Following last week’s suicide bombing the UK government has serious questions to answer. Why were UK-Libyans under counter-terrorism control orders allowed to move freely between the two countries, and
how will it now tackle not “lone wolves” but a renewed transnational threat by the Islamic State group? Foreign Editor David Pratt reports.
It is now a depressingly familiar cycle. First comes the collapse of a regime and factional fighting. This is followed by intense foreign or Western military intervention before those same powers then turn their back on the country in turmoil. As a consequence a dangerous power vacuum is created and in turn jihadist groups move to exploit it. And so a launch pad for Islamist-inspired terrorism comes into being.
With certain variations within this cycle this is how jihadist terrorism has built its core in places as far-flung as Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and of course, perhaps most obviously, Libya.
It was shortly after Britain turned it’s back on Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi back in 2011, that the jihadists of the Islamic State group began the orchestration of their Libyan branch.
Sprung during an IS led jailbreak from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Abu Mughira al-Qahtani, a former policeman in Saddam Hussein’s regime, was subsequently spirited to Libya.
Allegedly accompanied by a cell of half-a-dozen men, by late 2014 early 2015 al-Qahtani was already in Libya building IS’s infrastructure by seizing profit-making criminal networks, helping make IS self sufficient and by poaching recruits from among local jihadi groups.
Al-Qahtani wasted no time in making clear the significance of Libya for IS.
“Libya has great importance because it is in Africa and south of Europe,” he said in an interview with the group’s English-language magazine Dabiq in September 2015. “It also contains a well of resources that cannot dry,” al-Qahtani insisted, a reference not only to the country’s massive oil reserves but also to jihadi recruits.
With the failure of Nato to even try and create post-Gaddafi stabilisation, Libya became a playground for jihadists. Within a comparatively short time the newly souped-up IS was training up to 3,000 foreigners.
They came from as far afield as Nigeria, Mali, Somalia, Algeria, and of course some ex-patriot Libyans exiled to Europe and the UK who had previously taken up arms against the regime during the revolution to topple Gaddafi.
Among those who supported that uprising were the parents of Salman Ramadan Abedi, the 22-year-old terrorist who last week walked into the Manchester Arena with a backpack before detonating a bomb that killed 22 people and wounded 116 others. Most of the victims were teenage girls on a night out to see US singer Ariana Grande.
As well as killing and maiming, the blast between the main arena and neighbouring Victoria station blew people off their feet and caused widespread panic. Witnesses described hearing an explosion and seeing a flash of fire. Metal nuts, bolts and nails packed into the bomb were strewn around the floor among bodies. The smell of explosives was in the air, witnesses said.
Abedi’s parents fled Libya as opponents of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, the British government only too happy to give them refuge in ‘Little Libya’ as Manchester became dubbed. Along with Birmingham and London, Manchester became a hub of Libyan opposition politics.
It was from these cities that many would return home to fight against Gaddafi as part of a broad opposition, among them Salman Abedi’s father. In some cases though these anti-Gaddafi forces were closely linked to Islamist groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).
This Islamist connection is crucial, not least because it has now become clear that the British government operated an “open door” policy that allowed Libyan exiles and British-Libyan citizens to join the 2011 uprising that overthrew Gaddafi, even though some had been subject to counter-terrorism control orders.
Unpalatable as it might be to consider let alone accept, last week’s Manchester attack is, in part, of Britain’s own making – insofar as the UK government willingly embraced a policy that exacerbated instability and a subsequent power vacuum in Libya that allowed jihadist terror to gain traction.
Several foreign fighters now back in the UK and interviewed by the respected online news website Middle East Eye (MEE) confirmed that they had been able to travel to Libya during that time with “no questions asked”.
Like them, Salman Abedi is also understood to have gone to Libya as the revolution against Gaddafi gathered momentum in 2011, and to have returned there on several subsequent occasions.
Sources spoken to by MEE suggest that the UK government facilitated the travel of Libyan exiles and British-Libyan residents and citizens keen to fight against Gaddafi, including some who it was deemed posed a potential security threat.
A report on the MME website said that one British citizen with a Libyan background who was placed on a control order – effectively house arrest – because of fears that he would join militant groups in Iraq said he was “shocked” that he was able to travel to Libya in 2011 shortly after his control order was lifted.
“I was allowed to go, no questions asked,” said the source, who wished to remain anonymous.
As the UK, France and the US carried out airstrikes and the war intensified against Gaddafi, other British-Libyans also had control orders lifted in 2011.
“They didn’t have passports, they were looking for fakes or a way to smuggle themselves across,” said the MEE source.
He told how within days of the British-Libyan’s control orders being lifted the UK authorities returned their passports, even though they were what he described as “old school LIFG guys,” a reference to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group formed in 1990 by Libyan Islamist mujahideen veterans of the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
All this happened despite the LIFG being proscribed as a terrorist organisation in 2005 by the British Government who described it as “part of the wider Islamist extremist movement inspired by al-Qaeda”.
The details of the MEE report findings making for uncomfortable reading. In it Belal Younis, another British citizen,who went to Libya, told how he was stopped under ‘Schedule 7’ counter-terrorism powers on his return to the UK after a visit to the country in early 2011.
These powers allow police and immigration officials to detain and question any person passing through border controls at ports and airports to determine whether they are involved in terrorism.
