A parliamentary inquiry is trying to establish what contact British security services had with Woolwich killer Michael Adebolajo. His brother tells Al Jazeera Investigations Unit MI5 ‘harassed’ him in the months leading to the attack.
Jeremiah Adebolajo claims the British security services tried to recruit his brother as an informant, making his life difficult.
“They began to harass him. They kept on calling him, they kept on asking him to meet, they kept on going to his house. He’s got family, he’s a family man,” he said, “They were putting a lot of pressure on, really disrupting his life, for him to cooperate with them in one way or another.”
|Woolwich: War without borders?|
A Home Office spokesperson told Al Jazeera Investigations Unit: “We do not comment on security matters.”
Jeremiah Adebolajo claims he, himself, was also approached by MI5 as they sought information on his brother.
“I think at this point they were frustrated that they weren’t able to keep tabs on everywhere my brother went. They certainly don’t have the resources to watch him 24 hours a day”, adding, “I said to them, ‘you’re wasting your time in bothering me, you’re wasting your time in bothering my brother’. They obviously didn’t take the hint.”
In 2010, Michael Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya for attempting to cross the border into the region of Somalia controlled by armed Islamist group al Shabaab. He was then deported, according to his Kenyan lawyer, Wycliffe Makasembo, at the behest of the British authorities.
Mr Makasembo said: “He just vanished and the next thing he was in the UK. It was a very, very unique case. It’s like somebody was in a hurry to remove him from Kenya.”
Jeremiah claims MI5 tried to use the Kenyan experience to persuade him to help them: “They tried to get information and they tried to use my brother’s time in Kenya as, I guess, leverage, to get him to cooperate… the implicit threat is that either he cooperates or they’re going to make his life very difficult.”
While in the Middle East, Jeremiah says he planned to go on a shooting expedition in the desert – a common pass time in the Arabian Gulf. He claims the security services stopped him and tried to use this as leverage against him.
He said: “When I got to England they slid these papers to me and said that this man is going down for life imprisonment and they would be very interested, the Americans, in your case, because anyone playing with guns now, in the Middle East, could be interpreted to be preparing for terrorist acts.
“They showed me some federal papers from America. A court order, asking for a British citizen to be taken, to be extradited for training for terrorist purposes…they were threatening me with terrorism charges, quite explicitly this time.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We do not comment on individual cases.”
Frustrated by the alleged contact with MI5, Michael Adebolajo sought help from the London based human rights group CAGE, formerly known as Cageprsioners. Its Research Director Asim Qureshi said Adebolajo felt victimised.
“Whether it’s foreign policy, whether it’s the programme of harassment against him. Every experience that he has had… has only taught him one thing: that there is no place for a young Muslim man to care about his religion, because as soon as you start doing that, you become a target for the agencies.”
National security v liberty
The process of recruiting informants within the Muslim community was designed to address the intelligence gaps highlighted by the London bombings in 2005.
Advocates of these tactics, including the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp, claim it is a necessity to prevent further atrocities like the Woolwich attack.
He said: “The security services have to penetrate the Islamic community in which Islamic extremists in the UK operate. That’s not very easy to do.”
“It’s a terrible situation to be in when we’ve got to try and turn people [against] who they consider to be their own communities in order to gain intelligence, but there isn’t too much option.”
Muslims like ‘Ali’ say this tactic is wrong and ruins people’s lives. He said: “I’ve never been charged with anything. The MI5 have taken away my liberties and they’re trying to sell them back to me by working for them.
“I feel depressed and I’m always looking over my shoulder because I’m not sure who is really my friend or who might be passing information over to the security services.”
He says his charity work with Syrian refugees in Turkey brought him to MI5’s attention, and they were soon asking him to spy on his friends.
He said: “They’d pay me a proper salary, and all I had to do is just go to the Mosque and just live in the community… just keep an eye out for people who all of a sudden, they just become really reclusive.”
After refusing to help, ‘Ali’ says he was detained at Istanbul Airport because he had been barred from entering Turkey. On his return to the UK, MI5 told him he could only travel freely again if he agreed to help them.
He claims they said: “If you’d be willing to work with us, first of all you’d have to prove yourself in England. And if we thought, you know, you’re on our side then we want you to go out to Turkey, or eventually Syria, and live amongst the people over there and just relay information back to us’.”
Political debate silenced
There is a fear that this policy is stifling debate and marginalising some young Muslims.
Lord Nasir Ahmed says that the radicalisation of these young men would be prevented if this policy was not in place, arguing: “If people didn’t feel isolation and fear of being watched, I think there would have been open discussion and then these extremists and young people who are radicalised, they could have come to the mosque and they could have actually talked to the community leaders, who could have given them the explanation and got them engaged into mainstream society.”
CAGE’s Asim Qureshi said: “This government has failed to meet any of its wishes regarding, assisting the Muslim community, in terms of engaging with it, in terms of making it feel less disenfranchised.
“In fact, it’s only ever increased because the counter-terrorism policies they keep on coming up with make the Muslim community feel that way.”
Follow Kris on Twitter: @krisjepson