Last week, Siddharta Dhar, a Hindu-born Muslim convert, made front page news as the latest British citizen to turn up in Syria draped in ISIS imagery and toting an AK.
He may or may not be the masked Brit who starred in a recent ISIS snuff movie, but, like pretty much all those who preceded him, he was well known to the British security services.
A member of Al-Muhajiroun, a ‘proscribed organization’ under the 2000 Terrorism Act, he was on bail for terrorism offenses at the time he left the country, and had been asked to hand over his passport to the police (he didn’t bother, it turned out). Indeed, according to Andy Burnham, shadow British Home Secretary, “He was well-known to the authorities having been arrested six times on terrorism related offenses”.
Perhaps stating the obvious, Burnham added that “people will be shocked that a man detained on a series of counts of terrorism-related activity could be allowed to walk out of the country, unimpeded.”
Nor was his flight exactly unpredictable. Earlier in the year, he had declared – on the BBC’s ‘This Morning’ program, no less – that “now that we have this caliphate I think you’ll see many Muslims globally seeing it as an opportunity for the Koran to be realized”. Just to further clarify his intentions, he went on to tell Channel Four News: “I would love to live under the Islamic State”.
I’m no expert on decoding terrorist lingo, but to my untrained eye this statement appears fairly unambiguous. But perhaps no one in British intelligence has a telly.
Or perhaps there is another explanation. Once in Syria, Dhar tweeted: “My Lord (Allah) made a mockery of British intelligence and surveillance…What a shoddy security system Britain must have to allow me to breeze through Europe to the Islamic State.” Shoddy? Maybe. But as Nick Lowles, from the group Hope not Hate, put it, “With at least six prominent members of al-Muhajiroun (the banned extremist group) having been able to slip out of Britain whilst on bail or having been banned from leaving, questions need answering. One absconding is a worry, two appears careless, but six – well, that needs answering.” Indeed it does.
In fact, it seems that pretty much every time a British ISIS or Al Qaeda recruit is unearthed, they turn out to have deep ties to the intelligence services. The story of Michael Adebalajo is a case in point.
On May 22, 2013, Adebelajo and Michael Adebowale stabbed Fusilier Lee Rigby to death in London. It soon emerged that MI5 had been trying to recruit him at the time. But for what?
The parliamentary committee on intelligence and security conducted hearings on the murder later that year, and its report makes fascinating reading. It revealed that, prior to the murder, Adebolajo had been identified as a Subject of Interest (SoI) in no less five separate MI5 investigations, including one which was focused specifically on him.
This surveillance had revealed that he was in contact with “a high profile and senior AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] extremist” as well as two “Tier 1 SoIs being investigated… due to their possible links with AQAP in Yemen”. At one point in 2011, this particular investigation was “MI5’s highest priority operation” and it led MI5 to conclude that “Adebolajo was a primary contact of BRAVO and CHARLIE”, code names for the two suspected AQAP members under investigation.
Of course, ‘guilt by association’ alone would not have been enough to arrest him. But his drug dealing would have been. In theory, MI5 are supposed to ‘disrupt’ the activity of extremists by, for example, facilitating their arrest if they are involved in criminality. In Adebolajo’s case, the ‘intrusive surveillance’ which he was under for a time revealed not only that he was “involved in drug dealing” but indeed that he was “spending most of his time” drug dealing.
This was the perfect opportunity for MI5 to ‘disrupt’ the activities of a man suspected of being a recruiter for Al Shabaab and known to be in contact with senior members of Al Qaeda. But MI5 seemed curiously uninterested in pursuing it. They did eventually pass some information onto the local police – but without passing on any actual evidence, and “accidentally omitting” his house number, with the result that “the police officer tasked to investigate concluded… that no further action could be taken”, an entirely predictable outcome.
Burnham on Dhar/Rumaysah: “System has failed because it allowed him to abscond to Syria…despite having been arrested 6 times”
— Hussein Kesvani (@HKesvani) January 5, 2016
Further opportunities for ‘disruption’ were also ignored. The report notes that in November 2012, Adebolajo was part of “a larger group of individuals who were [involved in] a violent confrontation”. Following the disruption, it was noted that “Adebolajo’s details will be passed to [another police unit]”. For some reason, however, this didn’t happen. Nor was Adebolajo prosecuted for his membership of a proscribed organization (Al Ghurabaa, aka Al Muhajiroon).
But most suspicious was the British response to his arrest in Kenya in 2010: “On 22 November 2010, the Kenyan police reported to the MPS officer based in Nairobi that they had arrested Adebolajo the previous day. He had been arrested with a group of five Kenyan youths and was assessed to have been attempting to travel into Somalia to join Al Shabaab (a Somalia-based terrorist group).”
Information apparently relating to Adebolajo’s involvement with terrorism – but redacted from the report – was known by MI6 at the time of his arrest according to the British counter-terrorist police officer stationed in Kenya at the time.
According to the Daily Mail, “The Kenyans believed Adebolajo, 28, had played a crucial role in recruiting his co-accused, including two secondary school-aged boys, after they were radicalised during weekly visits to a mosque in Mombasa.”
