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U.K. Panel Finds ‘Litany of Errors’ in Response to Terrorist Attacks

Category: Politics,War & Conflict

LONDON — A damning parliamentary report released on Thursday raised questions about the way Britain tracked terrorism suspects, accusing the authorities of moving too slowly to forestall one of five major jihadist attacks in 2017 and finding a “litany of errors” in the handling of another.

The report by the cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee — titled “The 2017 Attacks: What Needs to Change?” — offered an unusual admission by MI5, the domestic security service, that it had made a mistake in not tracking the suspect in a lethal Manchester bombing.

The report also offered a sharp counterpoint over all to the portrait offered by security and policing agencies of their successes in foiling terrorist plots. The conspiracies have proliferated since July 7, 2005, when suicide bombers killed 52 subway and bus travelers in London.

The parliamentary report drew some broad conclusions, saying that the police and the security services were not sharing information as efficiently as they should and criticizing official efforts to persuade big technology companies to remove jihadist material from their platforms.

“The lessons from last year’s tragic events must now result in real action,” the committee said.

Such is the scale of the challenge to fight terrorism, the authorities say, that 700 investigations are underway into some 3,000 suspects regarded as a serious threat, along with an additional 20,000 considered to be causing concern.

The police and MI5 say that they have thwarted 13 plots since March 2017, but the parliamentary panel focused on five attacks last year that claimed the lives of 36 victims.

The bloodiest of the attacks occurred on May 22, 2017, when Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old Briton of Libyan descent, blew himself up at a concert by Ariana Grande in the northwestern city of Manchester, killing 22 people, including several children.

Mr. Abedi had been known to the authorities because he had visited a jailed extremist in prison and had traveled to Libya from 2011 onward, the report said. But in 2015, the authorities judged him as posing a low risk.

In 2017, however, the authorities came to believe that he should be investigated to determine “whether he had re-engaged in Islamist extremist activity,” the report said.

A meeting to discuss the issue was scheduled to take place on May 31, 2017 — but nine days before that date, Mr. Abedi attacked the concert.

The authorities had failed to place Mr. Abedi’s name on a watch list, and he was able to “return undetected to the U.K. in the days before he carried out the attack,” the authors of the panel’s report said in a separate news release. “MI5 have since admitted that, given the information they had on Abedi, they should have done so.”

Some parts of the report were redacted on security grounds. An unredacted version was to be delivered to Prime Minister Theresa May. The news release said that there was a further issue concerning Mr. Abedi that “we cannot comment on publicly due to the highly sensitive security aspect.”

The report also found that Khuram Butt, 27, one of three men who killed eight people on or near London Bridge on June 3, 2017, had been arrested in October 2016 on suspicion of banking fraud but was released for lack of evidence.

MI5 officers were “minded to close the investigation, but decided first to increase coverage in order to ensure that they had a full picture of the risk posed by Butt.” They were still discussing the issue when the attack took place.

The police shot dead all three attackers, who had first run over pedestrians in a van and then stabbed people on the street. The use of a vehicle in the attack echoed the actions of Khalid Masood, who drove an S.U.V. into pedestrians near Parliament and stabbed to death a police officer before he was shot to death in March 2017.

It had taken MI5 six years to identify Mr. Masood after his phone number was linked to a separate investigation, and he had been in contact with “known extremists,” the report said, suggesting that the agency had not done enough to “join the dots” between pieces of information.

The report reserved its harshest criticism for the handling of events in September 2017, when Ahmed Hassan, a teenage Iraqi asylum seeker, tried to blow up a subway train in West London. His device failed to detonate, but it did flare, wounding more than 50 people who were either burned or hurt in the ensuing stampede to leave the train.

The committee said that it had been unable to gain access to evidence about the attack from the Home Office and other authorities. But it concluded that there had been “fundamental failings” in the handling of the case, resulting in a “litany of errors.”

The fifth major attack in 2017 came in June, when Darren Osborne drove a vehicle into a crowd near an Islamic center in north London. One person was killed and 10 others wounded. The report said that Mr. Osborne — who was convicted of murder and sentenced to more than 40 years in prison for the assault — had a criminal history dating to 1984 but had not been investigated about his ties to extremism.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the head of the counterterrorism police, said officers would not allow “the terrorists who carried out these appalling attacks to succeed in scaring and dividing us.”

Sajid Javid, the home secretary, who has political authority over MI5, said the security services had updated their counterterrorism strategy and were “ensuring technology companies play their part by stopping terrorists from exploiting their platforms.”

But the parliamentary panel said it was “striking how many of the issues, which arose in relation to the 2017 terrorist attacks, have been previously raised by this committee.”

“We have previously made recommendations in all these areas and yet the government failed to act on them,” it added.


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