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Are Indians Racist or Merely Caste-Conscious?

9 min read.

Do Indian celebrities have the moral authority to condemn racism when they themselves promote the idea that white skin is more desirable than black or brown skin? And does the Black Lives Matter movement offer India an opportunity to critically examine its own increasingly intolerant society, including the oppressive caste system?

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Are Indians Racist or Merely Caste-Conscious?
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Priyanka Chopra, a leading Bollywood actress who has also acted in Hollywood films, came under fire recently for endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement while at the same time being a brand ambassador for skin-lightening creams in India. Critics say that this movie star cannot claim to support a movement against racism when she herself has promoted products that suggest that light/white skin is more beautiful than dark/black skin.

Indian movie directors have also been accused of promoting the idea that light skin is better by insisting that their leading ladies be fair-skinned. The few dark-skinned actresses who have made it in Bollywood have had to jump many hurdles to be taken seriously; often the only acting roles they get are in “alternative cinema” where they play poor or marginalised women. Dark-skinned actresses often have to invest in a fair amount (no pun intended) of make-up to pass screen tests that are partial to light skin and European facial features.

“If you watch Bollywood films, you’d imagine India was a country of white folks”, quipped the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy in a recent interview. (The billion-plus Indians’ skin colour ranges from rosy pink to tan, chocolate-brown and a kind of ash-grey that could pass for black.)

The desire for fair skin is not limited to Bollywood; it extends to Indian society as a whole. Matrimonial columns in Indian newspapers are full of ads seeking “fair” brides.

British colonialism undoubtedly instilled feelings of inferiority among the dark-skinned Indian people. Since “whiteness” was associated with power, wealth and technological advancement (not to mention beauty), light skin became an aspiration among Indians. (Though it must be said that not even a century of colonisation managed to erase Indian culture and India’s major religions, which remained largely intact despite the British presence; in fact, some say that the British colonialists were both baffled and in awe of the resilience of Indian culture despite their attempts to denigrate and erase it.)

The furore against Chopra comes against a backdrop of statues of Mahatma Gandhi being removed from a university in Ghana and debates around whether India’s most revered freedom fighter and non-violence resistance advocate was in fact a racist, given that he did little to fight for the rights of black South Africans during his 21-year stint in South Africa before he returned to his home country in 1914 to contribute to India’s freedom struggle.

In recent years, there have also been complaints by African students studying in India that they face harassment on the streets and discrimination when it comes to housing. Africans living in India find the country to be a hostile environment that is difficult to negotiate because the racism is coming not from white people, as is usually the case, but non-white people. As Roy commented in her interview, “Indian racism towards black people is almost worse than white people’s racism”.

Horror stories of female African students being stripped in public or being called derogatory names have been emerging in recent years, yet there has been no diplomatic crisis, as the one that erupted recently when some African countries made official complaints against the Chinese government for allowing the mistreatment of Africans living in China, ostensibly because they were perceived to be infected with COVID-19.

The discussion on “brown-on-black” racism has been further fuelled by a much-needed conversation in India on whether Indians have any right to condemn White America for racism when Hindu India has for decades been discriminating against Muslims and low-caste Hindus (known as Dalits). Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has a distinct Hindu nationalist agenda, India has become more intolerant of religious minorities and marginalised groups, with reports of Muslims and Dalits being lynched and even murdered by Hindu mobs.

Perhaps now that Priyanka Chopra has moved to America (she recently married the American singer and songwriter Nick Jonas), she is more aware of racism. Indian immigrants in Europe and America find that even the most light-skinned among them eventually face some form of discrimination. This has led some to join hands with black-led movements. In the UK, for instance, there was a strong push for Asians to define themselves as “black” during the conservative Thatcher years to emphasise the power imbalance between white and non-white people in Britain and to give the black movement political clout. Asians in the UK who called themselves “black” were making a political statement.

The Indian diaspora in the United States and other Western nations may feel slighted by the white racism they experience, but many have no problems supporting divisive politics at home. Ms. Chopra, for instance, is an ardent supporter of Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharataya Janata Party (BJP). As Ashok Swain wrote in the December 2017 edition of Outlook, “[The] Hindu diaspora has been a major powerbase and source of funding for the Hindutva politics in India . . . While Hindu NRIs [non-resident Indians] are so sensitive and even aggressive to protect their perceived minority rights in the country of their residence, at the same time they refuse to accept minorities in India”.

