European authorities say Manchester suicide bomber Salman Abedi recently visited Libya, a chaotic warring country where the Islamic State terror group has beckoned foreign fighters to train and link up with the larger battle in its home base of Syria.
Whether Abedi was trained there is unconfirmed, but French officials said he also stopped in Syria. This itinerary is a clear indication that he came under the guidance of the Islamic State and returned to Britain as a committed jihadi. British authorities said Wednesday that Abedi, whose father and a brother live in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, was part of a terrorist network.
“The Manchester bomber visited Libya likely for a variety of reasons,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and terrorism analyst. “One logical reason for visiting Libya was to learn the tradecraft of mass killing — bomb-making. Another, he sought further radicalization and encouragement for his intended mission.”
The health of the Islamic State in Libya is debatable. At one time, the group controlled Sirte, a coastal town between Tripoli and Benghazi, and operated a number of training camps. The threat became so critical to U.S. security and the shaky Libyan Government of National Accord that the Pentagon ordered massive bombing strikes by B-2s, killing 80 terrorists. Today, the Islamic State is diminished but stubbornly regrouping in the south.
Libya has been fertile terrorist ground ever since the Obama administration in 2011 led a NATO campaign to oust strongman Moammar Gadhafi. The post-intervention disorder allowed various tribal and Islamic groups to claim city blocks and rural territory.
Then came a rapid influx of violent extremist groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State. They found ready-made arms caches left behind by the Gadhafi regime, including surface-to-air missiles, explosives, grenade launchers and small arms. Libya was an ideal place to make terrorism.
Collecting and safeguarding surface-to-air missiles is one reason the CIA set up a base inside Benghazi, smack in the middle of a number of anti-Western militias and terrorists vying for control. The brief stay ended with the September 2012 Islamic rebel attack on the U.S. diplomatic and CIA outposts that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
The most recent U.S. military assessment of Libya came in March from Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, chief of U.S. Africa Command, which has headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. The command played a big role in helping government forces oust Islamic State fighters from Sirte, providing an amphibious staging area and airstrikes.
But Operation Odyssey Lightning did not defeat the Islamic State in Libya.
“The instability in Libya and North Africa, caused by years of political infighting, may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies’ interests on the continent,” Gen. Waldhauser told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Stability in Libya is a long-term proposition. We must maintain pressure on the ISIS- Libya network and concurrently support Libya’s effort to re-establish a legitimate and unified government.”
The command’s posture statement to the committee said, “Even with the success of Sirte, ISIS-Libya remains a regional threat with intent to target U.S. persons and interests.”
Word of Salman Abedi’s visits to Libya and Syria came from French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb.
“Today we only know what British investigators have told us. Someone of British nationality, of Libyan origin, who suddenly after a trip to Libya, then probably to Syria, becomes radicalized and decides to carry out this attack,” Mr. Collomb said, according to the BBC. He said Abedi had links to the Islamic State group.
Abedi’s father, Ramadan Abedi, 51, is a Libyan who moved to Britain in the 1990s and returned to Tripoli in 2008, he told Bloomberg. He confirmed his son’s recent visit. Later Wednesday, The London Telegraph reported that he and another son, Hashim, 18, had been arrested by Libyan authorities. A third son, Ismail, 23, was taken into custody in Manchester.
Ramadan Abedi worked as a security officer under Gadhafi’s rule, The Associated Press reported. In 1993, he fled the oil-rich North African country after he was accused of helping Islamists by tipping them off before police raids.
He denied having ties to any of Libya’s militant groups, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was linked to al Qaeda, The Associated Press reported.
The Middle East Media Research Institute has documented a number of Islamic State social media messages urging European followers to come to Syria via Libya or to stay in their countries as jihadis.
“Libya is of strategic importance to ISIS,” MEMRI said in 2015, a year after the Islamic State decided to make a play for controlling territory there. “[The] reasons for this include the general chaos that prevails in it, as well as the abundance of weapons and natural resources, and the vast areas where training camps can be set up. Libya also bridges between Egypt and Tunisia; ISIS already has a presence in the former and hopes to reach the latter.”
With the U.S. intervention in Sirte slowing the Islamic State’s emergence, there is less social media talk of making the journey to Libya.
Still, said Mr. Maginnis, Libya remains a place to train Islamic State fighters.
“Modern Libya is a terrorist haven much as are Syria, Yemen and Somalia,” he said. “It’s a vast country with the majority of the population hugging the coastline, leaving most of the more than 1 million square miles a terrorist training ground, and it backs up against the Sahara, through which jihadi easily move.”
Gadhafi “filled hundreds of bunkers with weapons, and once his regime collapsed that arsenal fell into the hands of local jihadi,” he said.
“The flow of refugees through Libya also means that country has become a cesspool of jihadis mostly from throughout the African continent,” Mr. Maginnis said. “Many use Libya as a jumping-off point for a long sea trip across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy or to join the global jihad after mastering killing skills.”