Security experts have long warned that a blowback of the Libyan conflict could strike Europe. With the deadly Manchester attack, those fears have come to pass.
Shaikh Majdi Aqil was doing a media interview a day after the deadly Manchester attack when the UK police officially identified the assailant.
The genial, portly 62-year-old imam has been serving the Muslim community in southern Manchester for 22 years and is a popular figure in these parts. But the name the police provided – Salman Abedi – didn’t ring a bell.
“But you know him,” explained a member of his congregation who was also present at the interview. “It’s Abu Ismail’s son.”
“I said, ‘No way! It can’t be,’” recalled the imam in an interview with FRANCE 24. “His [the attacker’s] father was very well known, a very nice man, very calm. The boy, I don’t know him. But the father was a volunteer at the Manchester Islamic Centre mosque. He used to be the muezzin at the mosque for some time.”
The muezzin is a mosque official or volunteer who summons the faithful to prayer and is quite literally a familiar voice in the community.
The man Aqil knew as Abu Ismail – or “father of Ismail” in Arabic – was none other than Ramadan Abedi, the father of the Manchester attacker who was arrested in Libya on Wednesday.
From Libya to Britain via Afghanistan
The father of the Manchester bomber was born in Libya and fled to Britain in the early 1990s, joining a wave of opponents of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi who were granted asylum in the UK.
A number of the Gaddafi opponents were Islamists who had fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the Libyan fighters – like their fellow jihadists from across the Arab world – returned home to discover they weren’t hailed as heroes, but as potential troublemakers by their local autocrats.
The Libyan Islamists, under the banner of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), attempted to overthrow Gaddafi, but were thwarted, crushed, and those who could escape to Europe found multicultural Britain a perfect destination.
“We have a big community of Libyans who went to Afghanistan, and after the Afghan war came here to the UK. I think the father was one of them, but I’m not sure. I didn’t know him well, we were not close. He was an acquaintance I used to meet at the mosque,” explained the Palestine-born Imam Aqil.
According to at least one Libya expert, Ramadi Abedi did join the LIFG. At some point after the Soviet withdrawal, the father made his way to Saudi Arabia before he sought asylum in Britain in 1992. These reports have not been confirmed.
What Aqil did know for sure though was that after the 2011 fall of Gaddafi, Ramadi Senior returned to Libya.
“Suddenly, he disappeared because the Libyans here dreamt that after Gaddafi, Libya would be paradise. But it wasn’t and 90 percent of them came back. Only one percent stayed on and the father was one of them,” said Aqil.
Blowback from the Libyan conflict
While the father and younger brother of the Manchester bomber were arrested in Libya on Wednesday, another Abedi brother, Ismail, was arrested in the southern Manchester neighbourhood of Chorlton.
Thousands of miles separate southern Manchester from Libya, but in the wake of Monday’s attack, the distance between the countries appeared to be narrowing.
Since the 2011 anti-Gaddafi uprising gave way to chaos and civil war in Libya, experts have warned of the security risks the North African nation could pose for Europe. As the noose tightens around the Islamic State (IS) group in the Syria-Iraq battlefields, that risk could only increase, with fleeing jihadists making their way to the Libyan badlands.
Southern Manchester has been the focus of intense international scrutiny following the attack as investigators attempt to map out the links and connect the dots of a sophisticated terror plot.
Packs of journalists with their accompanying arsenal of TV cameras, vans, drivers and fixers roamed the southern Manchester neighbourhoods of Fallowfield, Didsbury and Chorlton on Wednesday, tracing the footsteps of the Manchester attacker as another profile of another mass murderer began to emerge.
On the quiet, leafy Elsmore Road in Fallowfield, Asia Javed, an 18-year-old business management student, said she was studying at her desk on Tuesday morning when she heard a loud bang from the house down the road.
Police teams had cordoned off the area and did a controlled explosion on the premises as part of the ongoing investigation into the Manchester Arena attack.
Mosque distances itself from attacker
But the neighbours had little or nothing to say about who occupied the house. “It’s a rented house, different people come and go,” said 76-year-old Elena Day, who has lived in the area for the past 50 years and knows most of the other home-owners. “Nobody knew that family. We never saw them ever.”
Manchester police officials have released few details of the ongoing investigation, but it is likely that the house on Elsmore Road could have been used to assemble the device that exploded at the Manchester Arena, killing 22 people.
In the Didsbury neighbourhood, the Manchester Islamic Centre – commonly known as “the Didsbury mosque” – was crammed with journalists awaiting a press briefing by mosque officials.
This was the mosque where Abedi Senior served as a muezzin and the centre was obviously having a difficult time fielding reporters’ queries.
When the mosque officials finally emerged, a statement was released asserting that, contrary to some news reports, the Manchester bomber had not worked at the centre.
But the trustees did not take questions, neither did they clarify if the attacker had prayed at the mosque or if his father had worked there.
Youth abandon mosques for the Internet
Based in a 19th-century red brick chapel that was bought by donors of the Syrian Arab community in the late 1960s, the Didsbury mosque is a large complex that includes a prayer hall that can fit hundreds, as well as a library, administrative offices and an activity room.
On special days such as feasts, the crowds of worshippers from various backgrounds – Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, North Africans, sub-Saharan Africans, Southeast Asian to name just a few – can get so large, a number of prayer services are held per day to accommodate them.
A rotating collection of freelance imams, such as Aqil, are called in to deliver the sermons, which are usually anodyne given the mosque’s very public profile.
“We can’t discuss any political issue,” explained Aqil. “I can’t discuss what’s happening in Syria, I’m scared that even if I do, I will be interrogated by the security forces. So I have to talk about respecting your parents and how to pray and I’m done.”
The youth, hardly surprisingly, are not flocking to the mosques, they’re taking to the Internet.
While Aqil saw Abedi’s father at the mosque frequently, he can’t recall ever seeing the son at any service. “This boy, I never saw him in any masjid [mosque] – ever. I preach in the university mosques, he went to university for a while before dropping out, I never saw him there,” he noted.
After dropping out of university, Abedi worked at bakery and several other jobs before leaving for Libya and from there, going on to Syria to fight with the IS group, according to media reports.
In many respects, the profile of the Manchester bomber mirrors those of the Paris and Brussels attackers. The school and university dropouts appeared to be drifting through life without a purpose – holding temporary jobs, frequenting nightclubs, smoking cannabis – before signing up for jihad in Syria.
In all the cases, the newly radicalised youths were known to the security services but were not on an active terror watch list.
But the Abedi case is the first direct blowback of the Libyan conflict and that’s a new profile that will have to be added to Europe’s surveillance lists before it’s too late.