Thursday 14 December 2017

The Face of Evil

CCTV handout photo of Salman Abedi on the night of the attack. Photo courtesy Greater Manchester Police
CCTV handout photo of Salman Abedi on the night of the attack. Photo courtesy Greater Manchester Police

Robert Mendick in Manchester

Salman Abedi's final journey would end in murder and mayhem.

A CCTV image, obtained by counter-terrorism police and released to the public last night, shows the suicide bomber before he blew himself up in the foyer of the Manchester Arena, detonating the explosives contained in the rucksack on his back.

A young girl is attended to by the police services after suffering an injury in the blast.
A young girl is attended to by the police services after suffering an injury in the blast.

Abedi, a university drop-out, waited until the American pop singer Ariana Grande had completed her final song before depressing the initiator switch, held in his left hand, that would detonate the sophisticated bomb prepared weeks before.

In setting off the bomb, he would complete his journey from university dropout to murderous terrorist.

He had pretty much ticked all the boxes expected of a British-born jihadist inspired by mad ravings of the so-called Islamic State. He had dabbled with gangs and he had taken drugs, he had liked going to parties and he had supported Manchester United football club.

But he turned against Western culture and ended up despising it. He adopted religious dress, would recite the Koran loudly in the street and row with elders at the local mosque who warned against the dangers of violent jihad.

Emergency services personnel speak to people outside Manchester Arena. Photo: PA
Emergency services personnel speak to people outside Manchester Arena. Photo: PA

But Abedi's short walk to oblivion was not quite the one intelligence agencies would have expected him to tread. His radicalisation and terrorism training was nurtured not on the battlefields of Syria but in the chaos and carnage of Libya 2,000 miles away.

"We were complacent," said one former senior diplomat yesterday, "MI5 and MI6 have focused on jihadists returning from Syria. They never thought to look at Libya. That will have to change."

Abedi, who was 22, was born and bred in Britain, in a part of Manchester that gave refuge to hundreds, if not thousands, of Libyan dissidents opposed to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's tyrannical regime.

In the 1990s, Libyan Islamists moved to the UK in large number to evade a crackdown. They were welcomed with open arms, seen in those days, as a bulwark against Gaddafi, an opposition in waiting. Libya was a pariah state: Gaddafi had ordered Pan Am Flight 103 be blown out of the sky over Lockerbie; the country had supplied weapons and training to the Provisional IRA; while Libyan embassy staff had shot and killed WPC Yvonne Fletcher as she stood outside.

Britain had cut off diplomatic ties with Libya in 1984 and would not restore them for 15 years. By the early 1990s, senior members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a hardline bunch of Gaddafi rebels many of whom had waged jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets, had settled in Manchester or elsewhere in the UK.

Among them were Abd el-Baset Azzouz, an expert bomb-maker who would later run al-Qaeda training camps in Libya; and Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a veteran jihadist of the Soviet-Afghan war, who was the LIFG's so-called emir. It has been claimed that the LIFG would receive funding. Another Libyan dissident, and member of the LIFG, also slipped in. He was Ramadan Abedi, a one-time employee in Libya's notorious internal security apparatus police, who fled first to Saudi Arabia in 1991 and then to Britain a year later.

The Gaddafi regime put Ramadan Abedi on a wanted list as part of a crackdown against the LIFG.

The Islamist group had been accused of trying to overthrow Gaddafi in a coup in 1996; the plot, according to David Shayler, the renegade spy, was part-funded and encouraged by MI6, a claim always denied by the Government.

Abedi senior settled with his wife Samia Tabbal, an engineering graduate from Tripoli, in the Whalley Range district of Manchester. In 1994, she gave birth to Salman Abedi, the second of at least four children the couple would have. By 2000, the Abedi family was living in the same street as Azzouz, the LIFG hardliner who would go on to run a terrorist training camp in Libya.

Life for the LIFG members started to get uncomfortable. In 1999, Tony Blair's Government had reached out to the Gaddafi regime and begun the process of bringing the tyrant in from the cold. Diplomatic relations were resumed with a compensation payment to the family of WPC Fletcher and an apology for her murder from the Libyan state. Sanctions over Libya were also lifted. The 9/11 attack sped up the thaw. Put simply, the West had been enemies of Gaddafi and friends of his hardline Islamist opponents. The World Trade Center atrocity changed all that. Suddenly Gaddafi was Mr Blair's friend and that made the LIFG in Manchester the foe. The United nations designated the LIFG a terrorist organisation.