The blurred line between race and caste

So are Indians inherently racist? This is a complicated question because in India the line between caste and colour often gets blurred. The Hindu caste system is such that skin colour is often associated with caste background. Lighter-skinned Indians of Aryan descent are often associated with high caste background, even though there are many high-caste Hindus in India who have dark skin, and many low-caste Hindus who are light-skinned.

Caste prejudice, therefore, easily translates into colour prejudice in the Indian context. Black Africans are perceived as low caste – people who can be looked down upon and mistreated without the perpetrator suffering any sanction. It’s as simple – and as ridiculous – as that.

Historians maintain that the caste system was brought to India by the Aryans, a pastoralist tribe from Central Asia that invaded northern India around the second millennium BC and subjugated the indigenous population. As explained by historian Romila Thapar in her book, Early India: From Origins to AD 1300, the dominant view is that the Aryans introduced Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language that is used in the sacred Hindu texts, the Vedas.

The Aryans were viewed as representing a superior civilisation that later became the foundation of what might be loosely referred to as Hindu culture. Hinduism sprouted a pantheon of gods and goddesses (some adopted from the faith of the indigenous animists) and introduced a system that divided people into occupational groups and relegated others to servitude.

However, Thapar is of the view that ascribing a superior race to the Aryans is not accurate because there is little archaeological evidence of a large-scale Aryan “invasion” of India that displaced the existing indigenous culture. However, there is evidence of an Indo-Aryan language belonging to the Indo-European family “having been brought to northern India from beyond the Indian-Iranian borderlands and evolving through a series of probably small-scale migrations and settlements”.

Thapar says that by the middle of the 20th century, the concept that the Aryans had a superior language and race began to fall apart. It is more likely that there were “Indo-Aryan speaking peoples”, not an Aryan race. “It is important to emphasise that it [Aryan] refers to a language group, not a race, and language groups can incorporate a variety of people”.

To muddy the waters even further, the ruling BJP has been denying that there was ever an Aryan invasion in order to support the theory that Hinduism (the dominant religion in India) was not imported to India, but is indigenous to the subcontinent. This theory also demolishes the idea that Indian culture is a product of “alien” forces. The “aliens” in Modi’s India are Muslims and Christians, who are being portrayed as being the by-products of invading Muslim armies and conquerors or European missionaries (conveniently forgetting that Islam and Christianity existed in India before the advent of the Muslim Mughal Empire in the 16th century and before Britain colonised India in the mid-19th century).

Regardless of their origin, it is widely accepted that the Aryans established the Hindu caste system in India. It is believed that the new rulers needed a system to entrench their rule, and to enforce obedience among the people whose lands they occupied. “Since a mechanism for maintaining racial segregation was required, this took the form of dividing society into socially self-contained and separate castes . . . Race was seen as scientific explanation for caste and the four main castes or varnas were said to represent the major racial groups. Their racial identity was preserved by the strict prevention of intermarriage between them”, writes Thapar.

At the top of the caste system were, naturally, the creators of the system, the Brahmins, who monopolised priesthood and learning. Then came the Kshatriyas (warriors), followed by Vaishyas (traders) and finally Sudras (workers). Outside these castes or varnas were what are known as the “Untouchables” (who Gandhi, in an attempt to destigmatise them, referred to as Harijans or Children of God). The Untouchables, who were assigned degrading menial jobs like cleaning latrines, were not allowed to come near upper caste Hindus, and were not even allowed to enter temples. They were denied access to common wells and other public areas because they were viewed as “impure” or “polluted”. (Nowadays, Untouchables are referred to as Dalits, a less stigmatising and more politically correct word that in the Marathi language means “broken people”.) In other words, the caste system legitimised inequality and discrimination.

B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit who rose to be India’s first Law Minister, called the caste system a “degrading system of social organisation”. He said that, especially for Untouchables, “Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors” that denies them even the most basic of rights.

Added to the grief of the lower castes is the notion of karma – the belief that individual suffering is the result of bad deeds committed by an individual in a past life, a sort of divine retribution that must be endured by those who experience suffering. Poverty and other debilitating conditions are considered an inevitable outcome of bad karma. With such a belief system entrenched in the psyche of the average Indian, it is no wonder that Dalits have not risen against their oppressors in large numbers, though in recent years they have formed their own political parties, and a few have also been elected into Parliament.

