The investigation into Britain’s security services and whether they could have prevented the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby was called into question last night.
A 190-page parliamentary report into the role of the intelligence services was dramatically undermined as it emerged that MPs may not have been told the full details of how MI6 tried to recruit one of Rigby’s killers as a double agent.
Last week, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) cleared the security services of blame after suggestions that they could have prevented the killing of the soldier in Woolwich last year. However, security sources close to an operation tracking one of Rigby’s killers when he travelled to East Africa in 2010 have cast doubt on the validity of the ISC findings.
The revelations also raise serious questions about the accountability of Britain’s security services to Parliament at a time when they, with government support, are seeking greater powers to combat the threat from Islamic terror groups.
Michael Adebolajo, together with Michael Adebowale, murdered Rigby, 25, in a brutal attack outside Woolwich barracks, south-east London, in May 2013. MPs on the ISC, the parliamentary watchdog of the secret intelligence services, were told that Adebolajo had been known to them since 2006 after meeting radical Muslim figures and attending extremist meetings. They claimed interest in him waned until they were told he had been arrested in Kenya while trying to get to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked terror group.
However, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday shows that, contrary to what MPs were told, there is evidence that MI6 planned a complex operation to track him to Kenya and “turn him” in an effort to create a double agent to infiltrate extremist groups in Britain.
A Kenyan source close to the security services confirmed that anti-terror police in Nairobi were “tipped off” by British security services that Adebolajo was travelling to the country. Following his arrival in Nairobi, it is understood MI6 worked with Kenyan counter-terrorism police to arrest him in a snatch operation which was carried out with the help of British special forces operating in Kenya.
Adebolajo was taken from Lamu island, where he was arrested, to Mombasa and subjected to Kenyan police interrogation before an elite specialist anti-terror police unit with links to MI6 questioned him hours later. After these interrogations (it is not clear which) Adebolajo complained he had been tortured. Among those he complained to were British agents who visited him in jail and offered to help get him out of prison and back to Britain where, it was hoped, he would become an MI5 asset. He had been arrested on an “unclear” charge, the ISC found, and the Kenyan police failed to find evidence to charge him with a terrorist offence. He returned to Britain, evidently “of his own volition”. However, back in London he refused to co-operate and “just complained about being harassed”.
“An awful lot of people were mortified when Rigby was killed,” said a well-placed security source. “The plan to recruit Adebolajo to work for our side was based on the hope he was so grateful to get out of Kenyan custody he would be easy to turn [persuade to switch sides]. We didn’t know what exactly would happen to him when he was interrogated [in Kenya], and of course we can’t be seen to condone anything other than the highest standards. On the other hand, it’s always useful to have the intelligence that results from that sort of questioning.”
It is unclear why the role of the MI6 in attempting to recruit Adebolajo and the involvement of the SAS, which was first reported last year, were not explored in the ISC report, leading to questions over the watchdog’s ability to scrutinise the secretive work of the security services. Committee chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind was unavailable for comment last night.
Committee member Sir Menzies Campbell would say only: “The evidence relating to Adebolajo’s time in Kenya is based entirely on what the committee was told and understood and nothing else.” Committee members signed the Official Secrets Act to be allowed to see top-secret police and spy-services files on the surveillance operations on the two suspects. Much of the evidence, presented in the report’s narrative, is redacted.
The security services told MPs they had no knowledge that Adebolajo was travelling to Kenya. However, MPs discovered “primary material references which indicated that relevant information might have been available to the agencies prior to the arrest”. The information was found in an MI5 file and supported by a second police document indicating a British police counter-terrorism officer in Nairobi was aware of information relating to Adebolajo in advance.
The committee later concluded it was “difficult to understand [MI6’s] passive approach” in Adebolajo’s questioning, given he was clearly dangerous and had travelled to Kenya to engage in “jihadi tourism”. The ISC report found their “apparent lack of interest in Adebolajo’s arrest deeply unsatisfactory”. The Foreign Office minister responsible for counter-terrorism during the operation was Tory MP Alistair Burt. He said: “I don’t talk about any intelligence matters I might have been involved in.”
Advisers close to the ISC said that some of its members were frustrated with evidence provided to them. This follows several statements in the report which suggest MPs did not receive full disclosure of information by the security services.
It is understood they were particularly concerned at possible contravention of the Government’s own rules (“Consolidated Guidance”) for the questioning of prisoners and for the avoidance of involvement in torture. The Kenyan counter-terrorism unit which questioned Adebolajo is partly trained and equipped by Britain.
Following his imprisonment in Kenya, Adebolajo told British police that he had been beaten and threatened with electrocution and rape by Kenyan police. The ISC report details how Adebolajo had also been questioned by a counter-terrorism unit known as Arctic, which has “a close working relationship” with the UK government. Human-rights groups have previously linked UK-trained Kenyan counter-terrorism officers with extra-judicial killings and torture. The ISC report censured MI6 for failing to investigate Adebolajo’s claims that he was tortured, adding: “If Adebolajo’s allegations of mistreatment did refer to his interview by Arctic, then HMG could be said to have had some involvement – whether or not UK personnel were present in the room.” Last week David Cameron announced an investigation into allegations MI6 might have been complicit in the ill-treatment of Adebolajo while in custody.
Last night, Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: “Why are we not being told what is being done in our name? Why are there so many holes in the ISC report – and how can we have any trust in this process? And yet again government returns to Parliament demanding another blank cheque. MPs must think again.”
Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the all-party group on extraordinary rendition, said: “From what they have published, it looks as if the ISC has tried very hard to get to the truth. Were there to be any substance to these reports, the ISC may well need to ask further questions on Parliament’s behalf. After the 2007 debacle [which cleared the UK of involvement in rendition, subsequently disputed by a high court judge], this would be all the more important.”
A government spokesperson said: “The ISC’s report is the most open and transparent review ever undertaken into the actions taken by police, security and intelligence agencies. The Government and the agencies co-operated fully and willingly. The report reflects that openness with redactions only where judged absolutely necessary to protect our national security. The published material also demonstrates the Government’s total commitment to accountability and transparency in matters relating to the security and intelligence agencies.”