Blowback: How the US and UK helped bring jihadists like Manchester bomber Salem Abedi to Libya and Syria.
By Max Blumenthal / AlterNet
The heinous suicide bombing by British-born Salman Abedi of an Arianna Grande concert in Manchester was not merely the work of an “evil loser,” as Donald Trump called it. It was blowback from interventionist policies carried out in the name of human rights and “civilian protection.”
Through wars of regime change and the arming and training of Islamist proxy groups, the US, UK, and France played out imperial delusions across the Middle East.
In Syria and Libya, they cultivated the perfect petri dish for jihadist insurgency, helping to spawn weaponized nihilists like Abedi intent on bringing the West’s wars back home.
The son of anti-Qaddafi immigrants to the UK, Abedi grew up in Manchester’s community of Libyan exiles. A report in the London Telegraph indicated that he had traveled just weeks before his attack to Libya, where Salafi-jihadi militias are competing for control of the destabilized country.
Abedi had also reportedly traveled to Syria to join up with the extremist rebels that have waged a six-year-long insurgency against the country’s government, with billions of dollars in assistance from the West and its Gulf allies. According to French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, it was in these conflict zones where Abedi was radicalized.
The impressionable 22-year-old returned to the UK with enough training to make a fairly sophisticated bomb that massacred 22 concert goers, many of them children.
“It seems likely — possible — that he wasn’t doing this on his own,” Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, told the BBC. She described the bomb as “more sophisticated than some of the attacks we’ve seen before.”
According to the Telegraph, “A group of Gaddafi dissidents, who were members of the outlawed Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), lived within close proximity to Abedi in Whalley Range.” They included Abd al-Baset Azzouz, an expert bomb maker who controls an Al Qaeda-affiliated militia in eastern Libya.
When the uprising against Gaddafi began in 2011, Ramadan Abedi, the father of Salem, returned to his home country to fight with the LIFG. He was part of the rat line operated by MI5, which hustled anti-Qaddafi Libyan exiles to the front lines of the war.
“I was allowed to go [to Libya], no questions asked,” a British Libyan who had been under house arrest at the time for ties to extremist groups, told Middle East Eye.
While it is not known if Salman Abedi himself was involved with the LIFG, the group’s links to British and American intelligence are well established, and go back decades.
The West’s favorite Al Qaeda affiliate?
A rogue former officer of Britain’s MI5 intelligence services named David Shayler alleged that his government had covertly funded the LIFG to carry out the failed 1996 assassination attempt on Qaddafi.
Two years later, Libyan state television produced footage of a failed grenade attack on Qaddafi that it alleged was carried out by a British agent.
At the time, the LIFG was an affiliate of Al Qaeda whose members included Anas al-Libi, a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden.
In March 1998, Qaddafi’s Libya became the first country to issue an Interpol arrest warrant for bin Laden. The warrant was studiously ignored by American and British intelligence, according to French journalist Guillaume Dasquié and Jean-Charles Brisard, an adviser to French President Jacques Chirac.
Five months later, Al Qaeda struck the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. (Among the participants in the attack were al-Libi and Ali Abdelsoud Mohammed, a spy for Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who had entered the US on a CIA-approved visa and managed to rise to the rank of corporal at the John F. Kennedy School of Special Warfare at Ft. Bragg, where he smuggled special forces training manuals out to Al Qaeda cadres.)
Even as the ex-agent Shayler gradually drifted towards the conspiratorial fringe, a MI6 document leaked online in 2000 lent credibility to his account. According to the Guardian, the document revealed that British intelligence was aware of a plot in 1995 to kill Qaddafi that included “Libya veterans who served in Afghanistan.”
LIFG’s leader, Abdelhakim Belhaj, had been among those veterans, fighting against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in the 1980’s alongside local mujahedin armed and trained by the CIA. He moved his operations to Sudan in 1991, the same year that bin Laden set up camp outside the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
It took the attacks of 9/11 and the inauguration of the so-called “war on terror” to make Belhaj a target of the West. He was captured in 2001 by the CIA in Pakistan, where he had fled after fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban, and was rendered to Libya two months later.
Six years later, he was released from prison thanks to a de-radicalization program overseen by Saif Qaddafi and facilitated through negotiations with the Qatari government.
A secret 2008 US embassy cable described Qaddafi’s government as a bulwark against the spread of Islamist militancy.
“Libya has been a strong partner in the war against terrorism and cooperation in liaison channels is excellent,” the cable read. It continued:
“Muammar al-Qadhafi’s criticism of Saudi Arabia for perceived support of Wahabi extremism, a source of continuing Libya-Saudi tension, reflects broader Libyan concern about the threat of extremism. Worried that fighters returning from Afghanistan and Iraq could destabilize the regime, the [government of Libya] has aggressive pursued operations to disrupt foreign fighter flows, including more stringent monitoring of air/land ports of entry, and blunt the ideological appeal of radical Islam.”
The author of that cable was the late foreign service officer, J. Christopher Stevens.
‘Libyan patriots who want to liberate their nation’
When the Libyan uprising broke out in March 2011, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates immediately pumped arms and logistical support into the armed opposition.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw the insurgency as an opportunity for America to assert its influence amidst the tumult of the Arab Spring. She advocated arming the rebels on the grounds that Washington could get “skin in the game,” according to her Middle East advisor, Dennis Ross.
Ignoring warnings from NATO’s supreme allied commander Adm. James Stavridis about the presence of Al Qaeda in the opposition, President Barack Obama approved shipments of TOW missiles, armored Humvees, and advanced radar systems to the Libyan insurgents.
