The Manchester Bombing: Blowback from British state collusion with jihadists abroad

A Briefing by Mark Curtis[1] and Nafeez Ahmed[2]

Source: PA Press Association

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(This briefing will be updated as more evidence emerges. Sources are overwhelmingly from mainstream media, except where clearly stated).

About the authors

Introduction

The evidence suggests that the barbaric Manchester bombing, which killed 22 innocent people on May 22nd, is a case of blowback on British citizens arising at least partly from the overt and covert actions of British governments. The British state therefore has a serious case to answer. We focus primarily here on UK policies towards Libya but also touch on some of those related to Iraq and Syria.

Summary

In summary, the evidence so far shows that there are six inter-related aspects of blowback:

  1. Members of the LIFG were facilitated by the British ‘security services’ to travel to Libya to fight Qadafi in 2011. Both Salman Abedi and his father, Ramadan, were among those who travelled to fight at this time (although there is no evidence that their travel was personally facilitated or encouraged by the security services).
  2. A large number of LIFG fighters in Libya in 2011 had earlier fought alongside the Islamic State of Iraq — the al-Qaeda entity which later established a presence in Syria and became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). These fighters were among those recruited into the British-backed anti-Qadafi rebellion.
  3. UK covert action in Libya in 2011 included approval of and support to Qatar’s arming and backing of opposition forces, which included support to hardline Islamist groups; this fuelled jihadism in Libya.
  4. One of the groups armed/supported by Qatar in 2011 was the February 17th Martyrs Brigade which, some reports suggest, was the organisation which Ramadan Abedi joined in 2011 to fight Qadafi.
  5. Qatar’s arms supplies to Libya in 2011 also found their way to Islamist fighters in Syria, including groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Conclusions

The evidence points to the LIFG being seen by the UK as a proxy militia to promote its foreign policy objectives. Whitehall also saw Qatar as a proxy to provide boots on the ground in Libya in 2011, even as it empowered hardline Islamist groups.

  • In Iraq, US and UK led intervention also destroyed the existing state infrastructure and fuelled an Islamist insurgency which incubated al-Qaeda in Iraq and culminated in the emergence of ISIS.
  • In Syria, US and UK covert action, again in partnership with Gulf states such as Qatar, and Turkey, has had the effect of augmenting the role of al-Qaeda in the rebel movement.

1. The Abedis’ connection to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)

The Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, then aged 16, is reported to have fought against the Qadafi regime with his father Ramadan in the uprising of 2011.[3] The group that Salman Abedi joined, fighting alongside his father, was reportedly the LIFG.[4] Ramadan Abedi is reported as having been a prominent member of the LIFG, which he joined in 1994.[5]

Box 1: Ramadan Abedi

Abedi’s father Ramadan was a member of Libya’s secret service under Qadafi but fled the regime with his mother in 1991.[9] They went first to Saudi Arabia in 1991 and in 1992 moved to London after applying for asylum.[10] Ramadan Abedi Ramadan was part of the broad network of opponents in the UK who supported Islamist anti-Qadafi aims.[11] After Qadafi was overthrown, the Abedi family moved to Manchester but Ramadan largely settled back in Libya, with the rest of the family coming and going between Tripoli and Manchester.[12]

2. British covert support to the LIFG, 1996

Leaders in the LIFG had fought together in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, helping the Afghan mujahidin to overthrow the Soviet-backed government in Kabul.[13] The British government and CIA then covertly supported the mujahidin.[14]

Box 2: The plot to assassinate Qadafi, 1996[19]

According to former MI5 officer and whistleblower David Shayler, the episode began when a Libyan military intelligence officer approached MI6 with a plan to overthrow Qadafi. The Libyan, codenamed ‘Tunworth’, proposed establishing links with the LIFG. Shayler asserts that he was told by an MI6 officer, David Watson, that in Christmas 1995 he, Watson, had supplied Tunworth with $40,000 to buy weapons to carry out the assassination plot and that similar sums were handed over at two further meetings. A secret MI6 cable dated December 1995 — leaked in 2000 and published on the internet — revealed MI6’s knowledge of an attempt to overthrow Qadafi in a coup led by five Libyan colonels scheduled for February 1996. The cable also noted that one Libyan officer and twenty military personnel were being trained in the desert for their role in the attack, and that “the plotters had already distributed 250 Webley pistols and 500 heavy machine guns among their sympathizers”, who were said to number 1,275 people, including students, military personnel and teachers.

