Libya joins hunt for networks behind Manchester attack

Libya’s Special Deterrence Force said bomber's brother Hashem Abedi was arrested in Tripoli and told them he and Salman belonged to ISIL.

Hashem Abedi, the brother of Manchester bomber Salman, is seen in a photo provided by Libya’s Special Deterrence Force on May 25, 2017. Libyan Interior Ministry via Reuters
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MANCHESTER // Libya’s UN-backed government says it is working with British authorities to identify the “terrorist networks” behind the Manchester concert bombing.

Interior ministry undersecretary Col Abdulsalam Ashour condemned the attack on Thursday and said the Tripoli-based government’s antiterror force was investigating.

British officials have identified the attacker as British-born Salman Abedi, 22, whose family is from Libya. Abedi’s father and younger brother were arrested in Tripoli on Wednesday. A statement from Libya’s Special Deterrence Force claims the brother told investigators both he and Salman belonged to ISIL.

Before his arrest, their father, Ramadan Abedi, said his son was innocent. However, Sky News Arabia reported that Abedi senior was a member of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) whose leader Abdul Hakim Belhaj is closely associated with the cleric Ali Al Sallabi, the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Sallabi is believed to be living in Doha, Qatar with Qatari support.

Police in Tripoli also told Agence France-Presse that Ramadan Abedi was a member of LIFG who found refuge in Britain before returning to fight against the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

Manchester in north-west England is home to the largest cluster of Libyans in Europe, numbering 21,000, and the community became a hotbed of opposition to dictator Qaddafi, who was killed in 2011.

It contains a diverse range of people from doctors to experienced members of the LIFG, which fought alongside Al Qaeda and the Taliban against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and, back home, sought to overthrow Qaddafi and replace his regime with an Islamic one..

“If you were a Libyan living outside Libya, you were probably someone who was not very friendly to Qaddafi,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute security think tank in London. “Within that spectrum, you’d have everyone from secular nationalists to violent Islamists and jihadists, and because they are all fighting the same fight against the same regime, they tend to group together.”

British detectives are trying to work out where Abedi slotted in to the picture of radicalisation among the overlapping circles of allegiance in and around Manchester.

The LIFG has been banned in Britain since 2005, meaning it is considered a terrorist organisation, and it is an offence to be a member, support it or encourage support.

“In the case of the LIFG, quite a lot of them ended up coming to the UK, where they were taking advantage of the fact that the country has a fairly open approach to political dissidents,” said Mr Pantucci. Within the Abedi family, armed struggle was “fairly normalised”, he added.

Reda Fhelboom, a Libyan journalist who has spent many years living in Manchester, said Britain was paying an “entirely predictable” price for allowing Libyan Islamists into the country.

“Everyone knows that hundreds of extremists have taken refuge in Britain,” he said in Tripoli. “For several years, Britain has protected hundreds of extremists who are wanted in their own countries. The attack carried out by a Libyan was entirely predictable. I was not surprised, because every day in Manchester I see Libyan extremists from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and others walking around at liberty.”

Libyan refugee Abdalraouf Abdallah, 23, was jailed for five and a half years in July last year, when he was convicted of trying to help other Manchester-based extremists to join ISIL. Abdallah lived in Moss Side in south Manchester, a short drive from the Abedi family home.

Meanwhile fellow Mancunian Raphael Hostey, who left Britain in 2013 and is believed to have been killed in a 2016 drone strike, is thought to have recruited several young Britons to fight for ISIL and is thought to have formed a “significant connection” to Abedi.

Salah Suhbi, a member of parliament in Libya who grew up in Sheffield, northern England, said Manchester Libyans had grown increasingly concerned about radicalisation in the city.

“There’s a recruitment policy, we’ve been warning about it for years,” he said. “People have been talking about this for the past three or four years, how ruthless they [extremist recruiters] are. These people are recruiting from the second and third-generation Libyan Brits or Arab Brits.”

Mohamed Fadil, spokesman for the Libyan community in Manchester, said they were shocked by Monday’s attack but admitted there was a problem in their midst that needed to be tackled.

Mr Fadil said the community met in the aftermath of the suicide attack to address the issue. “The general consensus is there is a problem. Maybe we’re not reaching out enough to our young people,” he said.

As the manhunt continued for the network behind Monday’s bombing, US president Donald Trump threatened to prosecute those responsible for leaking investigation details to the US media.

London reacted furiously after sensitive details about the investigation into the attack which killed 22 people appeared in the American press. The US media named Salman Abedi before his name was released in Britain and the following day, The New York Times published photographs of what is thought to be the detonator Abedi used to set off his nail bomb.

“We are furious. This is completely unacceptable,” a government ministry source said of the images.

As a result of the leaks, Britain said it will no longer share intelligence regarding this attack. In Brussels for a Nato summit on Thursday, prime minister Theresa May confronted President Trump over the issue.

“She expressed the view that the intelligence sharing relationship we have with the US is hugely important and valuable, but that the information that we share should be kept secure,” said the prime minister’s spokesman.

Mr Trump, who led Nato allies in paying respects to the victims, slammed the alleged leaks as “deeply troubling”, adding, “If appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Libyan officials said Abedi’s brother Hashem had been under surveillance for six weeks and said investigators had information he was planning “a terrorist attack” in Tripoli. A relative told Agence France-Presse that Abedi had travelled to Manchester from Libya four days before the bombing. German police said Abedi made a brief stopover at Dusseldorf Airport, while a Turkish official said he had transited through Istanbul airport without saying where he was travelling from.

A source close to the family said Abedi wanted to avenge the murder in Manchester last year of a friend of Libyan descent, with his sister Jomana Abedi also telling the Wall Street Journal he was driven by a desire for revenge.

“I think he saw children – Muslim children – dying everywhere, and wanted revenge. He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge,” she said.

British officials said Abedi had been on the intelligence radar before the massacre.

Three days after the attack, 23 of the 75 people still in hospital are in critical condition.

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press