Don't believe what you read in the papers

Yesterday the heads of “MI5”, “MI6” and GCHQ appeared before the Intelligence Security Committee of Parliament. The uncorrected transcript of their evidence is now online (or you can watch the video).

One of the questions fielded by Andrew Parker (“MI5”) was how many terrorist plots there had been over the past ten years. According to the uncorrected transcript (and this accords with listening to the video — question starts at 34:40) he said:

I think the number since… if I go back to 2005, rather than ten years… 7/7 is that there have been 34 plots towards terrorism that have been disrupted in this country, at all sizes and stages. I have referred publicly and previously, and my predecessors have, to the fact that one or two of those were major plots aimed at mass casualty that have been attempted each year. Of that 34, most of them, the vast majority, have been disrupted by active detection and intervention by the Agencies and the police. One or two of them, a small number, have failed because they just failed. The plans did not come together. But the vast majority by intervention.

I understand that to mean 34 plots over 8 years most but not all of which were disrupted, rather than just discovered. Of these, one or two per year were aimed at causing mass casualties (that’s 8 to 16 of them). I find it really quite surprising that such a rough guess of 8 to 16 major plots was not remarked upon by the Committee — but then they were being pretty soft generally in what they asked about.

The journalists who covered the story heard this all slightly differently, both as to how many plots were foiled by the agencies and how many were aimed at causing mass casualties!

The BBC report has:

Andrew Parker, who handles agents within the UK, told the committee a total of 34 terror plots had been foiled since 2005 including “one or two” plots aimed at causing mass casualties.

The Guardian report has:

Andrew Parker, director of MI5, said that since 2005 and the 7/7 attacks, 34 separate plots had been foiled, including one that would have created mass casualties.

The Times (behind paywall) only has:

Thirty-four terrorist plots had been foiled in the UK since the July 7 bombings in 2005.

The Daily Mail gets it more right than most in the story:

At least 34 terrorist plots have been thwarted in Britain since the July 7 bombings in 2005, the head of MI5 has revealed. Andrew Parker said ‘one or two a year’ were designed to cause ‘mass casualties’ among the public.

but wrong in the headline !

Britain has faced 34 terror plots since 7/7 bombings including ‘one or two’ designed to cause ‘mass casualties’, head of MI5 reveals.

The Express goes with a headline that starts SPIES UNCOVERED! (which is a new meaning of ‘spies’ for me) and yes, they DO LIKE CAPITALS:

BRITAIN’S secret services have foiled 34 terrorist plots since the July 7 London bombings in 2005, the head of MI5 revealed today.

The Mirror has:

MI5’s director general Andrew Parker confirmed security services have foiled 34 attempted terror plots since the attacks on London’s tube and bus network on July 7 2005. One or two of the foiled plots were designed to cause mass casualties. The majority were thwarted by the actions of the intelligence and security agencies.

The Telegraph starts by getting it almost right:

A total of 34 terror plots, some of which were described as “major”, have been disrupted in the UK since the July 7 attacks.

and then quotes Andrew Parker as follows and so gets it correct in the end:

“I’ve referred publicly that one or two of those are major plots aimed at mass casualty that have been attempted each year. Of that 34, most of them have been disrupted by active detection and intervention by the agencies and the police. One or two of them have failed because they just failed. The plans didn’t come together.”

Abroad, the New York Times (some paywall) also does pretty well:

Mr. Parker repeated that the agencies had disrupted 34 plots to cause domestic harm since the bomb attacks on London in July 2005, with one or two each year intending to cause mass casualties.

So as ever, don’t believe what you read in the newspapers (even quality ones like the Grauniad, who went for “1” rather than “1 or 2” or what was actually said, which amounted to “8 to 16”) — they’re applying their own biases and hearing what they want to hear.

Of course Andrew Parker may have misspoken and meant “just one or two of the 34”, we’ll have to wait for the corrected transcript for that. But in the meantime we really should expect our press to tell us what actually happened.