Apologists for the caste system say that by defining areas of occupation for various groups, the caste system helps Indian society to function without much conflict or stress because each caste knows its place and role in society, and obtains some kind of solidarity within its own caste group and legitimacy within the wider society. On the other hand, critics like Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism before his death in 1956, say that it is a system that hinders social and economic mobility, and ensures that certain groups remain in a permanent state of “backwardness”, with little chance of rising to positions of power or influence.

Although casteism is less prevalent in India than it was when India gained independence, it is not unusual to still hear stories of low-caste people being lynched, raped and generally exploited by upper caste Hindus – a reality that has become more common under Modi’s leadership. In fact, as Roy and women’s groups have consistently highlighted, Dalit women are more likely to be raped by upper-caste Hindus than women from higher caste backgrounds.

BLM: An opportunity to dismantle caste prejudice

So if one wants to understand Indian racism, one must also unpack casteism, which is in some ways more insidious than racism because it is accepted as normal and God-ordained.

Casteism is a particularly difficult concept for non-Indians to grasp because, unlike racism, it is socially and widely accepted as an integral part of Hinduism, and is therefore considered sacrosanct. As Roy states, “Casteism and racism, though they have different histories, are not different except that casteism claims some kind of divine mandate”. In other words, you could say that casteism is not unlike the revisionist Christianity advocated by white South Africans that sanctioned the separation of the races.

Hindus must divorce themselves from the caste system which, in any case, does not benefit the majority of Hindus. They must dismantle the rigidity of the system, which relegates people to superior or inferior status by pigeonholing them into occupational groups that in India are also associated with skin colour. They must make the connection between their own caste prejudices and the racial prejudices endured by people in other countries. This work needs to be done in tandem with anti-racism and human rights movements everywhere, and would require a massive shift in consciousness that would require redefining what it means to be a Hindu.

As Arundhati Roy points out in the introduction to the book Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar, though caste is not the same as race, casteism and racism are comparable. She writes:

Other contemporary abominations like apartheid, racism, sexism, economic imperialism and religious fundamentalism have been politically and intellectually challenged at international forums. How is it that the practice of caste in India – one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisatoin that human society has known – has managed to escape similar scrutiny and censure? Perhaps because it has come to be so fused with Hinduism, and by extension with so much that is seen to be kind and good – mysticism, spiritualism, non-violence, tolerance, vegetarians, Gandhi, yoga, backpackers, the Beatles – that, at least to outsiders, it seems impossible to pry it loose and try to understand it.

Although various Indian governments and India’s constitution have tried to dampen the negative impact of the caste system by instituting various affirmative action programmes and laws that protect Dalits (or what are known as “scheduled castes”) and other minorities, caste prejudice is still rampant in India. Upper caste Hindus still dominate top jobs in government and in business, and colour prejudice is apparent everywhere, including in advertising billboards and movies.

We must understand that casteism, like racism, is an exploitative economic strategy, crafted by those in power to ensure their dominance. The question is always about who gets to control the resources. Slavery and colonialism were institutionalised racism that allowed white people to exploit non-white people and their lands. Racial superiority is nothing but a myth perpetuated by supremacists who would like people to believe that skin colour is a privilege, not just an accident of geography, climate, migratory patterns or other factors.

The global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has offered all of us an opportunity to examine whether our societies have institutionalised discrimination, not just along the lines of race, but also along the lines of caste, religion, ethnicity, tribe, clan, gender and sexuality. This opportunity must not be lost; Indians should seize it with both hands.

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Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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USA: For Right-Wing Extremists the Attack on Capitol Hill Was a Victory

The successful attack on Capitol Hill will fuel years of recruitment and mythologising for post-Trump extremists.

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As attacks grow more shocking and dramatic, the size of their audience increases accordingly. While most observers are terrified and outraged by such violence, a small minority become inspired enough to plan attacks of their own. This is how extremist movements grow. This is how they seek to bend the world to their will.

Social media has dramatically increased the effectiveness of spectacular acts of terror. In 2014, ISIS militants used the viral executions of two American hostages to declare war on the United States. They were rewarded with an exponential increase in Western media coverage and tens of thousands of recruits from more than 100 countries. In 2019, a New Zealand-based white supremacist livestreamed his murder of 51 Muslim congregants in the city of Christchurch. His actions prompted numerous copycat attacks and a global resurgence of white ethno-nationalism.

