The murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby could not have been prevented despite his killers appearing in seven intelligence investigations, a report has found.
Although the parliamentary inquiry found errors in the operations, they were not “significant enough to have made a difference”.
It highlighted one online exchange, that the agencies did not have access to, that may have prevented the attack. The soldier was killed near Woolwich Barracks in London on 22 May 2013.
Michael Adebolajo was sentenced in February to a whole-life term and Michael Adebowale was jailed for a minimum of 45 years for the killing.
Adebolajo, and Adebowale – who were 29 and 22 years old respectively when sentenced – drove into Fusilier Rigby with a car before hacking him to death.
The Intelligence and Security Committee spent 18 months examining the actions of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in relation to the two men and produced the most detailed report it has ever published.
Among its findings:
- The two men appeared in seven different agency investigations – for the most part as low-level subjects of interest
- There were errors in these operations, where processes were not followed, decisions not recorded, or delays encountered
- Adebolajo was a high priority for MI5 during two operations: they put significant effort into investigating him and employed a broad range of intrusive techniques. None of these revealed any evidence of attack planning
- Adebowale was never more than a low-level subject of interest
- MI6's “apparent lack of interest” in Adebolajo's arrest in Kenya was “deeply unsatisfactory”. He was arrested in 2010, apparently preparing to fight with Somali militant group al-Shabab
The report's conclusion was “given what the agencies knew at the time, they were not in a position to prevent the murder of Fusilier Rigby”.
However the committee flagged up an online exchange between Adebowale and an overseas extremist, which only came to light after the attack.
In the exchange from December 2012, Adebowale expresses his intent to murder a soldier in a “graphic and emotive” manner.
Committee chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind said: “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.”
This remarkably detailed report finds fault with all three British intelligence agencies.
Each made mistakes. Investigations were not prioritised, reports not passed on.
And yet the conclusion argues that even with these in mind the attack could not have been stopped.
The committee denies that it was generous in its conclusions.
The signs are though that this report may be used as part of the government's push to gain more access to communications since it argues the strongest evidence came from a US internet company which did not pass on a crucial online exchange.
The report did not lay the blame at the door of the agencies but the “company on whose system the exchange took place”.
“This company does not regard themselves as under any obligation to ensure that they identify such threats, or to report them to the authorities,” he said.
“We find this unacceptable: however unintentionally, they are providing a safe haven for terrorists. “
The internet company was not named in the report.
Sir Malcolm said even if the agencies had sought access – under a warrant – before the attack, the company might not have responded.
“None of the major US companies we approached proactively monitor and review suspicious content on their systems, largely relying on users to notify them of offensive or suspicious content.
“We also found that none of them regard themselves as compelled to comply with UK warrants obtained under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
“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.”
Prime Minister David Cameron asked the Intelligence and Security Committee to carry out the investigation following the 25-year-old's death.