Within hours of Lee Rigby’s killing in Woolwich, officials confirmed that both suspects were known to MI5.
It was an unusually prompt acknowledgement – a clear attempt to reassure people that the security services had not been in the dark, even if they were, ultimately, unable to prevent the murder.
Since then, however, things have become murkier. A claim that MI5 had tried, and failed, to recruit one of the suspects in the past was neither confirmed nor denied. Another report, to the effect that Michael Adebolajo had once been arrested in Kenya, was met with silence. Only after a Kenyan government spokesman said Adebolajo had indeed been arrested, in 2010, apparently en route to Somalia, and released into the hands of British “security officers”, did the Foreign Office confirm that it had provided consular assistance.
There is every reason why MI5 should have tried to recruit someone with Adebolajo’s profile; that is its job. But little of the rest inspires confidence. Can it really be that Kenya’s official records are more accurate, or more easily searched, than our own? And if MI5 was on Adebolajo’s tracks, did the agency tragically misread the threat he may have represented?
MPs and peers in the Intelligence and Security Committee have been promised a briefing this week on what MI5 knew. But, as always with such briefings, what they hear will be in camera and will not see the light of day. The trouble with keeping this information within such a closed circle, however, is that, for the broader public, the questions of competence and accountability will remain unanswered.
Once again, our secretive system will be found wanting. The intelligence services operate in our name. We need a system more like that of the United States where the default position is to be open about security matters and closed only when absolutely necessary. Where, and not for the first time, MI5’s competence is on the line, greater openness should be in its interests as well as ours.