According to Younis, around that time an intelligence officer from the UK’s domestic security agency MI5 then asked him: “Are you willing to go into battle?”
Later, while travelling back to Libya, Younis was again stopped by two counter terrorism officers who informed him that by going to Libya to fight he was committing a crime.
On furnishing the officers with the telephone number of the MI5 officer Younis had previously spoken to, the officers returned after a phone call to give him clearance to pass.
Younis went on to tell how the MI5 officer even called him back before he boarded the plane to tell him he had “sorted it out.”
In light of the Manchester attack and with Salman Abedi said to be known to the security services, this apparent freedom of movement back and forward between the UK and Libya poses some serious questions for the British authorities.
In its rush to see the Gaddafi regime overthrown the British government would appear to have made a serious miscalculation in terms of the security threat to the UK such an open door policy created.
It could be argued, too, that while political leaders this week strived to promote national unity, they did at the exclusion of these unpalatable facts.
As the veteran Middle East watcher and writer Patrick Cockburn wrote last week, “if Saddam and Gaddafi had not been overthrown, it is unlikely that Salman Abedi would have been in a position to slaughter people in Manchester”.
As far back as 2003 the likely impact of Britain’s involvement in wars in the Middle East was spelled out in a Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessment, just before the start of the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces.
Declassified for use by the Chilcot Inquiry and though receiving little attention at the time, the report made clear that attacks against Western interests especially in the US and UK were “likely” and would be aimed at “maximum impact.”
The assessment concluded: “The worldwide threat from other Islamist groups and individuals will increase significantly.” Last week’s outrage in Manchester was just the latest manifestation of that ‘maximum impact’ strategy by the terrorists.
The organised, calculated nature of Abedi’s attack has not only shown that the knee-jerk reaction to such strikes as being the work of ‘lone wolves’ is often misleading and inaccurate, but gives rise to pressing questions over the current threat posed by IS, who claimed responsibility for the bombing in Manchester.
Initially labelled ‘lone wolf’ attacks – meaning with effectively no operational ties to IS – more recently it’s been discovered that most have some form of communication with the group.
As Rukmini Callimachi, a journalist and researcher who specialises in covering IS and al-Qaeda says, these are examples of what counter-terrorism experts are calling enabled or remote-controlled attacks.
In other words violence conceived and guided by operatives in areas controlled by the IS whose only connection to the would-be attacker is the internet, or exceptionally in the case of Salman Abedi perhaps, direct contact while in Libya.
“Close examination of both successful and unsuccessful plots carried out in IS’s name over the past three years indicates that such enabled attacks are making up a growing share of the operations of the group,” says Callimachi.
In the case of Abedi, however, he may have had the added advantage of being able to travel to Libya, Turkey or even Syria for direct instructions, a capacity again in part only made possible because of the previous ‘open door’ approach by the UK government over Libya.
That Abedi, too, is suspected of being part of a fairly extensive network of which a specific bomb maker may also have been a cell member is also cause for real concern.
As explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) experts will attest, there are simple bombs and there are sophisticated bombs. But most almost always require a certain level of technical ability that either requires a degree of training, some practice or some sort of technical skills.
This brings us to the question of the Manchester bomb itself. Much must now be known from the bomb fragments and forensic traces at the scene.
Terror groups tend to have what’s known as an “explosive signature.” On the face of it most intelligence analysts admit the Manchester bomb bears a strong similarity to that used by seven of the eight attackers in the Paris bomb attacks of November 2015. The bombers during that attack detonated shrapnel-packed bomb vests designed for causing the maximum number of casualties while committing suicide.
The key ingredient in these bombs was a compound called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, a crystalline powder that is easy to make and hard to detect, but is also incredibly unstable.
In fact, all it takes is a firm blow to explode TATP with a force that’s about 80 per cent as strong as TNT. The higher the volume of TATP, the more volatile it becomes. Jihadist terrorists who make it have dubbed it, “the Mother of Satan.”
One reason TATP is difficult to detect is because it is peroxide based and does not contain nitrogen, a key component of homemade “fertiliser” bombs that security scanners are now very good at finding. This is why there has been so much concern lately over taking laptops aboard aircraft as TATP can easily be placed inside such devices.
Since 2014, IS has used TATP in Europe. Concert venues and clubs targeted previously include the IS’s attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris on November 13, 2015 which killed 89 people, or the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June 2016, which killed 49 people.
This weekend, even as the terrorism threat level was reduced from critical to severe, there remain fears that members of Abedi’s network remain at large. Bomb makers tend to be given as much protection as possible within IS planning, being difficult to replace on active service in countries like the UK.
Back in Libya it’s an altogether different story. According to US military sources as of last year, the number of IS militants in Libya ranged from 4,000 to 6,000. Given the country’s close links with the UK it’s almost inevitable that many will be British or have strong links with the country through the Libyan diaspora.
After the fall of the Libyan port city of Sirte last year IS currently holds no territory, but its members have been moving around the country in small groups, their numbers swollen by other IS fighter who have left their old strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq and Syria.
These IS cells remain hard to locate and eliminate. Few doubt that after Manchester and Salman Abedi we will have heard the last of IS’s Libya connection. The UK government, in the meantime, would appear to have much to learn from its past mistakes and ‘open door policy’ on Libya. That policy came back to haunt Britain last week, and did so in the most horrific way imaginable.