Yet the media impact and symbolic power of these attacks are dwarfed by the events of January 6, 2021, during which far-right extremists stormed and occupied the U.S. Capitol at the encouragement of President Trump. Several carried firearms. Others reportedly planted improvised explosive devices. In less than two hours, they overwhelmed federal police and forced the Congress to flee. They breached the seat of American government that had stood inviolate for 211 years. It was a violent, extraordinary, unthinkable victory; one whose images and videos captivated the world.

This was the most spectacular domestic extremist attack in American history. The individuals who perpetrated this attack will be mythologized as heroes among future extremists. A generation of far-right recruits too young to have participated will spend their lives dreaming of again seizing the U.S. Capitol. In the words of writer Osita Nwanevu, this will become the “Woodstock” of the far-right — the victory and spectacle by which all future actions are measured.

Many of the individuals who directly participated in this action have undergone years of radicalization in extremist online communities and developed a unique culture steeped in ironic violence. They have come to venerate street fighting as the ultimate form of political expression and can name various skirmishes — the 2017 U.S. presidential inauguration, protests in Berkeley and Portland, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the deadly counter-protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin — as a veteran might count battles. Their ranks have swelled in recent months thanks to the popularity of the QAnon delusion and baseless claims of voter fraud that have been aggressively amplified by Trump and his allies.

In some ways, the attack on the U.S. Capitol was the culmination of this violent and conspiratorial movement of pro-Trump communities. Yet because the attack was so catastrophically effective, it also represents the birth of the post-Trump extremist movement. As casual Trump supporters peel away from the network in the weeks to come, they will be replaced by a new cadre who are less politically engaged but far more likely to undertake acts of violence. So it has been with the evolution of extremist movements around the world; so it will now be in the United States.

(Source: @etbrooking/via thedonald.win)

(Source: @etbrooking/via thedonald.win)

Two factors will make this post-Trump extremist movement uniquely dangerous. The first is the transition to anti-state violence. Participants in the January 6 attack routinely assaulted U.S. Capitol Police (often, ironically, while carrying pro-police paraphernalia). Following the killing of one female participant by law enforcement, online supporters of the attack darkly speculated that the police had been infiltrated by antifa “terrorists.” The woman was quickly recast as a martyr, one whose death might be the spark of a bloody revolution.

Previous far-right, anti-state movements have struggled to gain traction under the Trump presidency. The most successful of these — the so-called “Boogaloo” movement — hid its overt anti-state violence under layers of subtext and irony. When Boogaloo supporters did engage in acts of anti-state terrorism, as with the murder of two California security officers in June 2020, they sapped the movement of popular support. Under a Biden administration, however, this cognitive dissonance will no longer be an issue. If state authorities are seen to be corrupt and working at the behest of a Democratic administration, they will be targets.

The second factor is the mainstream popularity of the far-right extremist movement in the United States. For years, Trump has conditioned Republican voters to support violence as a means of settling political disputes. From the podium, Trump has regularly encouraged assaults on journalists and dehumanized racial and ethnic minorities. This rhetoric has carried terrible consequences. According to a January 6 YouGov poll, 45 percent of Republican voters supported the storming of the U.S. Capitol, seeing it as just another kind of political expression.

This means that a post-Trump extremist movement — even one that routinely engages in violence — may benefit from a level of political support not seen since that of the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction-era American South. And so long as the movement remains politically popular, there will be politicians who seek to court it. As much could already be seen when the U.S. Congress reconvened early in the morning of January 7. In their remarks, several Republican legislators sought to trivialize or excuse the attack that had forced them from their chamber. Congressman Matt Gaetz (FL-1) went so far as to blame antifa activists, whom he alleged — without evidence — had initiated the attack to give Trump supporters a bad name.

The violent extremist movement inspired by the events of January 6 will rank as one of the great challenges of the Biden presidency. Diminishing the strength of this movement will require disentangling isolated, angry Trump supporters from the much smaller core of extremists who seek to do Americans harm. It will require sapping the January 6 attack of its myth-making potential and to ensure that it is viewed, rightly, as a national embarrassment. Most of all, it will require confronting the pundits and conspiracy theorists who will seek to boost the far-right extremist movement in a grasping bid to retain their relevancy.

This work must begin immediately. The stakes were high before. They are higher now.

This article was first published by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. The DFRLab team in Cape Town works in partnership with Code for Africa.

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Dismantling and Transcending Colonialism’s Legacy

Nkrumah, Nyerere and Senghor were acutely aware of the need to displace the epistemic conditions of colonization in order to transcend it.

