RAMADAN Abedi was beginning an interview on a Tripoli TV station, when troops from a pro-government militia arrived to march him away at gunpoint. He had been speaking to reporters, just a short while earlier, on news that his son Salman Abedi had carried out a suicide bombing in Manchester. “I was really shocked when I saw the news,” the older Abedi said. “I still don’t believe it.” He had last seen Salman in Tripoli a few days earlier, when the young man had told his mother he was preparing to leave for Hajj. Salman, he went on, was not a fanatic — only “as religious as any child who opens his eyes in a religious family”.
“We don’t believe in killing innocents,” Ramadan Abedi insisted. “This is not us.” The sentence, to anyone familiar with the long and complex story behind the Manchester bombing, was redolent with tragic ironies. In the mid-1990s, Abedi had fled with his family to the UK to escape reprisal for participation in an attempt to stage a coup against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. For years, Britain would nurture the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), despite its intimate relationship with al-Qaeda — only to betray it after 9/11.
Leaders of the LIFG came to power after the great wheel of history turned again, and the United Kingdom found itself on the same side as the jihadists fighting Gaddafi. Now, the LIFG’s leaders no longer call for war against the west — but the words of their fathers, as Salman Abedi’s story shows, are firing the minds of a new generation of young people.
“AIR Cargo” was how MI6 officer Mark Allen described the man, in a secret letter to Libya’s Foreign Minister, written on Christmas Day in 2003, as the West and Gaddafi prepared to seal a historic peace deal that involved the country giving up its chemical weapons and nuclear ambitions. In 2011, years after the CIA and MI6 had him put into the grim warehouse in Tripoli called the Abu Salim prison, “Air Cargo” reappeared at the head of the forces that stormed Tripoli and drove Gaddafi from power, now a key player in shaping Libya’s destiny.
Abdel-Hakim Belhdaj, “Air Cargo”, is now head of the Islamist al-Watan party. His comrade in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, Khaled al-Sharif, has served as a Deputy Defence Minister in two Tripoli governments. Born in 1966, Belhadj graduated with a degree in civil engineering before leaving for Afghanistan in 1988. After the war ended, he returned home in 1990 to help found the LIFG. That enterprise was generously aided, former MI6 officer David Shayler has alleged, by Britain’s intelligence services.
The conditions were just right for the LIFG’s growth. Before the 1969 coup that brought Gaddafi to power, Libya had been ruled by descendants of Muhammad Ibn al-Sanusi, a religious revivalist who gave clerics a key role in his monarchy. Gaddafi sidelined the mullahs, seized control of mosques, and nationalised religious endowments. He even began to propagate his own, eccentric version of Islam. This model worked well — until oil revenues began to decline.
Libyan veterans of the Afghan jihad returned to a homeland hard hit by unemployment and inflation. In 1993, the Libyan Army put down a mutiny that left hundreds dead; the following year, jihadists successfully stormed a prison; in 1995, dozens died in fierce fighting around Benghazi; in 1996, a string of attacks compelled the regime to launch air strikes against the LIFG’s mountain bases.
The LIFG was routed in combat, but its leadership moved to London, often after being rejected, on security grounds, by governments in continental Europe. Nazih Abdul-Hamed Nabih al-Ruqai’i, one of the architects of al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi, was a LIFG veteran; so too was Abu Yahya al-Libi, among al-Qaeda’s top ideologues, who was killed in 2012. In 2007, Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al-Qaeda’s chief, announced that the LIFG had merged with al-Qaeda. In a recorded message, al-Zawahiri hailed the imprisoned Belhadj as the “emir of the mujahideen”.
In fact, Belhadj was then engaged in a secret dialogue with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the Libyan leader’s London-educated son, who was attempting to bring about a rapprochement with the jihadists. In 2009, 3 incarcerated Libyan jihadists — Khalid Sharif, Sami al-Sa’idi and Belhadj — published Corrective Studies in the Concepts of Jihad. Endorsed by both Libyan authorities and the influential Islamist ideologue Youssef al-Qaradhawi, the manifesto argued that a jihad against Muslim rulers was illegitimate. Instead, it said, Islamists fighting for the faith ought to focus on external “conspiracies by its enemies, the Jews and Christians”.
The deal done, a clean-shaven Belhadj was reintroduced to the world at a press conference in March 2010, nodding in agreement as Saif al-Islam Gaddafi described the new friendship between the regime and its Islamist enemies. More prisoner releases followed — the last, ironically enough, just two days before fighting broke out in Benghazi.
Since 2011, warring factions have caused tens of thousands of deaths, the Libyan central government has been unable to impose itself, and a welter of jihadist groups have flourished. Although the Islamic State in Libya has been pushed into territorial insignifiance — its major holdings in Sirte and Dernah, acquired in 2014, have long been lost, and two major camps outside Sirte were bombed into rubble early this year — its message remains attractive to many young men. The failure of an earlier generation of jihadists to build a stable state structure has drawn these men to the IS’s more radical, transformative vision.
Interestingly, the IS’s claim of responsibility for the Manchester bombing, released some 10 hours after the attack, was emphatic — and wrong. “With Allah’s grace and support,” it said, “a soldier of the caliphate managed to place explosive devices in the midst of the gatherings of the crusaders in the British city of Manchester.” But we know there was just a lone device, not many. Abedi — whom the claim did not name — was not referred to as a martyr, the language usually used when a perpetrator is killed.
None of this means the IS did not carry out the attack. It does, however, offer compelling reasons to believe the operation was conceived and executed outside the networks of the IS’s central leadership in Syria. Libya could prove to be just one of many incubators for a new phase in the IS’s war, as it metamorphoses in the wake of reverses in Syria and Iraq. The caliphate has now lost more than 60% of the territory it held in Iraq, along with half of its Syrian territories. But in areas like Afghanistan, Libya and even Indonesia, it is preparing for a new, clandestine future. It is a kind of war that men like Ramadan Abedi knew well.