When she learned of the newly up-armed rebels’ rapid advances, Clinton reportedly exclaimed, “Good! This is the only language that Qaddafi is understanding.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a subject of Qatari political influence and alleged bribery over the 2022 FIFA World Cup vote, urged his Western allies to “ask our Arab friends” to distribute weapons to the National Transitional Council, the official body of the Libyan opposition.
When a French shipment of missiles and machine guns arrived through the port of Benghazi, the NTC’s acting defense minister handed them over to Belhaj and the LIFG.
As the insurgency gathered steam, Belhaj found a powerful ally in John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
After a friendly meeting with Belhaj and his militiamen in Benghazi on April 22, 2011, McCain called on “responsible nations” to provide the Libyan rebels with “battlefield intelligence, training, and weapons.”
McCain emerged from the meeting stirred with inspiration. “I met these courageous fighters, and they are not al-Qaeda,” the senator proclaimed. “To the contrary: they are Libyan patriots who want to liberate their nation. We need to help them do that.”
‘They want to control the Mediterranean and then they will attack Europe’
In the early days of the insurgency, on February 25, Qaddafi reached out to Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister who had cut the “deal in the desert” that brought Qaddafi out of the political wilderness in 2004.
In a series of panicked phone calls that day, Qaddafi warned Blair that his removal would open the floodgates for a jihadist takeover. “I want to tell you the truth,” he said to Blair.
The Libyan leader continued:
“It is not a difficult situation at all. The story is simply this: an organization has laid down sleeper cells in North Africa called the Al Qaeda organization in North Africa. They don’t use Arabic words, they use Islamic [ones]. The sleeper cells in Libya are similar to the ones in America before 9/11.”
Qaddafi then mentioned a rebel who had joined Al Qaeda and trained at a camp run by bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was referring to Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qumu, a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who was captured by the US in Pakistan thanks to a tip from Qaddafi’s own intelligence services.
Qaddafi complained that Qumu was now leading the forces seeking his ouster, a claim confirmed by the New York Times two months later when it described the rebel leader as a “US ally of sorts.”
The Libyan strongman predicted that if the rebels overthrew him, they would set up an Islamic state in the country, or what he called an “Al Qaeda Emirate.”
He concluded: “They want to control the Mediterranean and then they will attack Europe.”
Blair brushed Qaddafi’s ominous warnings aside and calmly urged him to relinquish power through a “peaceful transition.” A week later, Obama declared, “Moammar Qaddafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave.”
Qaddafi’s son, Saif, warned at the time that the removal of Libya’s government by force would lead to a refugee crisis of titanic proportions.
“Libya may become the Somalia of North Africa, of the Mediterranean,” the younger Qaddafi declared in 2011. “You will see the pirates in Sicily, in Crete, in Lampedusa [the Italian island home of migrant detention facilities]. You will see millions of illegal immigrants. The terror will be next door.”
A failed state, courtesy of NATO
Almost six years after Moamar Qaddafi was killed in the streets of his hometown of Sirte by Western-backed rebels operating under NATO air cover, then left to rot in a butcher shop in Misrata, his most dire warnings have come true.
Libya today is a failed state, its public coffers and oil reserves looted by the foreign powers that oversaw the war of regime change in 2011. Its shores are a main disembarkation point for migrants, where women fleeing conflict and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa are beaten, raped and starved in “living hellholes,” according to UNICEF.
The United Nations International Organization for Migration has recorded testimony of open-air slave markets in Libya where migrants from West Africa are bought and sold.
The refugee crisis has propelled the rise of the far-right in Europe, fueling the demagogic politics of figures from Nigel Farage to Marine Le Pen that blame the victims of the West’s catastrophic interventions.
While Belhaj has emerged as a powerbroker of the “free” Libya, leading the Islamist al-Watan Party and operating his own private media empire with backing from Qatar, Libya has been overrun by warlords affiliated with jihadist groups like the Islamic State and Ansar al-Sharia, the Al Qaeda affiliate that participated in the notorious 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
Salem Abedi’s younger brother, Hashem, is a member of the Islamic State, according to a rival militia, and helped plan the Manchester attack from inside Libya.
The British Foreign Affairs Committee report released in September 2016 on the Libyan intervention concluded that, “Intelligence on the extent to which extremist militant Islamist elements were involved in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion was inadequate.”
Its authors added, “The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight. Libyan connections with transnational militant extremist groups were known before 2011, because many Libyans had participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda.”
In the wake of the Manchester bombing, British citizens deserve a new public inquiry. Acquaintances of the Abedi family said that neighbors in Manchester had notified an anti-terrorism hotline several years ago when Salman Abedi expressed public support for suicide bombing. But British authorities took no action.
Was British intelligence attempting to groom Abedi as an informant, as it had tried with Mohammed Emwazi, the wayward London youth who somehow wound up in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria as the fearsome decapitator known as “Jihadi John”? What did the British government know about Abedi and when did it know it?
The right-wing demagogues pouring out their wrath on Muslim immigrants and rallying for more restrictionist policies are diverting blame from where it should ultimately lie.
In their pursuit of imperial delusions in Libya and beyond, Western leaders cynically sacrificed the security of their own citizens, setting the stage for the massacre in Manchester.
The interventionists should be held accountable before they can strike again.
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of several books, including best-selling Republican Gomorrah, Goliath, The Fifty One Day War, and The Management of Savagery. He has produced print articles for an array of publications, many video reports, and several documentaries, including Killing Gaza. Blumenthal founded The Grayzone in 2015 to shine a journalistic light on America’s state of perpetual war and its dangerous domestic repercussions.