In August 2011, I was in Sabratha, the latest city on the road to Tripoli to fall to the rebels. After months of fighting, there was now a clear sense that the endgame was approaching in Libya’s bloody civil war: the trap was closing around Muammar Gaddafi. While admiring an ancient basilica in Sabratha, a Unesco heritage site – built on rich layers of Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine history – an American colleague and I were approached by an armed fighter dressed in combat fatigues. He was Akram Ramadan, from Manchester, who had given up his job as an MOT inspector to join the revolution in the country of his birth. Ramadan wasn’t the only one to have made the journey from the north west of England: we met other fighters, many from Manchester. There was banter about Libyan sunshine and Manchester rain, United and City. Eventually, my American colleague, losing patience, asked me: ‘Hey, do you think there is any chance at all of speaking to someone who is not from Manchester?’.
We got to Tripoli a few days later. Colonel Gaddafi fled during the battle for the capital, only to be later captured and killed in Sirte. David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been instrumental in launching the Nato military campaign in Libya with their cry of ‘Gaddafi must go’, had accomplished their mission. Four years later, while covering the Sousse massacre in Tunisia in which 38 people were killed, it emerged that the killer, Seifeddine Rezgui, had trained at an Isis terrorist camp across the border in Libya. The camp was in Sabratha and had supplied the gunmen who carried out an attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis three months earlier. Also training there, Rezgui had told friends, were ‘two guys from England’.
Manchester has the largest Libyan community in the UK and a considerable number of them took part in the uprising against the Gaddafi regime. A few stayed behind in Libya, having bought into the ‘glamour’ of the militia lifestyle. Most returned to their lives in the UK without becoming involved with terrorism.
But now we have Salman Abedi: the Manchester bomber – born to Libyan parents in England – who is responsible for murdering 22 people and injuring 64 others on Monday night. Yesterday afternoon, his father Ramadan Belgasem Abedi, or al-Obedei, was arrested in Tripoli while he was giving a TV interview claiming that his dead son was innocent. Another son was detained soon afterwards in the Libyan capital; while another of the bomber’s brothers was earlier arrested in Manchester.
Salman Abedi’s indoctrination may have taken place in Libya – he had visited the country often, including a trip quite recently (reportedly in the days before the attack). There is also the growing possibility that he was part of a terrorist cell with others of Libyan origin.
It is also now being reported that Abedi may have travelled on to Syria from Libya. If so, this journey would not have been unusual: a large flow of jihadists made their way from Libya to Syria. Although this tide slowed down after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis caliph, instructed Libyan followers to concentrate on establishing the brand in their own country instead.
Abedi’s father was reportedly a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and had come to England with his wife to flee the regime. There was, at the time, brutal strife between Colonel Gaddafi’s forces and LIFG and other Islamist groups.
The LIFG was a well-known group. A one-time leader, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, is taking legal action against the British government over the rendition of him, and his wife, Fatima Boudchar, to the regime. We had found letters from a senior MI6 officer in London about the service’s part in the affair at the offices of Moussa Koussa, Colonel Gaddafi’s security chief. Mr Belhaj is now the head of a political party in Libya, al-Watan.
The LIFG was proscribed as a terrorist organisation after the 9/11 attacks for its alliance with al-Qaeda; the group protested, claiming that its links with al-Qaeda, built during the war against the Russians in Afghanistan, were severed when it refused to back Osama Bin Laden’s call for a global jihad against the West. It also pointed out that it had received help from the West in Afghanistan. LIFG fighters, including some from Manchester, received air support, along with other rebels, from Nato during the Libyan uprising. The group split after the revolution, but a core remains.
It is unlikely that this will be the last terrorist plot in Britain with a Libyan connection. Violent Islamist groups have proliferated in the country in the chaotic aftermath since the war against Colonel Gaddafi. With the focus of the stretched security agencies more on fighters returning from Syria, the opportunity is very much there for those who went to fight the Gaddafi regime from Britain, and their families, to bring jihad home.
Kim Sengupta is the Defence and Diplomatic Editor of the Independent