Strong Crypto Is Not The Problem: Manchester And London Attackers Were Known To The Authorities

from the adding-hay-to-the-stack-makes-it-harder-to-find-the-needles dept

Soon after the attack in Manchester, the UK government went back to its “encrypted communications are the problem” script, which it has rolled out repeatedly in the past. But it has now emerged that the suicide bomber was not only known to the authorities, but that members of the public had repeatedly warned about his terrorist sympathies, as the Telegraph reports:

Counter Terrorism agencies were facing questions after it emerged Salman Abedi told friends that “being a suicide bomber was okay”, prompting them to call the Government’s anti-terrorism hotline.

Sources suggest that authorities were informed of the danger posed by Abedi on at least five separate occasions in the five years prior to the attack on Monday night.

Following the more recent attacks on London Bridge, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, has gone full banana republic dictator, declaring herself ready to rip up human rights “because terrorism”. But once more, we learn that the attackers were well known to the authorities:

London attack ringleader Khuram Butt was identified as a major potential threat, leading to an investigation that started in 2015, UK counterterrorism sources tell CNN.


Butt was seen as a heavyweight figure in al-Muhajiroun, whose hardline views made him potentially one of the most dangerous extremists in the UK, the sources said Tuesday. The investigation into Butt involved a “full package” of investigatory measures, the sources told CNN.

Butt was filmed in a 2016 documentary with the self-explanatory title “The Jihadis Next Door”, in which a black flag associated with ISIS was publicly unfurled in London’s Regent?s Park. Even though police were present during the filming, they did not follow up that incident, according to the Guardian:

Police did not make a formal request for footage or information from the makers of a Channel 4 documentary that featured Khuram Butt, one of the London Bridge attackers.

The broadcaster of The Jihadis Next Door said no police requests were made for film or programme maker’s notes to be handed over under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act or Terrorism Act.

The UK authorities were warned last year about another of the London Bridge attackers,Youssef Zaghba, by Italian counter-terrorism officials:

An Italian prosecutor who led an investigation into the London Bridge attacker Youssef Zaghba has insisted that Italian officials did send their UK counterparts a written warning about the risk he posed last year and monitored him constantly while he was in Italy.

Giuseppe Amato, the chief prosecutor in Bologna, who investigated Zaghba when he tried to travel from Italy to join Islamic State in Syria in March 2016, told the Guardian that information about the risk he posed was shared with officials in the UK.

Amato added that he personally saw a report that had been sent to London by the chief counter-terrorism official in Bologna about the Moroccan-born Italian citizen.

Manchester and London are not the only cases where the authorities were informed in advance about individuals. A 2015 article in The Intercept looked at ten high-profile terrorist attacks around the world, and found that in every single case, at least some of the perpetrators were already known to the authorities. Strong encryption is not the problem: it is the inability of the authorities to act on the information they have that is the problem. That’s not to suggest that the intelligence services and police were incompetent, or that there were serious lapses. It’s more a reflection of the fact that far from lacking vital information because of end-to-end encryption, say, the authorities have so much information that they are forced to prioritize their scarce resources, and sometimes they pursue the wrong leads and miss threats.

We wrote about this problem back in 2014, when an FBI whistleblower confirmed what many have been trying to explain to governments keen to extend their surveillance powers: that when you are looking for a needle, adding more hay to the stack makes things worse, not better. What is needed is less mass surveillance, and a more targeted approach. Until Theresa May and leaders around the world understand and act on that, it is likely that more attacks will occur, carried out by individuals known to the authorities, and irrespective of whether they use strong crypto or not.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “Strong Crypto Is Not The Problem: Manchester And London Attackers Were Known To The Authorities”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Worth noting in the context of the US "travel ban"

Every terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11/2001, and including 9/11/2001, was performed by either (a) US citizens or (b) citizens of countries NOT on the proposed ban list.

So it’s not just enough to avoid creating a haystack where none needs to exist, it’s important to look at the right needles, not the ones that are convenient or politically expedient.

Anonymous Coward says:

Even though police were present during the filming, they did not follow up that incident

Ah yes, the police did not follow up on the "incident" in which a documentary (freedom of press) was being filmed about a fringe religious movement in the UK (freedom of religion) and a flag was unfurled in a public area (freedom of speech).