The plot went ahead in February 1996 in Sirte, Qadafi’s home city, but a bomb was detonated under the wrong car. Six innocent bystanders were killed, and Qadafi escaped unscathed. Annie Machon, Shayler’s partner and a former MI5 officer, writes that, by the time MI6 paid over the money to Tunworth, Osama Bin Laden’s organization was already known to be responsible for the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, and MI5 had set up G9C, “a section dedicated to the task of defeating Bin Laden and his affiliates”.

US intelligence sources later told the Mail on Sunday newspaper that MI6 had indeed been behind the assassination plot and had turned to the LIFG’s leader, Abu Abdullah Sadiq, who was living in London. The head of the assassination team was reported as being the Libya-based Abdal Muhaymeen, a veteran of the Afghan resistance. A spattering of other media investigations confirmed the plot while a BBC film documentary broadcast in August 1998 was told that the Conservative government ministers then in charge of MI6 gave no authorisation for the operation and that it was solely the work of MI6 officers. This contradicted the earlier claim by then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, that MI6 involvement in the plot was “pure fantasy”. Equally, the government’s denial of knowledge of the plot was decisively contradicted by the leaked cable, which showed that civil servants in the Permanent Secretary’s Department, GCHQ, MI5 and the MoD were all aware of the assassination attempt some two months before it was carried out. It is inconceivable that none of them would have informed their ministers.

3. British covert action in Libya, 2011

LIFG members played a key role in the opposition forces that toppled Qadafi in 2011. But Britain also facilitated the flow of LIFG dissidents from the UK to fight Qadafi. It also approved massive arms supplies to the opposition to Qadafi by Qatar, much of which went to hardline Islamist groups.

3.1 Facilitating travel to fight in Libya

Middle East Eye has reported that the British government operated an ‘open door’ policy that allowed Libyan exiles and British-Libyan citizens to join the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Qadafi even though some had been subject to counter-terrorism control orders. Several former rebel fighters now back in the UK told Middle East Eye that they had been able to travel to Libya with ‘no questions asked’. These dissident were then members of the LIFG and most were from Manchester. One said that, as he was travelling back to Libya in May 2011, he was approached by two counter-terrorism police officers in the departure lounge who told him that if he was going to fight he would be committing a crime. But after providing them with the name and phone number of an MI5 officer he had spoken to previously, and following a quick phone call to him, he was waved through. As he waited to board the plane, he said the same MI5 officer called him to tell him that he had “sorted it out”.[20]

Box 3: The LIFG and Britain

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was banned in Britain in 2005 after Blair’s ‘deal in the desert’ with Qadafi in 2004, when Blair agreed to crack down on Libyan dissidents in the UK.[24] But in 2009, Qadafi struck a peace deal with the LIFG following which the Brown government released the LIFG dissident from UK control orders. At the same time, the leaders of the LIFG, most of whom were in jail in Libya, distanced themselves from al-Qaeda and condemned terrorist attacks on civilians.[25] As we show below, however, the LIFG retained connections with al-Qaeda despite formally distancing itself from the group.

3.2 UK covert action in Libya

The opposition forces working to overthrow Qadafi in 2011, which were backed by the UK and its coalition, included Islamist elements, former members of the LIFG and suspected al-Qaeda militants previously imprisoned by the US (see Box 4).

