British counter-terror officers have been conducting raids and making arrests in the wake of the concert bombing earlier this week that killed 22 people, including children. The raids are reassuring on the one hand, showing the police are moving fast. But they are adding also to a sense of alarm among Manchester residents.
That alarm is slowly morphing into anger as it has emerged British security services missed several opportunities to identify the Manchester suicide bomber, 22-year-old Salman Abedi, as a high-risk militant. Several people have stepped forward — from neighbors to mosque leaders and community workers — to complain about the lack of action by authorities after they reported their worries about him to counter-terror officials.
One community worker says he contacted authorities after Abedi said “being a suicide bomber was OK.”
Another community leader, Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper: “People in the community expressed concerns about the way this man was behaving and reported it in the right way using the right channels. They did not hear anything since.”
Neither Britain’s domestic intelligence service MI5 nor the Manchester police have responded to the claims, but they are likely to be taken up by lawmakers demanding to know why Abedi was seen just as a peripheral figure rather than a threat requiring surveillance and investigation.
British authorities are focusing also on the international connections of the Manchester suicide bomber, who was born in Britain to Libyan parents after they fled to Britain in 1980 to escape the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Abedi travelled back to Manchester last week from Libya after visiting his mother, father, younger brother and a sister, who moved full-time to Libya after Gadhafi’s overthrow. His father, Ramadan, was at one time a member of the anti-Gadhafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG, a militant Islamist band that was invited to join al Qaida by Osama bin Laden when its leaders were based in Afghanistan. Western media have taken to describing LIFG as an “al Qaida subsidiary” — a description rejected by former senior leaders, who say they declined bin Laden’s invitation. LIFG subsequently split with some members joining al Qaida.
The whereabouts of Ramadan are currently unknown. On Wednesday night masked gunmen detained him while he was responding to media phone calls. Salman’s younger brother, 20-year-old Hashem was also detained Wednesday night, by an Islamist militia in Tripoli known as the Rada Special Deterrence Force.
A spokesman for the 700-strong militia, a self-appointed vigilante force that has a fearsome reputation for harshness, said Rada had been monitoring Hashem for more than a month on suspicion he had ties with the Islamic State terror group, which has a powerful affiliate in Libya.
In a statement Wednesday, the militia said Hashem had confessed to IS membership, saying his brother, Salman, was a member, too. The militia claimed Hashem admitted he knew in advance about the plans for the Manchester bombing.
But a spokesman for Libyan authorities in Tripoli had a different version, telling British news media Hashem “felt there was something going on there in Manchester and he thought his brother would do something like bombing or attack. So after that, he told us, 'Having internet, I see the attack in Manchester and I knew that's my brother.’”
Link to Manchester
A strong Libyan connection to the Manchester bombing is a troubling prospect — not only for the British security services but for their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. If the Manchester bombing was directed by Islamic State’s Libyan affiliate, it would be the first time the group had managed to pull off a terrorist act in Europe using the North African state.
And it raises the possibility of more jihadists with Libyan connections and British passports bringing their fight to Britain and Europe, complicating the challenge European intelligence services already face with hundreds of European-born jihadist returnees from Syria.
But an Italian security official who’s been working on Libyan issues told VOA the government in Rome remains wary of some post-bombing claims being made by the warring parties in Libya, seeing them as agenda-pushing. Midweek the prime minister of one of the rival governments in the country, Abdullah Thinni, who heads a government based in Beida, eastern Libya, said he’d warned the British government it was harboring Libyan terrorists and sought to link the bombing to the Muslim Brotherhood.
No connection so far has been found to the Muslim Brotherhood, say British intelligence officials.
The Libyan connection to the bombing will likely have a major impact on European Union policy-making when it comes to the migrant flow into Europe from Libya. The interior ministers of German and Italy have been urging the EU to set up a mission along Libya's border with Niger in a bid to stop mainly African migrants from reaching Europe. Italian as well as other European authorities have long worried about jihadists infiltrating southern Europe as migrants, seeding themselves among thousands of sub-Saharan Africans making the Mediterranean crossing from Libya.But there is resistance from some EU member countries to the Italian-German recommendation.