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Dismantling and Transcending Colonialism’s Legacy
Photo: Unsplash/berenice melis
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In “decolonial” discourse, the African leadership landscape is flattened to the point of becoming a caricature. In an earlier variation of this caricature, Kwame Nkrumah’s injunction of “seek ye first the political kingdom” was presented by political scientist Ali Mazrui as a deficient obsession with political power to the neglect of the economic. In the current variation, the neglect of epistemic “decoloniality” is characterised as the deficient underbelly of the “nationalist” movement.

Kwame Nkrumah, Sédar Senghor, and Julius Nyerere are not only three of the most cerebral figures of Africa’s “nationalist” movement, but unlike Amilcar Cabral they lived to lead their countries in the aftermath of formal colonial rule.

Contrary declarations notwithstanding, Senghor, Nkrumah, and Nyerere were acutely aware of the colonial epistemological project and the need to transcend it. Indeed, philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s re-reading of Negritude as epistemology argued that its salience lies in the dissolution of the binary opposition of subject and object in the logic of René Descartes. Whatever one’s take on the specificity of Senghor’s claims of Africa’s modes of knowing—by insisting on the interconnectedness of subject and object—he deliberately sought to mark out what is deficient in modern European epistemology and valorise African systems of knowledge. This epistemological project is built on a distinct African ontological premise.

Nkrumah and Nyerere were most acutely aware of the urgent need to displace the epistemic conditions of colonisation. In the case of Nkrumah, the imperative of epistemic decolonisation was most forcefully expressed in the 1962 launch of the Encyclopedia Africana project, initially with W.E.B. Du Bois as editor, and the 1963 launch of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon.

Nkrumah’s 1963 speech at the launch of the Institute stressed the epistemic erasure at the heart of colonialism, linking political and epistemic freedom. “It is only in conditions of total freedom and independence from foreign rule and interferences that the aspirations of our people will see real fulfillment and the African genius finds its best expression,” Nkrumah argued. If colonialism involves the study of Africa from the standpoint of the colonialist, the new Institute of African Studies was charged with studying Africa from the standpoint of Africans. Its responsibility, Nkrumah argued, is the excavation, validation, restoration, and valorisation of African knowledge systems.

Nkrumah exhorted the staff and students at the new Institute to “embrace and develop those aspirations and responsibilities which are clearly essential for maintaining a progressive and dynamic African society.” The study of Africa’s “history, culture, and institutions, languages and arts” must be done, Nkrumah insisted, in “new African centered ways—in entire freedom from the propositions and presuppositions of the colonial epoch.” It is also worth remembering that the subtitle of the most philosophical of Nkrumah’s writings, Consciencism, is “philosophy and ideology for de-colonization.

Much is made about Nyerere surrounding “himself with foreign ‘Fabian socialists.’” Yet the most profound influence on Nyerere’s thoughts and practice was not the varieties of European “socialisms” but the “socialism” of the African village in which he was born and raised—with its norms of mutuality, convivial hospitality, and shared labour. Nyerere’s modes of sense-making (which after all is what epistemology means) was rooted in this ontology and norms of sociality.

For Nyerere, the ethics that are inherent in these norms of sociality stand in sharp contrast to the colonial project. It was, perhaps, in Education for Self-Reliance (1967) that Nyerere set out, most clearly, the task of the educational system in postcolonial Tanganyika, one that is not simply about the production of technical skill but the contents of its pedagogy. It is a pedagogy that requires the transformation of the inherited colonial system of education (Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism, 1968). The pedagogy is anchored on the three principles of Nyerere’s idea of a society framed by African socialism: “quality and respect for human dignity; sharing of the resources which are produced by our efforts; work by everyone and exploitation by none.” It frames the ethics of a new, postcolonial society.

Whatever their limitations, it was not for lack of aspiration and imagination. Nyerere is the one who most aptly communicated to us the responsibility of the current generation to pick up the baton where the older generation laid it down. The struggle for political independence was never understood as an end in itself. The ‘flag independence’ we so decry makes possible the task that subsequent generations must undertake and fulfill. The task of realising the postcolonial vision is as much a responsibility of the current generation as it was of the older generation.

Finally, as Mwalimu reminds us, on matters concerning Africa, “the sin of despair would be the most unforgivable.” Avoiding that sin starts with acknowledging and embracing the positive efforts of the older generation while advancing the pan-African project today.

