There’s good news and bad news in the twin terrorist outrages of the horrific running over and hacking to death of a British soldier and the Boston Marathon bombings. The good: intelligence agencies had some of these young terrorists on their radar. The bad news: having them on the radar did little good since the murderers still successfully completed their planned butchery.
Woolwich, a district in South East London, was recently the scene for a new kind of brutal terrorist act when Michael Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Adebowale, 22, reportedly Muslims of Nigerian descent, ran their vehicle over off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby, 25. They then proceeded to jump out and hack him to death in broad daylight with meat cleavers.
A bystander captured video images that zipped through the Internet and televisions worldwide, fulfilling one of democracies’ nightmares. There was Adebolajo, minutes after butchering the father of one, holding a knife and meat cleaver in his bloodied hands, declaring: “You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don’t care about you.” Bright, red blood could be seen literally flowing down the street. The two killers waited nearly 20 minutes before police came and they were shot and injured.
Was the wait a coincidence or part of a plan to send a message? Not known yet. Did Adebolajo come out of the blue as the world’s latest terrorist symbol? That is known and the answer is “no.”
Questions are now swirling around the British news media and in Parliament after reports indicating Abedolajo was most assuredly not a stranger. According to reports, British intelligence agencies knew for more than two years that Abedolajo had ties to Al Qaeda. The BBC: “The UK Foreign Office confirmed it had given consular assistance to suspect Mr. Adebolajo when he was arrested in Kenya in 2010. Mr. Adebolajo’s childhood friend, Abu Nusaybah, also told BBC Newsnight that MI5 had once asked Mr. Adebolajo to work for the agency, but that he had rejected the approach.”
That has yet to be confirmed, but it’s clear Adebolajo was not just a blip on intelligence agencies’ screens. He reportedly tried to enter Somalia to join up with extremists there twice. Meanwhile, so far 10 persons have been arrested in the Woolwich murder in what some fear could be a new terrorist tactic: suddenly pounce on and murder a symbolic victim to gain media coverage. These days, it seems, everyone wants audience share.
In the case of Boston Marathon bomber-killer Tamerlan Tsarnaev, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reported that the FBI had interviewed him in 2011 at the request of a “foreign government” now said to be Russia. The reason: to see if he had any extremist ties but the agency didn’t see any linkage. According to Fox News, a distrustful Russia withheld critical information from the FBI that could have led the FBI to act to avert the tragedy.
The girlfriend of one of three men brutally killed in a Waltham, Massachusetts apartment, a killing in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev is increasingly a suspect, told the Boston Globe that Tsarnaev told them the FBI had put him on a terrorist watch list and “we never took it seriously.’’
Woolwich and Boston suggest a possible pattern among intelligence agencies in several countries. They either sit on potentially vital information about potential terrorist security threats or balk at sharing it or taking it to the next surveillance level. Democracies may soon have to seriously assess whether they need to re-calibrate that point of actionable intelligence when they demand cooperation between agencies and intelligence services to combat common threats.
Intelligence agencies need to ponder these missed warning signs. This wasn’t just failing to connect the dots. This was failing to see the LINES.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org