Obviously the only freedom that techdirt cares about right now is that freedom which is exercised over HTTP(S). Police demand information about your internet activity, bad. Police demand information about your activity irl, well why didn’t they do more of that, @#$%ing incompetent law enforcement…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Bu that is precisely the problem. Police cannot and will not follow up after every threat out there. There is simply too many things considered a threat! They intentionally leave those concepts (threat) as wide as possible to give them control and power over the population but now it is biting them on the ass, as everything and anyone could be a threat, even their own journalists, their own citizens, flags, documentaries, everything could be a threat! They are being played at their own game.
Lets remind ourselves that the true origins of all those people from different ethnicity and religions living in the UK and other western countries is the result of those western countries doing war on the original territories from when those immigrants come.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Ah yes, the police did not follow up on the “incident” in which a documentary (freedom of press) was being filmed about a fringe religious movement in the UK (freedom of religion) and a flag was unfurled in a public area (freedom of speech).”

You may wish to read the differences between UK and US law, it might be enlightening.

Plus, your rambling misses the point (what a surprise!). Nobody’s saying that these actions are illegal in and of themselves. They’re saying that when you have a guy openly advocating the things he was advocating, he might be someone you wish to look at a bit deeper before he does something that’s actually illegal.

I also notice that you focus on this one aspect of this one person, rather than addressing the other things reported on in the article. You also don’t address the actual focus of the article – that crypto has nothing to do with these guys carrying out their actions, despite the claims of those who wish to censor us. Almost as if you cherry pick whatever your feeble mind thinks is easiest to attack, then ignore other pertinent facts.

“Police demand information about your internet activity, bad. Police demand information about your activity irl, well why didn’t they do more of that, @#$%ing incompetent law enforcement…”

Actually, it’s more like – police want powers to gain blanket access to everybody’s internet access at any time without due process, bad. Police have a specific lead to follow up about a specific person utilising established methods that involve due process but fail to do so, incompetence.

But, as ever, the truth is too complicated for you to process, so you invent a simplistic fiction instead.

Anonymous Coward says:

“The war for the Internet has begun” – Kim Dotcom, in 2012

Actually, the war began with 9/11 (2001), which had nothing to do with the Internet.

If you replace “terrorism/terrorists/criminals/bad guys” with “privacy/activists/whistle blowers/journalists/dissidents” in every piece of news, then everything will make sense: ‘the war’ is about total control over (world) population.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Job not done, but we're not done yet

On one hand, the authorities knew about potential threats, yet did apparently nothing, or not enough, about those threats.

On the other hand, could it be possible that those threats never did anything illegal which would allow the authorities to arrest them? Appearing to be a threat, and being a threat are not the same. This does not mean those apparent threats should not or could not be closely watched.

So the question becomes, do the authorities want to prevent the threats, or just lock up anyone that threatens them (for political reasons (embarrassment) rather than presenting danger to others)? The authoritarian’s behavior suggests the latter.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Sounds more like bullshit. A full package of investigatory measures equates to absolutely ZERO if the attack actually took place!

In fact, I would say the opposite, kill all those investigatory measures, as they clearly don’t stop anyone form doing anything, and are just a waste of resources.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Bingo. Constant threat is part of the business model. A cloak of “national security” to hide corruption behind can only be justified if we are at “war”. To that end perpetual war and the concomitant blowback is now policy. A police state is the deliberate agenda. It is not an accident or an unfortunate, regrettable necessity.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I hate various aspects of my job as well, especially if someone raises an issue that my own monitoring systems have missed. My reaction to that is to look into the problem anyway, improve my monitoring so that it doesn’t get missed next time and deal with the results. I don’t sulk, ignore the alerts then complain when an attack happens anyway, and the consequences of me failing at my job are a hell of a lot less important than what’s happened here.

If the actual takeaway is “UK authorities sulked and ignored the warnings because the Italians were telling them where to look”, heads should seriously roll.

Anonymous Coward says:

and exactly why there is no need AT ALL for greater measures to be put in place that spy on everyone! they cant even contain the fuckers they know about in advance! it proves that the reason for tighter communication control is so the government knows when it is going to be put under the microscope and absolutely nothing to do with stopping terrorism!!

Anonymous Coward says:

“which a black flag associated with ISIS was publicly unfurled in London’s Regent’s Park”

So what? I thought UK was free country!

