War on Terror

Should British Security Have Known Enough About Abedi's Threat to Prevent the Manchester Bombing?

Certain guarantees of security are simply impossible in a free society, and the more we widen the net of suspects via mass surveillance, the more impossible true protection gets.

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After Salman Abedi murdered 22 people outside a concert in Manchester earlier this month, disquieting reports indicated the government was already aware that Abedi was a serious terror threat.

: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via Foter.com / CC BY

The UK Telegraph reported that "security services missed five opportunities to stop" him.

Did they really, in a sense that advocates of a non-police-state should respect?

The Telegraph report insists that "authorities were informed of the danger posed by Abedi on at least five separate occasions in the five years prior to the attack on Monday night," including calls to an anti-terrorism hotline reporting that Abedi said to friends "being a suicide bomber was OK." Friends claimed they called in warnings on him five years ago, and again last year.

The Telegraph refers to the failure of such reports to lead to, one presumes, preventing Abedi from committing his crime as "apparent lapses."

"The Home Secretary conceded that Abedi was known the intelligence services," they reported.

An unnamed source insisted his own family reported him as "dangerous." And he traveled frequently to Libya—as free citizens who have not yet been arrested or convicted of a crime can do—where he may have been "trained in bombmaking." His father had been part of a Libyan radical army.

Part of the Telegraph's report claimed that a mosque Abedi attended, Didsbury Mosque, reported him to a government anti-radicalism program, though this week the BBC reports that that apparently wasn't true.

True or false, are the range of things the government supposedly "knew" as an overall entity about Abedi enough to trigger the sort of police action that could reasonably have been expected to prevent Abedi's heinous crime? Such action, it seems, would have either constituted preventive detention or the sort of one-agent-one-suspect tailing that perhaps could have seen him picking up the suicide vest before he used it.

The gap between "had knowledge he had a possible tendency to commit an act of terror" and the Telegraph's language of "opportunity to stop" is huge, and in that gap lie most of the human rights and rightful expectation of restrictions on police ability to roust or apprehend those who have not yet committed any crimes that constitute the expected relations between citizen and authority in modern Western civilization.

According to one survey last year done for a British Channel 4 documentary, there could be as many as 100,000 British Muslims who live in areas with high Muslim population who at least "sympathize" with suicide bombers, a subtly different point than believing personally being one was OK, but a figure that should at least hint at the general huge gap between an attitude like Abedi apparently expressed and actually acting on it (even though he was in the end one of the vanishingly tiny percentage of western Muslims who actually did commit the atrocity of suicide bombing).

Being "known" to have some risk of terror, like for example being on the U.S. terror watch list, is a quality that as many as a million people might share, according to the U.S. government. It simply can't in and of itself mark a person to be physically surveilled in all their actions to make sure they don't, say, manufacture a backpack bomb and walk to a crowded public place.

And the more people get "known" to have some sympathies or connections or links to terror, via more and more surveillance and call lines and more and more sucking up of fearful information on more and more people, the less useful that information is for the sort of policing that's supposed to guarantee no one ever commits sudden public mass murder.

As Scott Shackford reported in our March issue, the U.K. had already been strengthening and codifying its power to surveill its citizens, including:

create a "technical capability notice" giving U.K. officials the authority to demand changes to these products. And one of the things they're allowed to demand is the removal, upon request, of any "electronic protection" concealing users' communications or data. This means that private companies could be forced to break their own encryption to help the government access data. The law even authorizes such demands to be made on tech companies based outside the country if they do business within the United Kingdom. What's more, it prohibits those companies from so much as informing their users about the government's request unless the authorities gives the OK.

As the plethora of alleged terror threats who are only potentially harmful when government provocateurs encourage them to be indicate, it is almost certainly the case that there are tremendously more people who will mouth off hostility and anger and ill intent than will actually commit a mass-casualty, or any-casualty, act of terror.

It is neither particularly sensible, possible, nor respectful of traditional western liberties, to say that anyone who the police have any reason to believe has ever said the sort of things Abedi said should thus receive the sort of 24 hour physical tailing that would prevent him from being able to obtain a suicide vest and use it.

The state, with all the powers of surveillance at its disposal, cannot reliably stop this sort of small-cell one-man one-bomb murder attack. That's not because it is incompetent at doing a job it should be able to do, though that is certainly true of many things and would likely be true even if it could better genuinely target from its vast sea of "potential threats" the ones with serious intent and capacity.

Remembering that inability should help us avoid pursuing ever-more-intrusive policies that promise to do so. Because no such hoovering of information and multiplying of the suspicious could provide a sure protection against such acts. And imagine the officious waste of time and resources it would take to even pretend to keep a solid terror-preventing eye on everyone who has fallen into the Western security state's web of suspicion.