Kenyan government spokesman Muthui Kariuki said: “We handed him to British security agents in Kenya and he seems to have found his way to London and mutated to Michael Adebolajo. The Kenyan government cannot be held responsible for what happened to him after we handed him to British authorities.”
The security agents in question belonged to a highly secretive counter-terrorism unit in Kenya (referred to in the report as ARCTIC) with “a close working relationship” with the British government. Adebolajo alleged on several occasions that he had been tortured during his time in custody, leading the Committee to point out that “if Adebolajo’s allegations of mistreatment did refer to his interview by ARCTIC then HMG could be said to have had some involvement”.
MI6 consistently lied to the Committee about their involvement with Adebolajo in Kenya – a point noted (albeit somewhat apologetically) in their report. Of his detention, MI6 claimed “we did not know it was going on”; prompting the Committee report to “note that SIS [MI6] had been told that a British citizen was being held in detention: therefore, they did know that “it was going on”.
The Chief of MI6 then lied about their responsibility to investigate the allegations of abuse, claiming that this “is not an SIS responsibility”, directly contradicting emails written by an MI6 officer at the time which had stated that “We obviously need to investigate these allegations”. This, said the Committee, “clearly indicates that SIS officers believed that they had a responsibility to investigate the allegations”, adding that this is “not consistentwith the evidence provided to the Committee by the Chief of SIS”, and going on to note their “concern that this email was not provided as part of the primary material initially offered in support of this Inquiry as it should have been [as] it was clearly relevant to the issues under consideration.”
Finally, a redacted piece of information referring to what the Committee called “relevant background knowledge” concerning Adebolajo was disowned by MI6, who claimed only to have heard it when told by the police. The police, however, had already explained that it was MI6 who passed it to them in the first place.
Exactly what MI6 were up to in Kenya with Adebolajo remains shrouded in mystery. However, the Committee was clearly unimpressed by what they were told: “SIS has told the Committee that they often take the operational lead when a British national is detained in a country such as Kenya on a terrorism-related matter.
They have also told the Committee that they have responsibility for disrupting the link between UK extremists and terrorist organizations overseas, and that in Kenya this is at the centre of their operational preoccupations. The Committee therefore finds SIS’s apparent lack of interest in Adebolajo’s arrest deeply unsatisfactory: on this occasion, SIS’s role in countering ‘jihadi tourism’ does not appear to have extended to any practical action being taken.”
What if, however, MI6’s work on the “link between UK extremists and terrorist organizations overseas” is not aimed at disruption after all? What if they have been charged with facilitating, rather than countering, “jihadi tourism”?
The SO15 (counter-terrorism) police officer who conducted an extensive interview with Adebolajo on his return to the UK from Kenya concluded that “It is… believed Adebolajo will attempt to travel again in the future…”
At the time, MI5 was running an investigation into “individuals who were radicalizing UK-based extremists and facilitating their travel overseas for extremist purposes”, referred to in the Committee’s report as Operation Holly. They wrote to an MI6 representative in East Africa to ask whether “one of Adebolajo’s contacts could have been a Kenya-based SoI known to MI5 and SIS” then under investigation, but MI6 never responded.
The following year, “surveillance deployments indicated that Adebolajo had met an SoI investigated for radicalizing UK-based individuals and facilitating their travel overseas.” This entry in the report’s timeline was preceded by four redacted items and followed by another.
The report also contains reference to a number of occasions in which investigating officers’ requests and recommendations for action against Adebolajo and Adebowale were not implemented, for reasons that were not recorded. This raises the issue of whether these requests had been over-ruled, and if so by whom.
Unfortunately, the committee seemed to accept at face value MI5’s explanations of such failures (new priorities taking away resources, etc), but their report did note, in somewhat exasperated tone, that “where actions were recommended, they should have been carried out. If the investigative team had good reason not to carry out a recommended action, then this should have been formally recorded, together with the basis for that decision”.
Adebolajo, then, had come up on the security services radar again and again as someone not just potentially involved in recruiting for overseas terrorism, but with prior form in actually doing so. And yet we are supposed to believe that MI6 – whose prime concern was supposedly to deal with such people – had no interest in him in Kenya, and that MI5 – who are supposed to disrupt the work of such figures – willfully passed up chance after chance to do so.
Fast forward to today, and we have an official figure of 800 – but with estimates of 1,500 and more – British citizens who have gone to fight in Syria. We have evidence from Moazzam Begg’s collapsed trial that MI5 gave the ‘green light’ to his trips to train fighters in Syria; we have the collapse of Bherlin Gildo’s trial for terrorist activities in Syria due to the embarrassment it was feared it would cause British security; we have Abu Muntasir’s testimony that “I inspired and recruited, I raised funds and bought weapons, not just a one-off but for 15 to 20 years. Why I have never been arrested I don’t know”; we have the US Senate hearings into the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens revealing that MI6 was involved in running a ‘ratline’ of weapons from Libya to Syria; we have case after case of families angry at the British authorities for allowing their children to go and fight despite repeated warnings, and on it goes.
Can we really still call it a conspiracy theory to believe that British intelligence has allowed this to happen?
A shoddy security system? Or a ruthlessly efficient one.