In May, 2013, a British Army soldier, Lee Rigby, was killed on a suburban London street by two Muslim British citizens, who said they were acting to avenge years of killings of innocent Muslims by the British military in, among other places, Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the attackers, Michael Adebolajo, had also been detained and tortured in 2010 in Kenya with the likely complicity of Her Majesty’s Government. The brutal attack on Rigby was instantly branded “terrorism” (despite its targeting of a soldier of a nation at war) and caused intense and virtually universal indignation in the UK.
In response, the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee resolved to investigate why the attack happened and whether it could have been prevented. Ensuring that nothing undesirable would occur, the investigation was led by the Committee’s chair, the long-time conservative government functionary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Yesterday, Sir Malcolm’s Committee issued its findings in a 191-page report. It contains some highly predictable conclusions, but also some quite remarkable ones.
Predictably, the report, while offering some criticisms, completely cleared the British intelligence agencies of any responsibility for the attack. It concluded: “we do not consider that any of the Agencies’ errors, when taken individually, were significant enough to have affected the outcome,” and “we do not consider that, given what the Agencies knew at the time, they were in the position to prevent the murder.”
But while British intelligence agencies bear no blame, the Committee identified the real culprit, which it claimed could have – but culpably failed – to stop the attack: an unnamed U.S. social media company (now reported to be Facebook). The Committee noted that one of Rigby’s killers, Michael Adebowale, had an online conversation (presumably on Facebook) with an “individual overseas” in December, 2012, in which Adebowale said “that he intended to murder a soldier.”
Sir Malcolm’s Committee claimed that the British intelligence agencies such as GCHQ and MI5 – despite being among the most aggressive and unrestrained electronic surveillance forces on the planet – had no possible way to have accessed that exchange. But, the Committee said, the social media company not only had the ability – but also the duty – to monitor the communications of all its users and report anything suspicious to the UK Government. Its failure to do so in this case, claimed the report, was the proximate cause of why the attack was not stopped (had the British agencies had access to this exchange, “there is a significant possibility that MI5 would then have been able to prevent the attack”).
All of this, argued the report, underscores how social media companies have become terrorist-helpers due to their refusal to monitor and report their users’ communications to the British Government.