LONDON — Pressure mounted Friday for MI5, Britain’s domestic-security agency, to explain how two men with years of involvement with extremist Islamic groups were left free to kill an off-duty soldier this week, striking him with their car in a London suburb and then hacking him repeatedly with butchers’ cleavers.
Because of its brutality and the fact the episode was recorded in detail by witnesses with cellphone cameras, the attack outside the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich on Wednesday shocked many in Britain after years of success by MI5 and other security agencies in tracking militant cells and pre-empting terrorist plots.
Officials Friday confirmed the identity of the second of the two suspects as Michael Adebowale, 22, who was born in Nigeria and immigrated to Britain as a child. The other man was previously identified as Michael Adebolajo, 28, who was born in Britain to a Christian family that had moved from Nigeria and who converted to Islam after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Both men survived police gunshot wounds sustained after the slaying of Lee Rigby, 25, a bandsman and machine-gunner in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, when witnesses said they charged at police officers with cleavers and a handgun. They remain under armed police guard in London hospitals and have not been charged.
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The possibility of wider involvement in the attack was suggested by the arrests of two women and a man believed to have family links to Adebolajo, though the women were released without being charged Friday and only the man, said by the police to be 29, remained in custody.
Officials confirmed Friday that the two suspects in the killing had been known to MI5 for years, and in the case of Adebolajo, since at least 2005. While there were few details about the militant activities of Adebowale, Adebolajo has a long record of involvement with extremist groups, according to security officials.
Those activities, they said, included involvement in violent protests and an arrest at a London airport last year when he was preparing to fly to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, a group linked to al-Qaida that has been listed as a terrorist group by Britain and the United States.
British newspapers published photographs of Adebolajo at several protests organized by extremist Islamic groups in recent years, including an image showing him at a London protest in 2007 standing behind Anjem Choudary, leader of Al Muhajiroun, a group that was banned in 2010.
Amid widespread calls for an official accounting from MI5 and other security agencies, Rigby’s family held a news conference in Manchester, his hometown.
There, his stepfather, Ian Rigby, flanked by the soldier’s sobbing mother and wife, broke down as he read a eulogy to the serviceman, who had served in a combat unit in Helmand, the Afghan province that has been the scene of much of the bloodiest fighting of the war by British and U.S. troops. “We would like to say, ‘Good night, Lee, rest in peace, our fallen soldier,’” Rigby said.
Rebecca Rigby, Lee Rigby’s widow and mother of their 2-year-old son, said she understood the danger he faced while deployed abroad but she had not expected him to be in peril at home. “When he’s in the (United Kingdom), you think they’re safe,” she said.
His family described him as a vibrant, well-loved man and a doting father to his son, Jack. Ian Rigby said his stepson’s last text message to his mother read: “Thank you for supporting me all these years. You’re not just my mum; you’re my best friend. Good night. I love you loads.”
Meanwhile, senior British political figures hastened to offer assurances that what MI5 knew about Adebolajo and Adebowale before Wednesday’s attack would be thoroughly investigated by MI5 itself, and by a parliamentary committee that has powers of scrutiny over the security agency.
That suggested MI5 faces weeks, and perhaps months, of questioning over the affair.
Rigby’s slaying has raised fears of copycat violence and of a backlash against Muslims in Britain. Hours after the killing, members of the far-right English Defense League converged on the attack site to rally against Islam, clashing with riot police.
Several mosques have reported vandalism and other abuse since Rigby’s slaying.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.