Woolwich 'Terror' Reigniting the Fire

4th June 2013

The recent murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich has reignited the fire of the 'war on terror' in Britain.  Initial, inaccurate reports said that the victim was beheaded with a machete by a man shouting 'Allah Akbar' and this started a media firestorm.  Within hours the killing was labelled as terrorism and the upper echelons of government went through the absurd ritual of two COBRA meetings.  Now that the initial wave of fear-filled nonsense has passed, we are in a position to ask some serious questions. 

This was the first meaningful act of 'terrorism' in Britain since the 7/7 bombings of 2005.  On 21/7, two weeks after 7/7, the 'bombers' had no bombs, no viable explosive devices, and despite the cut-throat defence of Manfo Asiedu (not his real name) the idea that these were failed suicide bombings is flimsy at best.  Two years later, just after the jury had retired to consider their verdict in the trial of the 21/7 accused, two men drove a Jeep Cherokee into a bollard at Glasgow airport having set themselves on fire.  No members of the public were injured, the only person who died in the attack was one of the culprits, and a little over a week later the jury in the 21/7 trial found four of the accused guilty.  They couldn't come to a verdict on Asiedu and he later pleaded guilty to diminished charges.  In the Glasgow airport incident the second man in the jeep was convicted of conspiracy to murder but several others who were arrested were all found not guilty or had the charges against them dropped. 

The following year, in May 2008 a young white man who had converted to Islam named Nicky Reilly tried to blow himself up in Exeter.  He accidentally detonated his bomb in the toilets of a restaurant, managing only to injure himself and scare a few people.  He pleaded guilty and received a life sentence.  Reilly was a social misfit with a low IQ, learning difficulties, who suffered from Aspergers Syndrome and had spent some time in a mental health facility.  As such he was extremely susceptible to manipulation, as his mother put it, 'he would have had to have instructions or guidance from someone, there's no way Nicky's got the capability to do that.'  Several other people who were arrested as part of the investigation were all released and no provocateur or mastermind, either Islamic or otherwise, has ever been found. 

Since then, the treadmill of arrests of Muslims and occasionally others has continued, as has the mission creep of the security services as seen in the run up to the Olympic games in London, but there has been no 'terrorist' violence in mainland Britain, until Woolwich.  This perhaps explains why the government were so quick to call this incident a terrorist attack, because the great threatening menace of radical Islamic terror has, since 7/7, added up to a bunch of fools who were more dangerous to themselves than to anyone else.  Two Nigerian men who killed a soldier by driving over him and then hacking him to death, one of whom was filmed after the deed with bloody hands shouting radical statements, fit the bill very nicely. 

Echoes of Past Blowback

If we are to take Michael Adebolajo's statements at face value, his motive for killing Lee Rigby was as a backlash against or revenge for the violence perpetrated by NATO in Muslim lands.  He said:

The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one. ... By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone. So what if we want to live by the Sharia in Muslim lands? Why does that mean you must follow us and chase us and call us extremists and kill us? ... When you drop a bomb do you think it hits one person? Or rather your bomb wipes out a whole family? ... Through [many passages in the] Koran we must fight them as they fight us. ... I apologise that women had to witness this today but in our lands women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your governments, they don't care about you. You think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start busting our guns? You think politicians are going to die? No, it's going to be the average guy, like you and your children. So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so we can, so you can all live in peace.

This has led many commentators to categorise the attack as blowback, the unintended but utterly predictable consequence of covert or overt military operations.  Indeed, many of Adebolajo's claims and exhortations, such as that our governments in the West don't care about us and that we should get rid of them, are quite widespread beliefs and sentiments.  Withdrawing troops from the many countries they occupy would likely be the most popular policy in NATO's history, both domestically and globally.  The critical difference is that Adebolajo seems to have turned such ideas into the justification for murder.  As much as there is reason to be sceptical of the 'blowback' category of terrorist events, particularly when it is applied to 9/11 and 7/7, in this instance it may well be the most accurate way to interpret the event.   

If so, it would not be the first time.  In 1974, just down the road from where Lee Rigby was murdered a pub was bombed by a unit of the IRA, killing two people.  The Kings Arms was known for being a popular watering hole for soldiers from the nearby Royal Artillery Barracks.  The bombing was connected by investigators to the identikit bombing of a pub in Guildford, for which the notoriously innocent Guildford Four were arrested, prosecuted and convicted.  At the climax of the Balcombe Street siege in December 1975, the IRA gang who had perpetrated the bombings amidst a wave of terror in the capital were arrested.  At their trial they admitted their role in the bombings, and confirmed the innocence of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven but it was another fifteen years before the wrongly convicted were freed. 

