Outdated intelligence tactics allowing UK terror threat to grow – Davis

Disrupting instead of prosecuting terror suspects such as Mohammed Emwazi leaves them free to ‘carry out evil deeds’, says former shadow home secretary

Britain’s intelligence agencies are leaving known terrorists to “carry out evil deeds” through a flawed approach which focuses on disrupting rather than prosecuting suspects, the former shadow home secretary David Davis has warned.

As the agencies faced fresh questions over their handling of Islamic State extremist Mohammed Emwazi, Davis claimed that their tactics had allowed the terror threat to grow.

“Given the numbers who appear to have ‘slipped through the net’, it is legitimate to ask, how many more people must die before we start to look more closely at the strategy of our intelligence services?” he wrote in a Guardian article.

Davis’s intervention came after David Cameron pledged to use the full force of the British state to put the likes of Emwazi “out of action” to prevent extremists committing “appalling and heinous crimes”.

In his first public comments since Emwazi was named on Thursday as the masked extremist who beheaded western journalists and aid workers, the prime minister said the police and security services would use all their resources to track down extremists “anywhere in the world” that pose a threat to British citizens.

Speaking during a visit to Cardiff, Cameron declined to comment on individuals but said the police and security services would not rest until such extremists had been stopped: “When there are people anywhere in the world who commit appalling and heinous crimes against British citizens, we will do everything we can, with the police, with security services, with all that we have at our disposal, to find these people and put them out of action. That is the number one priority for me.”

Downing Street and the London mayor, Boris Johnson, reacted furiously to the claim on Thursday that Emwazi’s detention and interrogation by the security services would have made him liable to radicalisation.

Asim Qureshi, the research director for Cage, which campaigns on behalf of communities affected by the “war on terror”, confirmed that Emwazi had approached the group after he was sent back from Tanzania in 2009 by security services there and questioned by an MI5 agent in the Netherlands.

Qureshi described Emwazi as “a beautiful young man” who was an “extremely kind, extremely gentle” young person.

Johnson described Cage as “apologists for terror” while Downing Street said the criticisms of the intelligence agencies were “completely reprehensible”.

In his Guardian article, Davis condemned Emwazi as “evil and delusional”, distancing himself from Cage’s description of the 26-year-old. But he said the intelligence agency tactics highlighted by Cage were counter-productive.

Davis said the Islamic State videos, which feature Emwazi glorifying in the beheadings, are the sixth example since 9/11 of atrocities launched by terror suspects known to the authorities in the UK, US and the EU, reflecting a “worrying pattern”.

He warned of long-established practices in the UK, dating back to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in which intelligence agencies “relied on disruption and interference more than prosecution and imprisonment”. Davis gave the example of Michael Adebolajo, one of the men who murdered the soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013, whose family claimed he had been “pestered” by MI5.

“The problem is not new,” Davis wrote. “The fact is that the intelligence services have long utilised tactics that have proved ineffective. The issue dates back at least to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where the intelligence agencies relied on disruption and interference more than prosecution and imprisonment.

“One of the results of this policy is that it leaves known terrorists both to carry out evil deeds and to recruit more conspirators. As a result, the problem on the street grows progressively larger.”

Davis said the UK should follow the example of the US where the authorities are required by law to pursue and convict people who endanger the public: “Unfortunately, for a variety of institutional reasons Britain has never been quite so robust in its counter-terrorism policies.”

The secret services have been reticent about publicly rebutting accusations by Cage that Emwazi was radicalised by MI5 harassment and that the agency was culpable in failing to prevent him from leaving the country for Syria. But Sir John Sawers, who retired as chief of MI6 late last year and, unlike his former colleagues, can now speak out, rejected the charges.

In an interview with Radio 4’s Today programme due to be broadcast on Saturday morning, Sawers declines to comment on named individuals. But he says: “In general I think those are very specious arguments. By an approach, if that’s what happens, you give an opportunity to the individual to draw back from the terrorist groups that he – it’s usually a he, sometimes a she – is about to mix with and you also give them a warning. But the idea that somehow being spoken to by a member of MI5 is a radicalising act, I think this is very false and very transparent.”

Sawers says the agencies would face intense criticism if they failed to monitor suspects. “They [the agencies] would be more subject to criticism if someone came and committed an atrocity in this country or elsewhere who they had no knowledge of whatsoever.

“They are doing their professional job by being aware of these people. But there are probably several thousand of these individuals of concern and the numbers are rising as people go to Syria and Iraq and are radicalised out there.”

It is not clear whether Emwazi was on a watch list that would have barred him from travelling overseas. It is hard in theory to impose a travel ban and even harder in reality, with exit relatively easy, especially with a fake passport, on ferries and planes if no 24-hour surveillance is in place.


Nicholas Watt, Ewen MacAskill, Randeep Ramesh and Ian Cobain

The GuardianTramp

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