6 thoughts on “Don't believe what you read in the papers

  1. I’m not sure it is fair to object to the “rough guess” of total number that would have caused mass casualties. Parker is referring to disrupted operations. He knows exactly how many were disrupted, but there is some speculation and subjective interpretation as to what effect would have occurred, or had been intended, had they not been disrupted. Areas of vagueness include the planners’ precise intent (whether it was known to authorities, or even if it was definitely settled in their own minds); the likely effect had the attack gone ahead; and even the meaning of “mass” in this context. Hence the latter figure is merely an estimate.

    What is more interesting is Parker’s intent in the structure of his reply. There are people who are opposed to government counter-terrorism policy for a variety of reasons, but including a currently fairly widespread view that the terrorism threat is insignificant and requires no special policy. So when Parker says there have been 34 plots foiled, he realises that many readers will think “Gee, that’s quite a lot, I hadn’t known there were so many!”; but some will immediately attempt to rationalise their opposition. Typically in the past this has been done by suggesting that the foiled “plots” would have been minor acts of civil disobedience rather than bloody outrages; or that the terrorists were disgruntled loners, bunglers who could have achieved little anyway.

    Hence, Parker forestalls these objections by noting that at least some (at least 8!) were to have been massacres; and also suggesting that the incomptetence rate is around 3 – 6%.

    The misrepresentations in the papers are a little sadder. It seems clear that they have all taken reasonable care when presenting an exact quote, but some have stumbled when summarising. They have skimmed the second sentence (which admittedly is not compleltely trivial to parse, if read carelessley) and not realised that the dependent clause refers to the time period in the first sentence.

    This is sad because it is difficult to believe that it can have been caused by a simple failure of written comprehension. These people are professional writers after all, and the sentence is not hugely dense. Rather, the error must have been caused by rapid, careless reading — which suggests that most papers considered this to be such a minor story, it was unworthy of more than a few minutes’ work.

  2. IT would be interesting to compare these MI5 figures to the yearly “EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report” (TE-SAT) published by Europol.

  3. @Roger: odd, I’d go the other way; 34 plots over 8 years isn’t many, and I find it surprising that only one or two per year were intended to cause mass casualties. Also note that, unless all of the latter plots were improbably effective (think 9/11 or better) the total death rate would still be statistically insignificant. These numbers really don’t represent any kind of existential threat.

    (Of course, it’s possible that most people wouldn’t realize that, so if you are intending to suggest that his goal was to play up the threat without actually misrepresenting it, you could well have a point?)

  4. I don’t think it’s at all clear whether he intended to say that there were one or two major plots, or one or two major plots per year. The quote actually says …the fact that one or two of those were major plots aimed at mass casualty…, which on its face seems to be saying that one or two of those 38 plots were major. The way that “have been attempted each year” is tacked onto the end only serves to confuse matters – perhaps there were only one or two major plots, but those plots involved multiple failed attempts over several years? It would have been better if he’d been asked to clarify that point.

  5. The implicit assumption surrounding these figures is that the number of successful/failed/foiled terror plots in a particular time frame is an indicator for the severity of the terror threat we face.

    Is this really the case?

    If you assume the number of wannabe jihadists has remained constant (or increased) since 7/7 (or 9/11), but that the security services have been effective in preventing them from communicating and from plotting in larger groups, then you would expect a shift from a small number of very elaborate and well planned plots, to a larger number of “lone wolf” type plots with only one or two participants each.

    Judging by the examples of 9/11, 7/7 and the Wollwich attack, small groups and single attackers are disproportionately less effective at killing large numbers of people than larger groups.

    This suggest that an increasing number of plots may correlate with a decreasing threat from terrorism (as measured in potential/actual loss of life).

  6. What is a terrorist plot…

    If two people make a joke about blowing something up, is it a terrorist plot?

    What if one of these people is then “interviewed” at the airport the next time they travel and then decides that they would never be able to pull it off as the police must know something? So never start to plot in detail.

    Likewise someone could produce a very detail plot including site visits as they are deeming about publishing a novel, how does MI5/MI6 know if they should count it?

    I think calling the number “rough guess” is being truthful and we will never getting anything better then a “rough guess”.

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