Even if in retrospect the state clearly "should have known this would happen," in a world of basic respect for the rights of people who have not in fact committed a crime or given specific signals of specific intent to do so, the state neither possibly could nor should provide the sort of blanket tight-focused physical surveillance that is the only thing that even conceivably could prevent atrocities of the sort that hit Manchester.

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  1. So, I’ve heard it explained umpteen times that the upside to granting the state scary-big surveillance powers is that we gain so much more safety from crazy dickheaded jihadists.

  2. “Even if in retrospect the state clearly “should have known this would happen,” in a world of basic respect for the rights of people who have not in fact committed a crime or given specific signals of specific intent to do so, the state neither possibly could nor should provide the sort of blanket tight-focused physical surveillance that is the only thing that even conceivably could prevent atrocities of the sort that hit Manchester.”

    WTF?

    1. It means that just because *someone says* you’re a bad ‘un doesn’t mean that you’re going to need (or we could afford) to endure cops following you everywhere ready to arrest you for the slightest misstep.

      If nothing else, the problem is – as its always been – sorting out the guys with big mouths from the guys who will end up doing shit. Just because your father says he thinks you’re dangerous doesn’t mean you are. Doesn’t mean you aren’t, but with increased surveillance comes a massive increase in false positives to the point that you can no longer be sure that someone who’s come to the security services attention is actually a bad ‘un instead of a shit-talker.

  3. OT: CNN host Alisyn Camerota just asked the city of Portland, WA sheriff if the tirade an accused stabber went on during his arraignment is the “downside of free speech”.

    This was just a few minutes ago. Most telling, the sheriff agreed with her.

    1. OT: CNN host Alisyn Camerota just asked the city of Portland, WA sheriff if the tirade an accused stabber went on during his arraignment is the “downside of free speech”.

      This was just a few minutes ago. Most telling, the sheriff agreed with her.

      Ironically, “The downside of free speech” is Allysin’s nickname at CNN.

  4. The WSJ ran a report yesterday about the commonalities of the 16 terrorists who perpetrated attacks in Europe over the last two years.

    http://on.wsj.com/2rzYxGN

    Short summary of statistics:

    Ten were being monitored as terrorist threats.

    Eight of the 16 either traveled to Syria to join ISIS or tried to travel to Syria.

    The most complicating fact is that 13 of the 16 were born in Europe.

    You can’t refuse reentry to citizens for traveling to Syria.

    You can’t screen out refugees would might be terrorists–if they haven’t been born yet.

    Your only left with restricting immigration and refugees from entering your country in the first place and declaring people who are known to have traveled to Syria to join Islamic State as enemy combatants.

    1. Except, in this case, he wasn’t *known to have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State as an enemy combatant*.

      1. Are you talking about Abedi?

        I was talking about all 16, what they did and didn’t have in common, etc.

        The interesting question to me is what sort of policies might put a dent in all these guys’ operations–not just one guy or the last one.

  5. Should British Security Have Known Enough About Abedi’s Threat to Prevent the Manchester Bombing?

    Yes.

  6. You seem fairly blas? about attempts to curb terrorism. I wonder how your opinion would change if you lost a loved in these myriad of attacks taking place. Even when faced with lowball polls on Muslims who sympathize with terrorist, you see zero incompatibility with Western values and Islam. And that is why people will keep dying. And you will keep telling us that it’s no big deal.

    1. If we keep freaking out about it and demanding the institution of policies that have been shown to have no effect – we can’t keep out Mexicans, how are we going to keep out anyone else? Remember that our border with Canada is patrolled with . . . cameras on the residential streets that run across the border – then there will certainly be no incompatibility between Western values and Islam as we’ll have just become the same sort of people.

      So yeah, I’ll take the tiny chance that one of my loved ones gets blown up over the massive change in Western Values that would be necessary to *still fail to protect us* but pay lip service to security while empowering another class of powermongers.

      1. Or you could just stop all legal immigration from countries with a high percentage of people who sympathize with terrorism. Oh, I forgot. According to Reason if we don’t accept another immigrate from Pakistan, our country will implode forever or something like that. My bad.

  7. I’ll say yes.

    If the government demands people forfeit freedom for security, then the security they provide best be amazing. Don’t want that level of obligation? Then don’t take away freedoms because of it.

  8. RE: Should British Security Have Known Enough About Abedi’s Threat to Prevent the Manchester Bombing?

    I’m sure Mr. Abedi is not a Muslim.
    Islam is the religion of peace.
    History has shown that many times over.

  9. I think most everyone understands you cannot stop lone wolf attacks completely but the answer is certainly not to open your borders to those that do not assimilate into American society. For those that say that most attackers are home grown I just have one question: Do you want violence from BOTH of these groups?

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