On march 24 2004, Mr Blair signed the notorious 'deal in the desert' with Gaddafi, which formally brought Libya into the fold. Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction, signalling the signing of a number of future trade deals. Seemingly also in return, Britain launched a crackdown on LIFG. A little over two weeks earlier Belhadj, the notorious leader of LIFG, had been captured in a hotel in Bangkok, along with his pregnant wife, and flown to Tripoli, where he was tortured for three years while in jail. Britain was accused of conspiring in his kidnap and Belhadj continues to sue the UK Government and then foreign secretary Jack Straw, for damages. The case is rumbling through the courts while Mr Straw denies any wrongdoing.

In 2005, the Home Office finally followed the UN's lead and outlawed LIFG while a dozen of its most prominent members in the UK were placed under control orders, special anti-terrorism measures on suspects against whom cases could not be proved. A number of LIFG activists, including Azzouz, were arrested and detained.

Gaddafi was furious, however, that Manchester remained a bastion of dissent. In 2007, according to one well-placed source, he ordered an end to all scholarships to Libyan students studying in Manchester, cutting off ties with the city's university. He had noticed that Libyans studying there had been photographed holding the country's old flag, rather than the plain green one he had introduced after seizing power.

"Gaddafi always regarded Manchester with suspicion," said one former diplomat who recalled the incident. "He was furious over the flag incident. He banned Libyan proteges from studying in Manchester after that."

A year later Saif Gaddafi, the son of the dictator, heralded a rapprochement with the LIFG. "Saif was attempting to be a moderniser, a reformer" said one former senior British diplomat in Libya.

A deal was brokered through clerics in Qatar, a country that backs the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political and religious movement whose ideology underpins the violent jihadist groups such as LIFG.

Belhadj disbanded the LIFG, signalling a return home for dissidents in the UK and elsewhere. Control orders on LIFG suspects living in the UK were lifted.

Ramadan Abedi came home in 2008, leaving his wife and children behind. Back in Manchester, Salman Abedi, now aged 13, would begin to go off the rails.

He began drinking and smoking marijuana; there is evidence he was involved with local gangs.

In 2011, Britain's relationship with Libya turned on its head again. It would have a profound impact on Salman Abedi's own development. The onset of the Arab Spring suddenly saw Gaddafi under siege. His rhetoric became increasingly violent; the attempt to put down the uprising brutal.

Britain turned its back on the murderous dictator and threw its hat in with the disparate opposition, that would include the former LIFG. David Cameron ordered airstrikes against Gaddafi.

British-Libyans queued up to return home to fight Gaddafi; they now claim they did so with the blessing of MI5. "No questions were asked," said one Libyan who frequently made the trip back home to fight without disruption to his travel plans. A mural in Tripoli went as far as to pay tribute to the 'Manchester Fighters' who joined the 17 February Martyrs' Brigade during the revolution.

Ramadan Abedi signed up to the cause; his son Salman joining him on the frontline. An uncorroborated report even suggested Salman Abedi was injured in the civil war. Abdelraouf Abdallah, jailed last year for terrorism offences, was left wheelchair-bound after being wounded in the fighting in 2012. Abedi senior would post a Facebook picture at his Abdallah's bedside after he was shot.

Salman Abedi and his brother Hashim, now in custody in Tripoli accused of knowing in advance about the Manchester bombing, would from 2011 divide their time between the UK and Libya. A year later, he was already so caught up with jihadi ideology that friends reported him to the authorities fearful of what he might do. It was the first of at least five chances for the UK security services to intervene. Although he was known to MI5 and anti-terror officers, Abedi would never be stopped.

He enrolled at Salford University in October 2015, collecting about £7,000 from the taxpayer-funded Student Loans Company.

He pocketed the money, and dropped out. Quite possibly he took another £7,000 for the 2016 academic year even though he had no intention of continuing with his business administration scheme. Abedi had by now become fully radicalised by al-Qaeda and Isil propaganda. His father had been fighting Gaddafi. Salman Abedi was taking his fight to the West.

The plot had been at least a year in the making. Using funding from the student loans, welfare benefits - and likely other sources - he rented a flat in Blackley eight miles from the family home to prepare his bomb. He had received his training on how to make it from experienced jihadists in Libya, in all probability from Azzouz or those around the al-Qaeda commander.

Then on April 16, Abedi flew home to say his goodbyes. He returned four days before last Monday's attack, renting another apartment in Manchester's city centre where he assembled the device. He had picked the Ariana Grande concert deliberately. She is an American pop sensation, beloved by young western girls.

Abedi knew the target he was choosing. The results would be devastating.


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