This piece is part of the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series from Post-Colonialisms Today (PCT), a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent recapturing progressive thought and policies from early post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. Sign up for updates here.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Revealed: MI6 ‘Misled’ Two Inquiries Into Arrest of Lee Rigby’s Killer

Three intelligence officers tell Declassified UK that Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, tracked and arranged the arrest of Michael Adebolajo in Kenya, contradicting MI6’s testimony to two intelligence oversight reviews.

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Republication courtesy of Declassified UK / the Daily Maverick. First published by Declassified UK on 12 November 2020.

The town of Kizingitini on Paté island, just off Kenya’s north-eastern coast, is an otherwise unremarkable fishing village surrounded by mangroves. As a gateway to the Horn of Africa, the island inhabits an historically strategic location, with Arab and Portuguese merchants taking turns to settle the island.

In recent history, the island has enjoyed relative peace and, in a nod to its lush surroundings and history, its locals sing: “None who go to Paté returns; what returns is wailing”.

In November 2010, the island unexpectedly received international attention when British terror suspect, Michael Adebolajo, and five others were arrested there by Kenyan police. They were allegedly planning to cross into Somalia to join the al-Shabaab militant group responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya.

It was one stage of a journey that would end with the murder of a British soldier on the streets of London and a parliamentary investigation into the handling of the case by the UK’s domestic security service MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), known as MI6.

The British government denied prior knowledge of – or involvement in – Adebolajo’s arrest and interrogation, which he claimed was abusive. However, defying expectations, and under controversial circumstances, the British High Commission in Nairobi intervened to bring Adebolajo back to the UK and save him from terror charges in Kenya.

Once back in Britain, Adebolajo claimed he was subject to ongoing harassment by MI5 and that the security agency tried to convince him to become a covert human intelligence source in order to spy on Islamic extremists.

Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya in 2010, but brought to UK and released where in 2013 he murdered British soldier, Lee Rigby

Less than three years after being returned to the UK, on 22 May 2013, Adebolajo and his accomplice Michael Adebowale hunted down Fusilier Lee Rigby, near his barracks in Woolwich, southeast London and brutally hacked him to death in broad daylight. Adebolajo and Adebowale were later convicted of murder and sentenced to life and 45 years in prison, respectively.

Claims that Adebolajo had previously been on the radar of the UK intelligence agencies prompted a parliamentary investigation into whether the killing of Rigby could have been prevented by the spy agencies.

The review by the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), published in 2014, found mistakes in British security operations but concluded they were not “significant enough to have made a difference” in stopping the attack.

The ISC report, and another review conducted in 2016 by the Intelligence Services Commissioner, Mark Waller, both concluded that Adebolajo’s arrest was not procured by British intelligence.

But an investigation by Declassified in Kenya now provides a different picture, contradicting both the reviews and MI6’s testimony to them.

ARCTIC in Kenya

Both reviews covered the involvement of a body called ARCTIC, which the Intelligence Commissioner’s report described as “a Kenyan counter-terrorism intelligence unit which has a close working relationship with… HMG [Her Majesty’s Government].”

It continued: “Although ARCTIC can and does act independently of HMG and without its knowledge, their relationship appears to be much closer in practice than some of the more formal, theoretical statements about it might suggest.”

Declassified previously found that ARCTIC is in fact an MI6 liaison cell within Kenya’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) counter-terrorism unit and plays a key role in identifying, tracking, locating and interrogating terror suspects in Kenya.

ARCTIC undertakes undercover operations to produce actionable intelligence on targets who are then killed or captured by the police, including the clandestine CIA-backed paramilitary Kenyan police unit named the Rapid Response Team (RRT). Declassified has also revealed that ARCTIC is involved in raids involving alleged summary executions, such as the case of terror suspect Kassim Omollo in 2013.

Declassified can now reveal that MI6, working with Kenyan’s NIS intelligence officers, tracked and arranged for Adebolajo’s arrest, according to two NIS officers familiar with the operation, who made the admission independently of each other. Their testimony was further corroborated by a former CIA counter-terrorism officer familiar with operations in east Africa.

“For that specific case they [MI6] were here. I can’t deny that”, one of the NIS officers told Declassified. “If it were not for them I think it would have been difficult for us to do that job… That specific assignment was important. Because the mark [suspect] was from their place, their country.”