Box 4: Islamists in the Libyan Opposition[29]

Britain provided a range of support to the rebel Libyan leadership, which was grouped in the National Transitional Council (NTC), an initially 33-member self-selected body of mainly former Qadafi ministers and other opposition forces, formed in Benghazi in February 2011 to provide an alternative government. The NTC’s military forces were led by various former Libyan army officers, but Islamist elements with links to al-Qaeda were also prominent. Two former mujahidin who had fought in Afghanistan led the military campaign against Qadafi’s forces in Darnah, to the east of Benghazi, for example. Abdel Hakim al-Hasidi, an influential Islamist preacher who spent five years at a jihadist training camp in eastern Afghanistan, oversaw the recruitment, training and deployment in the conflict of around 300 rebel fighters from Darnah. Both al-Hasidi and his field commander on the front lines, Salah al-Barrani, were former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

It was also reported that Sufyan Ben Qumu, a Libyan army veteran who worked for Osama bin Laden’s holding company in Sudan and later for an al-Qaeda-linked charity in Afghanistan, ran the training of many of Darnah’s rebel recruits. Qumu spent six years at Guantanamo Bay before he was turned over to Libyan custody in 2007; he was released, along with al-Hasidi, from a Libyan prison in 2008 as part of Libya’s reconciliation with the LIFG.[30] Al-Hasidi, who had fought against the US in Afghanistan in 2001, had been arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and turned over to the US, imprisoned probably at the US base at Bagram, Afghanistan, and then mysteriously released. The US Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg, told Congressmen he would speak of al-Hasidi’s career only in a closed session.[31]

Other commentators recognised the Islamist nature of some of the rebels. Noman Benotman, a former member of the LIFG who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, estimated that there were 1,000 jihadists fighting in Libya.[32] Sir Richard Dearlove observed that the rebel stronghold of Benghazi was “rather fundamentalist in character” and Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that US intelligence had picked up “flickers” of terrorist activity among the rebel groups; this was described by senior British government figures as “very alarming”.[33] Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said in parliament that since there was evidence of the presence of al-Qaeda-linked forces among the rebels, Britain should “proceed with very real caution” in arming them. In response, Foreign Secretary William Hague downplayed the concern, saying that

“Of course we want to know about any links with al-Qaeda, as we do about links with any organisations anywhere in the world, but given what we have seen of the interim transitional national council in Libya, I think it would be right to put the emphasis on the positive side”.[34]

In mid-March 2011, when the Qadafi regime was still clinging to power in Tripoli, Libyan authorities paraded in front of the world’s media a British citizen captured in Libya and branded an Islamic terrorist. Salah Mohammed Ali Aboaoba said he was a member of the LIFG and had moved from Yemen to Britain in 2005, where he stayed until 2010, having been granted asylum, living with his family in Manchester and raising funds for the LIFG.[35]

Box 5: Qatar’s role and British support

4. From Libya to Iraq to Syria: LIFG’s links to ISIS and the fuelling of the jihad

NATO’s intervention in Libya effectively created the conditions by which the country became a safe haven for jihadists sympathetic to al-Qaeda and ISIS, despite doctrinal disagreements. Far from the LIFG having been simply “deradicalised” as it had claimed in 2009, the documentary and public record evidence suggests that significant numbers of LIFG members remained sympathetic to the violent Islamist cause.

4.1 Abedi’s connection to ISIS

Salman Abedi’s connections to the LIFG may have facilitated his military training and Islamist indoctrination. Yet they also appear to have provided him with access to an environment in postwar Libya which had become fertile ground for the promulgation of violent jihadist ideology — conditions partly created by the British-backed intervention.

4.2 The LIFG’s links to ISIS

The British-backed intervention in Libya paved the way for violent Islamist groups to expand and consolidate their presence in the country. In particular, Britain’s alliance with the LIFG appears to have played a direct role in facilitating the influx into Libya of foreign fighters sympathetic to al-Qaeda and ISIS (see Box 6).