The failure of the British state to resist the blowback of its foreign policy, or even respond intelligently to it, is therefore not just a recent phenomenon, nor of course is it limited to the British state.  Nonetheless Britain is the centre for a war on terror that has existed in some format continuously since the 1960s, and on and off for well over a century.  It is a useful barometer of the apathy of the security state towards such blowback, even when the victim is one of their own, accepting it as the one of the necessary costs of the overall policy.  It is also a useful measure of their willingness to exploit such events to procure more power and funding. 

Almost immediately in the wake of the murder politicians were citing it to try to revive the Communications Data Bill, dubbed in typically tabloid style the 'snoopers charter'.  In essence, the bill would require ISPs to maintain permanent logs of their customers' browsing data and email connections (though not the content of emails).  The legislation had faced opposition from the coalition goverment Liberal Democrats and before the Woolwich murder it had little traction.  In the wake of the attack it appears that the opposition Labour party have suddenly changed their minds on the question of the right to privacy.

Similarly, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced an expanded version of the government's counter-terrorism policy, supposedly aimed at preventing the radicalisation of young British men like Adebolajo.  He said, 'It is as if for some young people there's a conveyor belt to radicalisation that has poisoned their minds. We need to dismantle this process at every stage - in schools, colleges, universities, on the internet, in our prisons, wherever it's taking place.'  There was, of course, no mention of revising the foreign policy that Adebolajo cited as his motive for the killing, instead the answer from the state is to spy more on more people and have a more visible and authoritarian government presence 'in schools, colleges, universities, on the internet, in prisons, wherever'. 

Intelligence 'Failures'?

Aside from avoiding the primary killer's stated motive and the implications of that, the response of the state has so far also avoided the issue of what the intelligence services knew about Adebolajo and his accomplice Michael Adebowale, when they knew it and what they did about it.  Within days of the murder it had been widely reported that MI5 had known about the pair for many years and clearly had them under some kind of surveillance or active investigation before the murder took place. 

Then, a friend of Adebolajo's named Abu Nusaybah went on the BBC's Newsnight show and said that MI5 had tried to get information out of Adebolajo, harassing him repeatedly over an extended period, and even tried to recruit him as an informant six months ago.  Apparently this attempt was unsuccessful, so the only logical conclusion is that MI5 continue to monitor him.  Nusaybah also said that Adebolajo was arrested and beaten, possibly tortured or sexually abused, while on a trip to Kenya last year.  He said Adebolajo went there to study, but came back a very different person, and since his return had been repeatedly badgered and bugged by the security services.  Following the interview Nusaybah was arrested. 

What we can be sure of is that Adebolajo was to some extent involved with Al Mujahiroun, an Islamist organisation set up in 1996 operating out of the UK, US and Pakistan.  As noted in recent articles by Nafeez Ahmed, Al Muhajiroun have operated with impunity in the UK since their inception, simply changing their name whenever the government proscribes their organisation.  The explanation for this may lie in what Sibel Edmonds has termed 'Gladio B', that ultra-Islamists have replaced ultra-Nationalists as NATO's favourite tool for reshaping the world.  Edmonds says that this shift from the original Gladio to Gladio B was formally adopted in 1996 following the Suserluk scandal, the same year that Al Muhajiroun were founded in London. 

Since then, Al Muhajiroun seem to have functioned as a pseudo-gang along the lines of those run by British military intelligence in Kenya in the 1950s.  As explained in General Sir Frank Kitson's Gangs and Counter-Gangs the purpose of the pseudo-gang is to take on the appearance of a target organisation so they can be infiltrated and manipulated, often directed into an ambush where they would either be killed or handed over to the authorities.  In 1950s Kenya this involved white, blonde British soldiers blacking up and creeping around the jungle trying to entrap miscellaneous Mau Mau who were armed with homemade rifles. 

In the 21st century urban setting the pseudo-gang provides a steady steam of wild-eyed 'terror suspects' who participate in terror plots that either fail or are interdicted by the security services.  As Ahmed's work observes, 1 in 5 terror convictions in the UK for over a decade were Al Muhajiroun members.  From Richard Reid, the attempted shoe-bomber, to Omar Khyam, the ringleader of the notorious fertiliser bomb plot, Al Muhajiroun has accounted for much of the British war on terror as it has played out in the courtrooms and major media.  Occasionally, this spills over into real terrorist violence, such as the 2003 Tel-Aviv bombers and, from all appearances, Michaels Adebolajo and Adebowale.  In court, Adebolajo has insisted on being addressed as Mujahid Abu Hamza, taking his name from the Al Muhajiroun bigwig.

Domestically, Al Muhajiroun take on the role of an enemy image, most prominently these days through their co-founder Anjem Choudary.  Choudary is a media darling and enjoys regular attention from the BBC.  He was on Newsnight once again in the aftermath of the Woolwich murder, refusing to condemn the attack and effectively laying claim to Adebolajo and the murder in the name of radical Islam.  This in turn helped stir up anti-Muslim sentiment, an utterly predictable consequence, which has seen multiple attacks on mosques including attempted bombings.  One cannot help but be reminded of the strategy of tension. 