Declassified has learned that upon Adebolajo’s arrival in Kenya in October 2010, MI6 alerted Kenya’s NIS and sought approval from its Director to meet with two intelligence officers and brief them on the case at NIS’ headquarters in Nairobi.

MI6 told two government reviews it was not involved in Adebolajo’s arrest in Kenya

A team of Kenyan intelligence trackers then moved to the coastal city of Mombasa, where it tracked Adebolajo and his associates to Paté island and arranged for their arrest before they could sail off to Somalia, it was alleged.

An investigating officer with Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) familiar with Adebolajo’s case confirmed to Declassified that his arrest came after the local police officer in charge received intelligence about his movements.

British covert surveillance capabilities played a key role, the two NIS officers told Declassified. One of the officers spoke of the difficulty in tracking Adebolajo due to his awareness of electronic surveillance measures. Believing he could outsmart British and Kenyan intelligence, Adebolajo often relied in Kenya on email communications at internet cafes.

But Adebolajo was unaware of extensive British intelligence surveillance capabilities, including those of MI6’s sister agency, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) — Britain’s signals intelligence organisation — which can conduct surveillance on targets.

The “GHOSTHUNTER” programme, run by GCHQ, operates in collaboration with the US National Security Agency, and can target internet and phone access by identified individuals, by intercepting communications transmitted through satellite terminals, documents leaked by Edward Snowden show.

GCHQ has made regular use of GHOSTHUNTER to locate “high value targets” for kill or capture operations in countries such as Kenya, Iraq, and Pakistan, according to documents leaked by Snowden.

MI6 team worked with Kenyan intelligence cell to track Adebolajo and arrange his arrest, Kenyan officers say

It is possible that, in addition to its own field surveillance capabilities, MI6 relied on the programme’s capabilities to track Adebolajo.

However, the two NIS officers confirmed to Declassified that the arrest was designed to appear exactly as the UK Intelligence Commissioner asserted in his review: “happenstance”.

The officer also confirmed that the ARCTIC intelligence officers who interrogated Adebolajo while in Kenyan police custody were the same officers later involved in the capture and interrogation of another Briton, Jermaine Grant, a year later.

Britain’s Foreign Office, which oversees MI6, declined to answer questions for this article, citing a policy of not commenting on intelligence matters.

Misleading inquiries

The Kenyan officers’ testimony contradicts the evidence MI6 provided to the ISC and the Intelligence Commissioner, and the conclusions of both reports. Evidence was given to the ISC by Sir John Sawers, then the head of MI6, and other MI6 officers.

The report of the ISC, which was chaired by former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, stated that “both SIS and MI5 were notified of Adebolajo’s arrest and detention. Prior to this, SIS and MI5 had been unaware that Adebolajo had travelled to Kenya”.

The Intelligence Commissioner’s report similarly concluded: “Neither SIS nor MI5 knew that Mr Adebolajo was in Kenya prior to his arrest there; and SIS had the operational lead thereafter but no contact with him”. The Commissioner, Mark Waller, put down Adebolajo’s arrest by the Paté island police to a “chance sighting”. Waller concluded that the individual MI6 officers who gave evidence to his inquiry “did their best to answer all my questions honestly and truthfully”.

He also described, somewhat inconsistently, MI6’s engagement with the review as “wholly inadequate”, stating that it “provided inaccurate and incomplete information and generally sought to ‘fence’ with and ‘close down’ lines of inquiry, rather than engage constructively.”

Evidence provided to Declassified supports this view. “That’s on them to lie to their oversight committee”, a former CIA counter-terrorism official with knowledge of Adebolajo’s case said of MI6’s claim of non-involvement.

“That whole case was a guy who had been on the radar and they lost him [prior to Lee Rigby’s killing]. For whatever reason, they couldn’t take it to the next level and 6 [MI6] is trying to cover their ass, no different than the FBI does and we do. We fuck up too.”

“That’s on them [MI6] to lie to their oversight committee”, former CIA counter-terrorism officer with knowledge of the case tells Declassified

The Intelligence Commissioner’s report contained hints of MI6’s involvement in the arrest before going on to dismiss them. It noted: “Intelligence Officer 1 [an MI6 officer] took a comment by one of his Kenyan counterparts as an indication that Mr Adebolajo had been arrested as the result of intelligence provided by an agent”. But the report concluded: “As it happens, there almost certainly was no agent”.