Box 6: The LIFG’s links to al-Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq before 2011

According to insurgent personnel records captured by US forces in Sinjar, Iraq, in 2006, LIFG had established early connections during the war in Iraq with the precursor organisation to ISIS. The US Army’s Combating Terrorism Centre (CTC) at West Point found in 2007 that LIFG had achieved a “unification” with al-Qaeda evident in “its apparent decision to prioritise providing logistical support to the Islamic State of Iraq.” Over 100 Libyans had joined al-Qaeda in Iraq or ISIS between 2006 and 2007.[57] In 2011, the CTC’s analysis of the ‘Sinjar records’ confirmed “a real surge in the number” of Libyan foreign fighters joining al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007.[58]

Also in 2011, Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, a Libyan rebel leader who headed up security under the NATO-backed National Transitional Council in the city of Derna, confirmed that Libyans who had fought with al-Qaeda against US forces in Iraq had returned to topple Qadafi. He told an Italian daily how he had personally recruited 25 Libyans from Derna to fight coalition troops in Iraq. Some of them, he said, are “today are on the front lines in Adjabiya”, a coastal city in north-central Libya which saw some of the heaviest fighting against Qadafi’s forces. Al-Hasidi insisted that his fighters “are patriots and good Muslims, not terrorists” but added that the “members of al-Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader”.[59]

A June 2008 State Department cable from the US embassy in Tripoli corroborated the ‘Sinjar records’ and further confirmed a direct connection between LIFG fighters returning to Libya from the jihad with al-Qaeda in Iraq against US forces, and noted their aspiration to use their training to eventually topple Qadafi. The document, written by Ambassador Christopher Stevens — who was killed in the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi — cites evidence that eastern Libyans were “sending young Libyans to fight in Iraq.” Combating US forces “represented a way for frustrated young radicals to strike a blow against both Qadhafi and against his perceived American backers.”[60]

The document notes that this mindset had a long history:

“A number of Libyans who had fought and in some cases undergone ‘religious and ideological training’ in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the West Bank in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s had returned to eastern Libya… in the mid to late 1980’s.”

The same individuals were, the cable assesses, pushing forward:

“a deliberate, coordinated campaign to propagate more conservative iterations of Islam, in part to prepare the ground for the eventual overthrow by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) of Muammar Qadhafi’s regime, which is ‘hated’ by conservative Islamists.”[61]

4.3 Arms to the jihad in Syria

Some of Qatar’s arms supplies to Islamists in Libya in 2011 were subsequently moved from Libya to militants in Syria, fuelling the jihadist cause there (See Box 7).[62]

Box 7: Arming the Syrian jihad

Document releases under FOIA from the Pentagon and Department of State show that the CIA was well aware of how weapons from anti-Qadafi rebels in Benghazi were covertly shipped to Islamist rebels in Syria by the Gulf states and Turkey.[63]

A September 2012 Pentagon Defence Intelligence Agency document confirmed that the Gulf states and Turkey, with Western support, were supporting Syrian rebel groups consisting of “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq].” Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s role among “the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” was noted in the context of anticipating that the support would lead to the creation of a “Salafist Principality” in eastern Syria. The document even predicted the possibility that al-Qaeda in Iraq’s main vehicle, ISI, “could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria.”[64]

The same powers that were involved in supplying Libya’s rebels, particularly Qatar, were active in Syria. Around the time that the DIA report circulated in the intelligence community, classified US intelligence assessments made available to President Obama and senior policymakers showed that most Saudi and Qatari arms were going to “hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups”.[65]

In 2014, a senior Qatari official revealed that Qatar and Saudi Arabia had for years provided economic and military assistance primarily to both al-Qaeda’s Syrian arm, Jabhat al-Nusra, and to ISIS.[66]

A secret memo written for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in August 2014 (which appeared on the WikiLeaks website in 2016) noted that the Saudi and Qatari governments “are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [ISIS] and other radical Sunni groups in the region”.[67]

Saudi Arabia’s neighbour Qatar, the world’s only other predominantly Wahhabi state with whom Theresa May’s government has recently signed large commercial deals, may have been the biggest funder of the Syrian rebels, with some estimates suggesting the amount may be as much as $3 billion.[68]

While this does not justify labelling all the Syrian rebels as jihadists, it explains why the more secular, democratic forces among the rebels have often been supplanted by hardline Islamist forces.

REFERENCES

[1] Mark Curtis is an historian and foreign policy analyst, and the author of five books on UK foreign policy. Website: www.markcurtis.info

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Nafeez Ahmed

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Systems journalist. Crowdfunding investigations: http://patreon.com/nafeez

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