Spies and terrorists – how deep are links between British state and Manchester bomber?
Yet another link between the British state and the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, was revealed on Tuesday, after it was reported that he was rescued from war-torn Libya by the Royal Navy in 2014.
The rescue was another example of the links between the British state and Abedi. The connections illustrate the complicated UK-Libyan relationship and how over-extended security services were fatally unable to monitor emerging homegrown terrorist threats.
Missed opportunities and unwise diplomatic wrangling would ultimately contribute to the deaths of 22 people at the Manchester Arena in May last year.
The father and jihadists
Salman's father, Ramadan Abedi, settled in the UK after fleeing Libya where he was a prominent member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). The militant Islamist group found itself an unusual bedfellow for the British state, as both shared an enemy in the form of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. At this point, the UK had severed diplomatic relations with him over his role in the Lockerbie bombing.
In 2002, whistleblower and former MI6 agent David Shayler accused the British intelligence services of sponsoring the LIFG to assassinate Gaddafi. The LIFG were allegedly given $160,000 for a failed assassination attempt in February 1996, a claim the UK government has denied.
Many LIFG members, seeking sanctuary from Gaddafi, were given refuge by Britain with a significant number settling in Manchester, where Salman was born.
Welcome back, Muammar
As Britain, under the guidance of Tony Blair, sought rapprochement with Gaddafi, ostensibly in order to garner his assistance in the 'War on Terror,' the LIFG found themselves shunned by the country that had once welcomed them.
In 2004, their leader Abdel Hakim Belhaj was, with the assistance of MI6, 'rendered' to Tripoli where Gaddafi's forces tortured him. The following year, the UK put the group to which it had once provided refuge on its list of terrorist organizations, its usefulness apparently at an end.
The fall of Gaddafi
When Britain turned its back on Gaddafi following the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the LIFG suddenly appeared useful again. In 2011, Ramadan Abedi was one of hundreds of LIFG members who returned from the UK and elsewhere to Libya with a view to fighting the embattled dictator, seemingly with the blessing of the British state.
In April this year, the British government, after denying previous accusations, finally admitted its links to the LIFG. Minister of State for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Alistair Burt stated that "during the Libyan conflict in 2011, the British government was in communication with a wide range of Libyans involved in the conflict against the [Gaddafi] regime forces.
"It is likely that this included former members of [the] Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and 17 February Martyrs' Brigade, as part of our broad engagement during this time."
During the years that followed, Salman Abedi traveled back and forth between Manchester and Tripoli during the summer holidays. Salman reportedly fought alongside his father as civil war continued in Libya long after Gaddafi's fall.
Salman comes back to Britain
In the months leading up to the Manchester attack, Abedi came back to the UK. His return caught the attention of MI5, who had received two separate pieces of intelligence on the young man.
An official report into the attack, conducted by David Anderson QC, noted that: "On two separate occasions in the months prior to the attack, intelligence was received by MI5 whose significance was not fully appreciated at the time. It was assessed at the time not to be [related to] terrorism but to possible non-nefarious activity or to criminality on the part of Salman Abedi.
"In retrospect, the intelligence can be seen to have been highly relevant to the planned attack."
The intelligence service's failings were in part due to "scarce investigative resources," noted Anderson. Investigators jobs were not helped by the state's decision to ally with violent organizations in order to achieve a geopolitical goal. Britain is now facing accusations that its resettlement program for the White Helmets group from Syria could be once again letting in possible future militants.
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