The report also stated that on 18 November 2010—three days before Adebolajo was arrested—an MI6 officer presumed to be based in Nairobi sent an email to MI6’s head office in London summarising Kenyan laws and procedures on the arrest, detention and deportation of British nationals suspected of extremism.

The email also outlined the process whereby MI6 and MI5 would work together on the identification of targets—and noted that the British government would work closely with ARCTIC on the planning of detention operations.

Accountability

MI6’s reluctance to disclose its role in Adebolajo’s arrest is likely to be explained by the desire to keep secret its extensive relationship with Kenya’s intelligence service, as recently revealed in a months-long investigation by Declassified. It may face questions about its involvement in Kenya’s bloody war on terror, which has seen hundreds of suspects killed or disappeared.

The ISC stated in its report: “Where HM Government has a close working relationship with counterterrorist units, they will share responsibility for those units’ actions.”

The Intelligence Commissioner agreed, stating: “I consider that any allegations of mistreatment made against ARCTIC would be of concern to HMG irrespective of whether it co-operated in or was aware of the underlying operation because of their close working relationship and intelligence-sharing arrangements.”

The MI6 ARCTIC liaison cell was also behind the intelligence that led to the capture of two Britons in Mombasa three years after Adebolajo’s arrest in 2013, and of a doctor and three others in Kenya in 2016, over alleged attempts to stage an anthrax attack in support of the Islamic State terrorist group, Declassified can also reveal.

A Kenyan officer familiar with the operation to arrest the anthrax attack suspects recalled a pre-meeting between ARCTIC officers, RRT paramilitaries and ATPU officers. The ARCTIC intelligence officers “gave us the type of the suspect, whom we were going to arrest, and—during the search—the items which we were to go for”, the officer said.

One of the Kenyan officers described the ARCTIC cell as “highly mobile, highly covert”, even by NIS standards, and composed of human intelligence field operatives and tech specialists. Alongside MI6, the CIA and Israel’s Mossad each have separate liaison cells within Kenya’s NIS. Each cell is composed of a team of Kenyan officers dedicated to working with the foreign intelligence agencies to counter terrorism in the country.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind told Declassified that its allegations were “very disturbing” but said he was “sceptical” of them, adding that it was “highly improbable” that MI6 officers deliberately lied about their involvement.

He stated: “It is not impossible that certain SIS officers were carrying out activities in Kenya that had not been authorised by London… [but]… my main reason for scepticism is that I cannot see what motive SIS would have had to lie to the ISC.”

Sir Malcolm added: “There would have been nothing embarrassing or controversial for SIS in volunteering this information. It had no relevance to the subsequent brutal murder of Lee Rigby. I do not see any credible motive for the Chief of SIS, and his colleagues, to have lied to a statutory Committee of Parliament.”

But Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who chaired one of the reviews, claims there was no “credible motive for the chief of SIS, and his colleagues, to have lied to a statutory Committee of Parliament”

The revelations cast significant doubt on the willingness of Britain’s intelligence oversight body, the ISC, as well as the Intelligence Commissioner, to fully examine Adebolajo’s claims, pursue leads and interview available witnesses as part of their reviews.

The Guardian previously reported that “the committee [ISC] is alleged to have reached its conclusions without speaking to a number of witnesses, including a family member and lawyers, who claim Adebolajo complained a year before the attack of repeated approaches by the security services”.

Tasnime Akunjee, a criminal defence solicitor who is familiar with Adebolajo’s case and represented a close friend of his who appeared on BBC Newsnight to tell Adebolajo’s story, told Declassified, “SIS [MI6] and the UK authorities have worked hand in glove with the Kenyan authorities, with the full knowledge that the Kenyan authorities have been accused many times of extrajudicial killings… That would be their motivation to lie; given that the UK authorities even in Guantanamo Bay have been found liable simply for being present when individuals were being tortured.”

Akunjee added: “Where there is intelligence sharing between countries, the rule is that nobody leaks. If it does leak from one particular side then that relationship is strained or then ceases. So there would not just be a motivation for the security services to keep a lid on this, but generally for the entire UK government to want to maintain that close working relationship with Kenya.”

Former Intelligence Commissioner Mark Waller told Declassified via an intermediary that “he has always felt it inappropriate to give interviews in relation to his role as Intelligence Services Commissioner”.

Sir John Sawers declined to comment. Adebolajo’s lawyers also declined to comment, citing the need to review the findings with their client.

Read Part 1 of this investigation here.
Read Part 2 of this investigation here.

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