The UK Navy “rescued” Manchester Arena suicide bomber Salman Abedi in Libya in 2014. This provides further insight into the original CIA definition of blowback.
Seven years after NATO allied with Islamist insurgents and violently overthrew Libya’s government, plunging the oil-rich North African nation into a hellish chaos from which it still has not recovered, we are learning more and more about the disastrous blowback this war later unleashed back at home.
The Guardian has reported that the British Navy “rescued” Manchester Arena suicide bomber Salman Abedi in Libya in 2014 — three years before he massacred 22 people at a concert by the pop singer Ariana Grande.
What this Guardian article did not disclose is that the British government is even further implicated in this massive scandal.
Grayzone Project editor Max Blumenthal reported immediately after the May 22, 2017 suicide attack how Abedi’s father had fought in the al-Qaeda-linked extremist militia the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has extensive ties to US and UK intelligence agencies and had been used to try to assassinate Libyan leader Moammar Qadhafi.
Salman Abedi and his family were part of a community of exiled anti-Qadhafi Libyan dissidents who were avowed members of the far-right LIFG militia.
In fact, during the 2011 NATO regime change war in Libya, Salman Abedi’s father Ramadan was one of numerous anti-Qadhafi Libyan dissidents who traveled to North Africa, with the knowledge of UK intelligence services, in order to fight to overthrow the Libyan government — with help from the American, British, and French militaries.
And weeks before his 2017 attack, Abedi had again returned to war-torn Libya. He likewise spent time fighting with extremist Salafi-jihadist rebels in Syria, many of whom have also enjoyed support from the US, UK, and their allies.
What Salman Abedi was doing when the British Navy rescued him in Libya in 2014 is not clear. The Guardian report indicated, “Abedi was being monitored by security services when he travelled to Libya, but his case was closed a month before his rescue.”
The horrific Manchester bombing is yet another example of a far-right extremist who was once supported by the US and UK later attacking our domestic populations.
One must not forget that Salafi-jihadist death squads in Afghanistan that later grew into al-Qaeda and the Taliban also first enjoyed support from the US in the 1980s.
And like Afghanistan, Libya is a case study for what the CIA dubbed “blowback.”
Libya: the real definition of blowback
There is some confusion about the meaning of blowback.
This case with Salman Abedi is instructive as it is a textbook example of the real definition of blowback, as it was originally used by the CIA.
Many people — mostly well-meaning liberals — use the term “blowback” to suggest that “terrorism begets terrorism.” They argue that one of the main reasons people from Muslim-majority countries commit acts of terrorism is because of anger about US violence in the Middle East.
This view is at least partly correct: US violence in the Middle East is significant; generates considerable anger in the region and surrounding areas; is effectively used in recruitment by so-called “terrorist organizations”; and is often a stated and plausible motivation (along with things like domestic Western racism towards Muslim immigrants) for people who commit “lone wolf” terrorist attacks in the West.
But this is not the way the term was initially used by the CIA. The original meaning of the term implies something that is in some ways more disturbing.
The relationship between groups like al-Qaeda and countries like the US is not simply one of vendetta, a symmetric cycle of violence where each US bombing of al-Qaeda causes an al-Qaeda bombing of the US, and vice versa.
A key pillar of US war policy in the Middle East, throughout the Cold War and up to today, has been the support of groups like and including al-Qaeda — far-right shock troops that can effectively combat independent progressive anti-imperialist forces in the region.
In many conflicts, including Syria, the US has been much less involved as a direct combatant, and has rather acted more as a funder, armory, trainer, and international mediator for armed Islamist rebel groups.
Of course this can be “contradictory,” with different US-backed groups fighting each other, bombing the same people you are arming. But calling it contradictory almost misses the point: the US supports these groups with the intent of doing permanent harm to these societies, preventing their governments from pursuing independent political and economic paths, and ultimately breaking up their states and institutions.
The broad, senseless destruction is a policy objective. It supports these far-right extremist groups for the same reasons Israel supports Saudi Arabia: to undermine or liquidate the domestic secular left and opposition to US imperialism.
However, the CIA realized right away — at least in the 1980s, perhaps by the ’70s, decades before 9/11 — that the price for these policies would be “blowback”: if you keep funding terrorist attacks by less-than-reliable allies who often use anti-Western rhetoric to recruit, eventually you will get occasional terrorist attacks in the West.
This risk always made a lot of CIA liberals uncomfortable, but they did their job. They informed policymakers of the dangers involved with the policy, and policymakers decided it was worth the cost.
The CIA was reportedly wary about the Bill Clinton administration’s policy of supporting foreign Islamist militias in Bosnia and later Kosovo. Yet Clinton overruled them because the goal of permanently destroying Yugoslavia, dismantling its independent socialist government, and annexing Kosovo as a military base was, for him, worth the cost.
Libya is only the latest example of blowback. Analyzing American and British intelligence and military operations in Libya — in 2011 and in the decades before — is useful for informing the public about the nature and consequences of these policies.
The aftermath of these operations illustrate blowback in the original sense of the term, not in the most common way it is used.
Meanwhile, the extreme damage these policies have unleashed is only just beginning to be understood.
Jake Kallio is a writer and antiwar activist in Montreal, Canada.