The Manchester bombing: waking to the horror of a UK–Libya nexus
3 Jun 2017|

The horror of the Manchester bombing runs along multiple planes. It wasn’t just that the attack, like that on popular al-Faqma ice-cream parlor in Baghdad’s Karada district one week later, callously targeted children.

Two days before the Manchester bombing, on 20 May, a massive ambush attack in southern Libya saw at least 141 killed. Then on 23 May a siege in the name of the so-called Islamic State (IS) erupted in the western Mindanao city of Marawi in the Philippines killing over 100.  The first week of Ramadan saw a double bombing Baghdad that claimed 27 lives followed by a massive blast in Kabul killing more than 80, all in the name of IS.  A massive IS truck bomb in Karada last Ramadan killed 341.  These events speak of grim days ahead.

For the British security community, the horror of the first massive terrorist attack since the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, which took 56 lives, came with the realisation that after twelve years of containing the threat, terrorists had finally found a way of breaking though.

Realistically, the sheer weight of numbers meant that it was always a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if. Around 3,000 security personnel, in addition to regular police, are tracking 3,000 suspected terrorists, and keeping tabs on a further 20,000 previously investigated. With the UK security services running 500 separate lines of investigations and making, on average, one terror-related arrest each day, it was inevitable that something would eventually slip past.

The defensive game has been impressive. Dozens of terrorist plots thwarted since 2005, including at least eighteen in the four years since the lone-wolf murder in June 2013 of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich and five in the last few weeks alone.

The grim circumstances linking the lone bomber, Salman Abedi, and his family in Manchester with terrorist networks in Libya, is compounded by the realisation—crystal-clear in hindsight—that Britain’s fixation on toppling Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 opened the way for a massive, systemic security failure. It was a disaster waiting to happen and it was hiding in plain-sight.

Salman Abedi was born 22 years ago in Manchester to parents who had fled Gaddafi’s Libya in 1991. The radical Islamist views of Salman’s father, Ramadan Abedi, had long provoked concerns among the large Libyan diaspora community in southern Manchester. His hyper-religious, judgmental outlook, and the knowledge that he was linked to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) worried many.

Manchester was a hub for LIFG militants, who used the Muslim Brotherhood-orientated Didsbury Mosque as an informal base. LIFG leaders in Libya include Manchester man and master bomb-maker Abd al-Basset Azzouz. Azzouz had lived in the same street as Ramadan Abedi in 2000 before moving to Libya in 2009, via Afghanistan/Pakistan, reportedly under orders from al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, to lead operations in Libya. Azzouz was suspected of involvement in the 2012 Benghazi attacks and was thought to have recruited several hundred fighters in eastern Libya.

It now appears that Salman Abedi, who returned from one of many trips to Libya just four days before the attack, may have been tutored in bomb-making by Azzouz. All of this was made possible by the fact that the UK government operated an ‘open door’ policy after the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi commenced, allowing LIFG and other militants to freely shuttle between the UK and Libya

Known to social workers and police but not considered to represent a significant risk, Salman was short-tempered, not very bright, and easily influenced. By 2012 his behaviour had become a cause for concern for his family and friends. He began to hang out with gang members, smoke cannabis, and drink heavily by the time he was arrested on charges of theft and assault.

Nevertheless, when his extremist statements caused two of his friends to call the national counter-terrorism hotline, the first of five such reports, he wasn’t known to police for holding extremist ideas. Nor, despite the reports, was his name ever registered with the Prevent countering violent extremism intervention program.

Earlier in 2011, when Salman joined his family for a while after they moved back to Libya he had come under the influence of the radical preacher Abdul-Basit Ghwela.

In 2013 Raphael Hostey (Abu Qaqa al-Britani), a neighbourhood friend of Salman and ‘central node’ for extremist networks in Manchester, travelled to Syria. Hostey, based in Raqqa with a group of charismatic British propagandists, alongside Melbourne man Neil Prakash, quickly established himself as one of IS’s leading recruiters. It’s believed that Salman continued to communicate with Hostey and other Mancunians, including Ronald Fiddler and Raymond Matimba, fighting with IS in Syria.

Salman returned again from Tripoli to live in Manchester in 2014 and enrolled at the University of Salford. Struggling to stay focused in the absence of his parents, he dropped out of his studies at Salford in 2015 and was reported to have become increasingly reclusive and focused on religion.

Whilst Salman’s radicalisation appears to have been years in the making it accelerated sharply over the past twelve months. In May 2016 Hostey was reported to have been killed in a targeted drone strike. One week later, Salman’s Manchester associate Abdalraouf Abdallah was jailed for nine years on terrorism charges. In that same week, his close friend Abdul Wahab Hafidah, was killed in a gang clash, which Salman saw as being motivated by hatred towards Muslims.

Following these events Salman again moved back to Libya to live with his parents and younger brother Hashem. By January 2017 the FBI was reported to have warned MI5 that Salman was known to be part of a Northern African-based IS cell planning an attack on a political target in the UK.

Around the same time Salman was reportedly back in Manchester and worrying his friends by openly advocating suicide attacks. By the beginning of May, he had returned one last time to his family in Libya. Fearing trouble if he went back to Manchester, his parents are said to have withheld his passport until he persuaded his mother to return it on the pretext of wanting to make a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.

Minutes before mowing-down the young fans and their guardians streaming out of the Ariana Grande concert Salman phoned Hashem and asked him to request their mother’s forgiveness. The next day Ramadan and Hashem Abedi were arrested in Tripoli.

In the wake of the bombing 1,000 police worked on 7,000 lines of inquiry, investigating 300 digital devices and eighteen scenes under guard. Sixteen arrests were made, mostly across Greater Manchester, with eleven suspects remaining in detention.

And yet, it now appears that Salman built the improvised explosive device (IED) by himself in a rented flat. His backpack bomb used a TATP explosive charge, similar to that used by IS in France and Belgium, packed with hardware store shrapnel—screws, nails, nuts and bolts—stockpiled months earlier, carefully packed around a metal tin.

Initial reports suggest that Salman’s IED employed a sophisticated detonator system. He had rented two or more Airbnb apartments, processing the common chemicals used to make the volatile TATP plastic explosive charge in one and assembling the IED in the second (located near the Arena). It seems certain he was well-tutored in making TATP, nick-named ‘The Mother of Satan’ for its propensity to explode in face of inexpert chemists, and assembling IEDs, whilst in Libya, and that the electronic detonation circuitry may have been carried back from Tripoli.

Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and IS generally employ a mule for a suicide attack rather than wasting a skilled bomb-maker. Salman was neither.

The full horror of the Manchester bombing lies in what it means for further attacks and the future of the struggle. In the chaos of post-Gaddafi Libya, a potent witches’ brew has come to the boil. Troubled youth caught between two cultures are readily recruited. And, although no longer holding territory, IS remains potent, enjoying some strange new alliances on the ground with al-Qaeda affiliates.

Somehow, Libyan-based terrorists have found a way to train unskilled foot-soldiers to reliably make TATP and build IEDs. What’s more, they flew beneath the radar of British intelligence, which had feared a hitherto unknown Manchester cell. Through the Manchester bombing they may have discovered something much worse.