The two men convicted of murdering a British soldier and attempting to behead him on a busy London street were long known to police and security services, raising serious questions about how much the authorities could have done to prevent the attack.
Michael Adebolajo, the ring-leader of the fatal assault, had been convicted after a violent Islamist demonstration in London and was apprehended while trying to join a band of jihadis in East Africa. Friends and family claimed he was in regular contact with MI5 up until this year, and yet he was under no surveillance or monitoring as he hacked Lee Rigby to death in broad daylight in May.
Rigby, 25, who had served in Afghanistan, was returning to his barracks in south-east London after a recruitment event at the Tower of London when he was struck by a car from behind. As he lay in the road, injured and defenseless, his body was mutilated by Adebolajo and his accomplice Michael Adebowale who used knives and a meat cleaver to all but sever his neck.
The Muslim converts, both of whom were raised as Christians by Nigerian families in London, had both been known to the police for years. They were also observed taking part in demonstrations held by a small group of radical Muslims active in London.
An inquiry by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee has been asked to examine whether the security agencies could have done more to halt the attack. Cressida Dick, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said there had been no evidence that either of the men were planning a terrorist attack. “The police have had contact with both of these young men over a number of years,” she said. “If the [Rigby] family is owed an apology by one of the agencies or by the police or anyone else I’m sure they absolutely should, and absolutely would, get one.”
Speaking at a briefing at Scotland Yard, Dick said the police had not been pressing for greater powers to intervene in known radical groups, but she said the only known link between Adebolajo, 29, and Adebowale, 22, was that both men have attended demonstrations linked to Anjem Choudary and the banned group, al Muhajiroun.
During the trial, Adebelajo employed the kind of rhetoric that is familiar to followers of al Muhajiroun when he blamed U.S. and British intervention in Afghanistan for his actions, claiming they had started a “war between the Muslims and the British people.”
In 2006, Adebolajo was convicted of assaulting a police officer during a demonstration organized by one of the groups that formed after al Muhajiroun was banned and dissolved. He is believed to have been a regular presence at meetings and demonstrations in the subsequent years. In 2010, his intentions appear to have become more serious. He was arrested near the border of southern Somalia where the Kenyan authorities believed he was heading towards a camp operated by al Shabaab, the al Qaeda affiliate blamed for the Nairobi mall shooting in September.
The British authorities did not respond by making him the subject of a terrorism prevention and investigation measure, which would have required him to be monitored and limited his ability to travel abroad.
Nick Lowles, the chief executive of anti-extremist group Hope Not Hate, described al Muhajiroun as the “single biggest gateway to terrorism in recent British history” and demanded greater intervention by the authorities in what is a relatively small and easily monitored organization.
“Enough is enough: the government must do more than pay lip service to the problem of hate preachers. It is time we took action against those who radicalize and motivate those who go on to commit acts of terror. Anjem Choudary should face the full force of the law,” he said. “Choudary bears a heavy responsibility for radicalizing these men.”
Reached by the Daily Beast, Choudary admitted that he had known Adebolajo well but denied that he, or the groups he runs, had encouraged him to join the jihad in East Africa or carry out the savage attack on Rigby. “I think he’s a man of impeccable character, good personality, a pleasant chap,” he said. “He is a family man and he did what he did because of his convictions.”
“Blood is on the hands of David Cameron and Barack Obama because of what they’ve done in Muslim countries, they have radicalized an entire generation. People are very happy to point the finger at me and other groups who expose the British government and its foreign policy.
We’re just a useful scapegoat for them.”
Shortly before he was elected, Prime Minister Cameron said he would consider introducing tougher laws in Britain governing radical preachers and said Choudary needed “to be looked at seriously.” No new legislation has been introduced, and the groups founded after the dissolution of al Muhajiroun continue to attract hundreds of disaffected young Muslims.
Asked if he would condemn the killing of Rigby, Choudary said: “I think it’s completely perverse to blame someone who is part of the global youth who has been radicalized over the past decade by foreign policy. If you are going to condemn anyone you need to condemn the cause, because the result is Lee Rigby. You wouldn’t blame the blacks in South Africa for Apartheid.”
Assistant Commissioner Dick said she would respect the findings of the Intelligence and Security Committee but insisted that under the current law there was nothing the police could do to disrupt Choudary’s network of groups. “What I can say in relation to Mr. Choudary, he is clearly very alert to the boundaries of the law and generally speaking is extremely careful about what he says and does in public,” she said.
Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, said on the eve of the trial that it was impossible to keep track of all potential terrorists and said there was “a difference between knowing of someone and knowing everything about them.” Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, told the Telegraph on Thursday, however: “There are questions to be answered.”
Adebolajo became the face of the Rigby attack after images of him holding a cleaver in blood-soaked hands were beamed around the world. Adebowale, his accomplice, did not take the stand during the trial. It can now be reported that he suffers from severe mental health issues and had to be repeatedly restrained after his arrest after striking and spitting at police officers.
The younger of the attackers had a troubled upbringing and witnessed a brutal murder as a teenager when he is thought to have been involved with street gangs. He was jailed for drug offences in 2009. He was later spotted at al Muhajiroun-linked demonstrations, including one outside the U.S. Embassy in London. “We do know that some charismatic, for want of a better word, extremists will seek out vulnerable people including people in gangs,” said Dick.
Adebowale and Adebolajo were both found guilty on Thursday of the murder of Lee Rigby, who leaves a wife and young son. They were found not guilty of the attempted murder of police officers who responded to the attack. They will be sentenced at a later date.