Security service harassment is part of a wider story, not just in the Woolwich killing, but in other cases where torture, rendition and death have been the result, reports John Rees
By John Rees
Woolwich murder suspect Michael Adebolajo appeared in court in Kenya in 2010
‘You can’t just say it’s the War on Terror’ say the critics of the anti-war movement, ‘because lots of people oppose the war but they don’t go and kill a soldier in the street!’
This is true. There has to be something which is more specific, that actually connects this individual with this act and more general political conditions for an explanation to be effective and credible.
The family of one of the Woolwich killers, Michael Adebolajo, are asking the same question: ‘Why did he suddenly flip?’
The answer that is now emerging, so much more complex and uncomfortable for the government than the initial knee-jerk Islamophobia, is that the security services have a more general policy of recruiting terror suspects.
More shockingly, this is not the only case where the security services have been at work and where their actions are leading to a loss of life.
In the Woolwich case these are the facts that are now clear: Michael Adebolajo was arrested on a trip to Kenya in 2010. He was said to be planning to join the Al Shabaab group in Somalia which has been accused of having links with Al Queda. He was tortured and sexually assaulted in prison. His relatives alerted local MPs and the Foreign Office. He was then released when, as the Kenyan paper The Nation reported, ‘it was established that his travel documents were genuine and he lacked a criminal record’.
When Adebolajo returned to Britain the security services tried to recruit him. His family were questioned by MI5. His brother was arrested at gunpoint and questioned on a visit to Saudi Arabia. His brother in law got the same treatment in Yemen and was questioned by MI5 when he came back to the UK.
These accounts are all the more credible because they are part of a pattern of the UK government and security services using foreign trips as a way of stripping UK residents of their citizenship, trying to recruit them to the security services, and then leaving them in mortal danger if they do not comply.
The Home Secretary Theresa May has already issued 16 orders which have stripped ‘terror suspects’ of their citizenship since she has been in post. This allows suspects to be excluded from the country and makes it easier for them to be designated as enemy combatants and to be targeted for assassination in special forces operations or by drone attacks. Two of those stripped of citizenship have already been killed.
Take the case of Mahdi Hashi, a former care worker from Camden in north London. The security services attempted to recruit him when he was just 19 years old. In circumstances frighteningly similar to those being described by Michael Adebolajo’s family Mahdi Hashi claims that he witnessed torture in an African prison, before being handed over to the CIA and forced to sign a confession.
He too was accused of working with Al Shabaab. Mahdi Hashi is now in a high-security US prison having been secretly ‘rendered’ from the African state of Djibouti last year. This was made possible because the British Government stripped him of his citizenship while he was in Somalia last summer.
The case is all the more sinister, as Chris Woods and others at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have reported, because Mahdi Hashi gave an interview to The Independent in 2009 in which he alleged that MI5 had attempted to recruit him. He claimed that ‘on a previous trip to Africa he was held for 16 hours in a cell at Djibouti airport, and that when he was returned to the UK he was met by an MI5 agent who told him his terror-suspect status would remain until he agreed to work for the Security Service. He alleges he was to be given the job of informing on his friends by encouraging them to talk about jihad.’
In two other cases the stripping of citizenship from terror suspects has led to their assassination by drone strikes.
Bilal al-Berjawi held dual British Lebanese citizenship and was brought to the UK as a baby. He grew up here. Like Mahdi Hashi and Michael Adebolajo he was accused of being involved with Al Shabaab. Like Mahdi Hashi he was stripped of his citizenship while he was out of the country, making it almost impossible for him to appeal.
He was wounded in the first known US drone strike in Somalia and last year he was assassinated by a drone strike. He had just phoned his wife to congratulate her on the birth of their baby. His family say drone operators could pinpoint his location by monitoring the call he made to his wife.
Mohamed Sakr was British born and a holder of British and Egyptian passports. He like his friend and travelling companion Bilal al-Berjawi was accused of being deeply involved with Al Shabaab. Like Hashi, Berjawi and Adebolajo he was known to the security services.UK intelligence officers took a close interest in him after he visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Dubai in 2007. He was then repeatedly targeted by counter-terrorism officers over a two-year period, according to reports.
Sakr was described by a senior Western intelligence officer as a “very senior Egyptian” member of Al Shabaab, but in reality he wasn’t born in Egypt but in Britain, and held a UK passport. He had once run a car valeting business in London.
Teresa May removed his citizenship and he too was killed in a US airstrike in February 2012. The strike happened south of Somalia’s capital, a day after the country’s Prime Minister called for foreign air strikes against the terror group al-Shabaab.
Perhaps it is true, as the security services claim, that some of these people are planning terrorist acts. In which case the evidence should be presented in court and a jury allowed to decide guilt or innocence. But they should not be recruited to the same security services. And there should not be an extra-judicial process of removing citizenship before a trial, let alone government condoned assassination. And not the least reason for this is because it produces the kind of blowback we have seen in Woolwich.
There are two other general political conditions which have created the environment where this kind of thing happens.
The first is the existence of the government initiated Prevent scheme, or to give it its full name, Preventing Violent Extremism. This scheme is essentially a snooping operation that channels funds to ‘approved’ organisations within the Muslim community. It was the subject of intense parliamentary criticism at the end of the last Labour government, but it’s essential elements have remained in place under Cameron. It encourages exactly the kind of ‘recruitment’ of informers that we have seen in all the above cases.
The second issue is the spread of the War or Terror to Africa. A western intervention is underway to fight Islamists in Mali. The British government has made a priority of dealing with terrorism in Somalia. Only a few weeks ago the British government hosted an international conference in London where it feted the new (and unelected) government of Somalia and promised aid to combat Al Shabaab.
Join the dots: a major push on the war on terror in Africa, particularly against Al Shabaab, and security services and government using prerogative powers and sympathetic dictatorships to strip UK citizens of the rights, condone torture, attempt recruitment and turn a blind eye to assassination and rendition.
What happened at Woolwich? It all went wrong when Michael Adebolajo ‘flipped’. Certainly he is responsible for Lee Rigby’s death. But others are responsible for creating the conditions in which he ‘flipped’. And they are also responsible for other deaths in other places, as a matter of policy. Why? Because, to coin a phrase, it’s the war, stupid. Other innocent lives will be lost unless the whole war on terror, including the secret war of the security services, is stopped.