warrant – before the attack, the company might not have responded. They appear to accept no responsibility for the services they provide.

“This is of very serious concern: the capability of the agencies to access the communications of their targets is essential to their ability to detect and prevent terrorist threats in the UK.”

‘Higher level of threat’

The government has started to take action to deal with this problem, through the 2014 data retention and investigatory powers act, the ISC says until this problem is resolved, “the British public are exposed to a higher level of threat”.

It expresses concern about young Britons travelling to Syria and Iraq “to engage in terrorism”, and says the government’s counter-terrorism programmes are not working.

The inquiry says Fusilier Rigby’s murderers, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, figured in seven security services investigations, mostly as “low-level subjects of interest”.

But although errors were made, “we have concluded that, given what the agencies knew at the time, they were not in a position to prevent the murder of Fusilier Rigby”.

Among the mistakes made by the security services, the ISC mentions “unacceptable” delays in MI5 investigating Adebowale and MI6 failing to take “substantive action” after Adebolajo’s arrest in Kenya in 2010, when he was stopped on suspicion of planning to travel to Somalia to join terrorist group Al Shabaab.

Following publication of the report, Prime Minister David Cameron said £130m would be made available to help the intelligence agencies to combat “self-starting” terrorists.

‘Wrong place at the wrong time’

Fusilier Rigby’s uncle Raymond Dutton said he did not believe his nephew’s death could have been prevented. “I’m a firm believer of the belief Lee was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If it hadn’t been Lee it would have been someone else.

“I honestly don’t believe it could have been averted but perhaps the learning from the report is what we can do with the information we’ve gleaned from this sad murder of my nephew.”

Lee Rigby was murdered in broad daylight near Woolwich Barracks, south east London, in May 2013.

Muslim converts Adebolajo, then 29, and Adebowale, then 22, were convicted of his murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.