No, no, no, this type of “OMG” attitude, criticism or weak moral will not help any one.

Say it like it is. All those people that have migrated to UK and elsewhere as a consequence of the war on all those countries made by UK and others. What did they expect? That people just stayed in Syria or Afghanistan just waiting for a bomb to fall over their heads? Of course not, people migrate away from war.

That situation of migration was seized by some few extremists to migrate to UK and such. It is UK’s own fault that this is happening. They forced all those people to migrate, thanks to their wars, and some extremist seized the opportunity to migrate too.

Now UK citizens will have to pay with their rights and liberties (and some paranoia too). Way to go UK!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This is a classic “blame the victim” post, right? The UK, with a long and proud history, is certainly not blameless or spotless, no nation is. But who would wish or justify suicide bombers to come and kill young girls or stab diners in any nation? What kind of nut job wacko would reverse this tragedy and blame the country being attacked by suicidal terrorists FOR the suicidal terrors.

This is kind of the definition of “aiding and abetting the enemy”, right? My guess is MI-5 will be reviewing this class of post to determine who is behind it, and what their motives are. Tell me, anonymous coward, are you actually a radical Islamic terrorist promoting your cause on this very web site?

Do you even know who the “Lion of London Bridge” is? Go explain to him about your opinion of the UK. I think he might help you distinguish reality from your misguided imagination. Are you ready to defend others, as he was? Care to comment on his stature in the UK community, you cowardly nut job?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“So what? I thought UK was free country!”

With some exceptions. Rules against hate speech, for example, are stricter than in the US.

“That people just stayed in Syria or Afghanistan just waiting for a bomb to fall over their heads? Of course not, people migrate away from war.”

The attackers in Manchester and London were – 2 UK born sons of refugees, 2 Moroccans and one Pakistani.

I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s a lot more complicated than “upheaval caused by recent refugees from recent actions”.

“Now UK citizens will have to pay with their rights and liberties”

Only if we let them. Hopefully, we’re moving away from that as the recent election appears to show we’re not going to simply swallow what the Tories are shovelling without a fight any longer.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

They haven't learned a thing...

…from the Lee Rigby case, where the unfortunate soldier’s assailants were known to the authorities and a report stated that having too much data to sift through got in the way of preventing Rigby’s murder.

Is this a by-product of failed neoliberal ideology or is it deliberate, to turn Britain into a right wing tyranny? We’re already getting jailed for making rude speech. Why are they more interested in arresting people for teaching their dog to do a Nazi salute than in tracking down terrorists? Why strain a gnat when you can swallow a camel?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: They haven't learned a thing...

Wendy, by “rude speech”, do you mean speech like this:

“It’s pretty damn convenient that at a time when we’re pushing back against mass surveillance, a terrorist is permitted (yes, I said “permitted”) to attack the public in the hope that we’ll pretty much beg them to increase their activities.”

That’s your speech, right, Wendy? You said terrorists were “permitted”, would you like to back that up? Some people actually defend the government, and defend fellow citizens, like the Lion of London Bridge, did you read about him? He defended his country and his fellow citizens. Would you defend your own country or your fellow citizens? It does not sound like you would. It sounds like you are accusing your own country of something really terrible. Is that how you feel, Wendy? Your country is not worth defending?

Talmyr (profile) says:

Re: Re: They haven't learned a thing...

You sound like one of those terrible “my country, right or wrong” types.

It is perfectly possible to love your country, yet critique how (parts of) it handles stuff. You can support those of your fellow citizens worthy of respect while roasting those who aren’t. You can hold those who claim higher powers and responsibilities to account, to make sure the live up to them and don’t abuse them without “hating” or “disrespecting” your country/police/politicians/social structures…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: They haven't learned a thing...

IMHO, when you say terrorists are “permitted” to attack the public, and then go to the trouble to emphasize it specifically, you are making a very strong and terrible accusation. Really terrible, no kidding at all, very serious, troubling and undermining of the very fabric that holds any country together. Imagine if that statement were true. Who was not rise up to overthrow a government that permits terror attacks on their people? If you make such an accusation, I believe you should be ready to back it up, or apologize. From that point of view, yes, “right or wrong”. Which way is it, Wendy? Do you really believe what you wrote or do you want to apologize? Or will you just avoid the question now and plant more of your hateful anti-government propaganda later?

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