In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, there’s been a lot of comment from the media about the failings of the security services that despite Tamerlan Tsarnaev having been interviewed by the FBI in 2011 about possible links to Islamic extremism, the leads weren’t followed up and opportunities to prevent the attack were missed.
Comment has followed a similar line in reporting on Jimmy Savile, the Philpotts and other stories where police, social services, security services and others apparently ‘knew’ of issues and yet failed to act.
To use my own force as an example, it’s important to understand how intelligence comes to us and how it can be used so that decisions to act, or not to act, can be appreciated in their proper context.
We gather intelligence from a variety of different sources including officers on the streets, external agencies and Crimestoppers to name but a few.
Hundreds of intelligence ‘logs’ will be received by the force on a daily basis concerning everything from serious criminal activity to licensing issues, ASB to fly-tipping.
As people let us know things for a variety of different reasons, reliability is always a big consideration when we decide what steps to take when a new log comes in.
Some of the information will be second or third hand, it may be rumour, could have been misinterpreted by the source or even deliberately false.
With the quality of intelligence varying so much, it’s not uncommon that the intelligence paints a contradictory picture.
We may ‘know’ all sorts of things but without verification, there may not be grounds to act there and then.
With something like Tsarnaev having been previously interviewed by the FBI, it may seem tempting to take the view ‘they suspected he had extremist connections and did nothing – wasn’t it obvious he was the sort of person who might plan an attack?’.
This view though doesn’t take into account the reliability of the information and misunderstands the context.
The FBI will likely have similar information of thousands of others, this isn’t to say that they should be ‘acting’ on said information though as often it will not be appropriate to do so.
Viewing the FBI’s 2011 interview of Tsarnaev and his subsequent link to the bombings as a failure is very difficult, principally because it raises the question of what steps could realistically have been taken in the circumstances.
Assuming the information was unverified and isolated, there’d likely be insufficient grounds to justify actions such as arrests, searches and surveillance.
There will be plenty of people in the UK as well as the States about whom similar intelligence will be held suggesting links to extremism. Any one of those people could potentially be planning a similar attack to that seen in Boston.
As was seen this week in the case of three men jailed for plotting terror attacks on Wootton Bassett, strong intelligence can lead to a strong case and police intervention.
Simply having some suggestion of a link to extremism though, especially through unconfirmed sources, is never going to give grounds to take immediate action and nor should it.
With hindsight, security services’ ‘knowledge’ of a threat may seem concerning but what would be far more concerning would be steps taken to act on every piece of information they hold, no matter how doubtful.
Seeking to do so may lead down a very dark path indeed with a large toll inflicted on civil liberties.
If anything, the example stresses how important it is that information is shared so that we have the quality of intelligence we need to act effectively.
A call you could make may represent the missing piece of the jigsaw that we’ve been looking for, so if you know something you think may be of use, please call us on 101 or speak to the Anti-Terrorist Hotline on 0800 789 321.
Apparently absent in the Tsarnaev case, the consequences of such missing pieces are all too apparent.