The death of soldier Lee Rigby outside the Woolwich barracks in London has Britain questioning the efficiency of their security services in monitoring Islamists to prevent acts of violence. The British parliament has debated internet regulation as a means to prevent radicalisation. However, it remains possible that Lee Rigby's death was equally a result of MI5 recruitment processes.
In the 21st century western intelligence agencies face particular recruitment challenges that are unparalleled in a Muslim-majority country like Bangladesh. Following the September 11 attacks on New York, agencies in countries like Britain discovered a need to exponentially improve their knowledge of Islam and Islamism, which was arguably rudimentary.
Further, with the stage set for rapid expansion in terms of budgets, powers and employee numbers, the need to recruit agents from more diverse backgrounds became immediate. Otherwise security agencies risked becoming outdated.
Gone were the days of the proverbial tap on the shoulder when the ideal agent was from an elite school, male and white. Gone was the cold war framework where the “enemy” was a foreign state's agent of similar training and background.
Western security agencies were slow to recognise these changes, but some years after September 11, British agencies in particular tried to engage with Muslim minority communities in the UK, in terms of targeted recruitment campaigns directed at shedding the white, elitist image of MI5 and MI6, and also through general advertisements.
By contrast, coercive or punitive recruitment, while tempting for security agencies, is fraught with dangers.
Shortly after Rigby's death, suspect Michael Adebolajo, a man of Nigerian Christian background who converted to Islam in 2003, was captured on film holding a bloodied knife and meat clever. It is reported he was arrested in 2010 in Kenya, on suspicion of travelling to Somalia to join the terrorist outfit al-Shabaab. There are allegations he was tortured and sexually assaulted in Kenyan police custody.
It has also been alleged that Adebolajo was approached by MI5 and asked to work for them, that he refused and was subsequently harassed. Such allegations raise concerns MI5's recruitment efforts might have pushed Adebolajo 'over the edge.' Further, if the recruitment claims are true, then the issue of failings in risk identification and surveillance by MI5 are a furphy, since Adebolajo was a well-known quantity; and issues of hatred on the internet become a scapegoat.
Coercive recruitment can hardly be considered legal activity since the British parliament has not deigned to introduce conscription to Britain, nor has it granted security powers to agencies for recruitment purposes. Any such powers used in that way are surely powers misused. Indeed, security powers are properly for the benefit of public safety and not for the benefit of security agencies.
Where recruitment pursues a coercive course, it cannot amount to less than a form of public corruption, since Britons retain the right to live their own lives and choose careers independently, regardless of whom they know or how “useful” they may be.
Prolonged coercive recruitment efforts are a recipe for just the kind of violence that occurred in Woolwich, or worse. Any individual plagued by a security agency for illegitimate reasons will have their breaking point, especially where “No” is not an accepted answer.
Meanwhile security agencies involved in coercive recruitment have significant incentive not to desist, not to fail. It is not possible that prolonged recruitment efforts will not result in the recruitment target gaining some knowledge of security agents' methods or, where they have spoken directly to the target, of agents' identities. The further the process goes, arguably the stronger is the incentive for the agency not to desist, because successful coercive recruitment is needed to secure methodology and identities, especially in circumstances like Adebolajo's where there are suspected links with Islamist groups who might otherwise take benefit from the recruitment target's observations.
Further, recruitment is an ideal means of cover up for any excesses or “anomalies” on the part of agents, because the recruited cannot speak. Excesses become likely because individual agents involved put at risk their careers when information and identities are compromised. The answer of no, calls into question the agent's judgement.
It is not possible to conduct coercive recruitment exercises without these inherent conflict of interest issues. The practice is a big welcome mat for corruption. This is beside the practical issue as to what quality of informant or recruit a coerced individual might be.
Indeed where coercive recruitment mingles with investigation and it becomes unclear where the one activity finishes and the other starts, the ability of agents to manage decisions about the proper use of security powers will become murky. This is likely to be in the majority of instances since the investigated and the potential recruit will be the same person: a Muslim or somebody with Muslim affiliations, and ideally with some link to Islamism, and people or organisations of interest.
It is worthwhile turning one's mind to what coercive recruitment may mean. It is not simply the “tap on the shoulder”, but potentially interference with careers, friends and family. Potentially, the goal might be to make life so unbearable that the target has no choice. Armed with extensive powers and operating in the shadows it is not difficult for agents to pursue such a course. Should such non-consensual intrusive exercises be allowed?
Details concerning Adebolajo's recruitment claims are sketchy. His friend Abu Nusaybah said on the BBC's Newsnight that Adebolajo felt harassed by MI5 and told his friend, “They are bugging me. They won't leave me alone.”
The Independent newspaper meanwhile, reported claims Adebolajo was first approached by MI5 while in custody in Kenya. In light of the allegations of mistreatment by the Kenyan police such claims are very serious. Abu Nusaybah has since written to the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, the government probe into MI5's role in the events, requesting investigation as to whether there was any connection between Adebolajo's alleged mistreatment in Kenya and MI5.
Regardless of the outcome, coercive recruitment exercises are not in the interest of good governance and public safety. Self-managed and self-assessed, such exercises are easily without limit: the minimum possibility in Adebolajo's case is six months but coercive recruitment could potentially last for years.
For reasons of conflict of interest, the potential for corruption and to cause violence, coercive recruitment should be legislatively banned, with punitive measures for agents that cross the line. Security agencies committed to professionalism would have no difficulty committing to such management safeguards.
But security is an unusual matter of state. Unlike health or education, in security it may be considered more beneficial for responsible ministers and parliamentarians passing security legislation not to know, not to consider the details of how those agencies operate. “Let the experts do their job” and “We don't comment on issues of national interest” are a common refrain that would not be acceptable in other portfolios. Thus it remains to be seen how seriously the issue is investigated this time.
One can't help but wonder if, because coercive recruitment is likely to affect almost solely Muslims, whether security agencies in western countries haven't been dealt a freer hand than they otherwise would have been.
It may be that a valid measurement of a western government's commitment to professionalism in the security sector is to examine just how it is that coercive recruitment is regulated.
Lee Rigby: did he die due to identification and surveillance failures, due to online messages of hate or was his in equal part a coercive recruitment fatality? If the latter, how many more should there be?