Al Muhajiroun also perform a useful foreign policy objective.  Like Al Qaeda they are a means for recruiting and radicalising young men, and sending them off around the world for training, indoctrination and ultimately to be deployed in a theatre of conflict.  Al Muhajiroun were central to the process by which young British Muslim men were picked up and packed off to fight in NATO's dirty wars in the Balkans, and since then in Libya and Syria.  This has all been facilitated through the likes of Omar Bakri and Abu Hamza informing on a regular basis for MI5, though I have strong doubts that Haroon Aswat had anything to do with this.  Nonetheless, the pattern is clear - too many of the key figures in Al Muhajiroun have turned out to be informants, like Omar Bakri, Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza, or spies like Reda Hassaine, or agent provocateurs/sting operators like Junaid Babar, or became instant co-operators like Saajid Badat.  This cannot be coincidence.  Al Muhajiroun is a pseudo-gang, the product of a covert pseudo-operation. 

Or Intelligence Successes?

In such a context we must wonder, did MI5 and the rest of the British security state know about Adebolajo's increasing radicalism, his mistreatment in Kenya, his propensity for violence?  Did they allow the attack to happen?  Were the intelligence 'failures' actually successes?  Just as Al Muhajiroun has created terror suspects for the domestic market and radical militants for the overseas market, does it also manufacture the occasional genuinely dangerous handful of people to be deployed on Britain's streets? 

This idea of intelligence failures masking a covert operation is born out by what happened in the run-up to the London bombings.  My debut book Secrets, Spies and 7/7 outlines how at each point that alleged 7/7 ringleader Sidique Khan did something that was later used to incriminate him, he did it through contact with one of three likely secret agents.  One, Junaid Babar, was an Al Muhajiroun member in Pakistan who was also an American spy, and he played a key role in the sting operation that brought about the fertiliser bomb plot mentioned above.  He also provided training to Sidique Khan at his camp in Malakand, the graduates of which have almost all ended up in court on the wrong side of terrorism charges.  Khan had apparently been sent to Malakand by 'Q', an Al Qaeda facilitator/likely MI5 agent in the UK who goes by several different names.  While there is no obvious Al Muhajiroun connection to the third probable secret agent, Martin McDaid, the pattern of intelligence 'failures' is extremely suspicious. 

At each point that Khan, and to a lesser extent the other alleged bombers, linked up to this wider network of Islamic radicalism, they did so through one or more of Babar, Q and McDaid.  At each point, MI5 or some other branch of the security services gained intelligence about these links, but every single time the information wasn't shared, or leads weren't followed up, or further investigations drew a blank when they should have brought up earlier information.  This went on for a period of over four years prior to 7/7, even prior to 9/11.  These intelligence 'failures' did not just stop MI5 from putting together all the information they had on Khan, but also obscured his connections with the three secret agents.  As such, these 'failures' didn't just let Khan keep doing whatever he was doing, it also prevented the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), the major media and most importantly the public from finding out about these three men until years later.  As my book also shows, while MI5 were 'failing' to stop Khan and the others they were, flawlessly, catching a great many people against whom they had the same sort of patchy, ambiguous evidence that they had against Khan. 

It is possible that in Adebolajo's background we will see a similar pattern of intelligence failures, though don't expected the ISC to find that out for us.  My book demonstrates how over a period of nearly six years after 7/7 MI5 led the ISC on a merry dance, telling them a new story each time they asked the question 'what did you know and when did you know it?'  Each time the ISC were so bamboozled, and of course not looking for anything that might incriminate MI5, and so they missed the pattern.  Despite this, it is significant that the question of MI5's connection to Adebolajo, a connection that cannot realistically be denied, is already part of the mainstream discussion.  It took until nearly two years after 7/7 - at the trial of the fertiliser bomb plot - for significant information about Khan's connections to become public.  With Adebolajo, it has been a matter of days. 

The ISC have begun an inquiry into what MI5 knew and Adebolajo's friend Abu Nusaybah has written to them regarding what he knows.  I will be watching the ISC process regarding Woolwich closely, and will write further once more details become available and the picture clears.  Whether this attack is blowback, whether it was provoked or allowed to happen, or whether for once in their lives MI5 actually screwed up, what is obvious to me is that the practice of security service collusion and the callous disregard for the blowback of domestic and foreign security policy will continue, unless we find more powerful ways to resist and oppose it. 

Related pages:

Secrets, Spies and 7/7

Terror Programming at the BBC - A conversation with Keelan Balderson

7/7 Conspiracy Theories and Connecting the Dots

7/7: Crime and Prejudice