Blaming them unfairly will make us all less safeby Karin von Hippel / June 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
Few would argue that the police and intelligence agencies should be above criticism. When (not if) bombs go off or people are killed in atrocious ways, it is right that questions are asked about systems and specifics: what was known? What was done?
As we all know, in 2001 the United States suffered the worst terrorist attacks in history. The Commission set up to investigate the attacks reported that the US failed, in many different ways and for many different reasons, to respond adequately to the looming threat from Al Qaida, even though clues were there.
It is now commonplace for terrorist attacks in the West, whether in France or Britain or the US, to be followed by a blame game in which the most urgent question seems to be: were the perpetrators on the radar? And if so, how did they slip through the net? Who dropped the ball? Did someone fail to join the dots? These simplistic metaphors, however, often reveal a lack of insight into how intelligence works and what it is for.
A monumental challenge
The police and agencies face a monumental challenge—in terms of the scale and complexity of the threat, the volumes of data available to them, and the terrorists’ growing power to conceal their activity. We know that MI5 have 3,000 “subjects of interest” in terrorist investigations and a further 23,000 on record in terrorist cases.
In only a handful of cases will the police and MI5 be able to mount a comprehensive, intensive investigation. Even if the police and agencies received a massive, unprecedented injection of money and people, intelligence resources will still need to be ruthlessly prioritised to ensure that the coverage is allocated to the cases where the threat is judged to be greatest.
Compare today’s threat with the one many in the UK grew up with. The IRA was a small organisation: most estimates put it at less than a thousand active members, most of whom were based in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It operated in a fairly disciplined manner under leaders well-known to the authorities. It was subjected to a massive police, military and intelligence operation. In Northern Ireland, it had…