Libya remains an ungoverned space on Europe’s doorstep because of choices made, primarily, by British and French political leadersby Arthur Snell / May 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
As soon as the identity of the suicide bomber that murdered 22 concert goers in Manchester on Monday night was released, people began trying to understand the significance of Salman Abedi’s connections to Libya.
Although Manchester born and bred, members of Abedi’s family, including his father and brother, are based in Libya, their country of origin. Abedi was known to have travelled to and from Libya regularly, including returning from there, via Turkey, only days before the attack.
Much about Abedi fits the classic profile of the modern urban terrorist: a young male born in Europe of immigrant parents, he had dropped out of educational institutions and flirted with gang culture.
But there are significant differences: his attack employed a sophisticated and devastating bomb that would likely have been made by a trained expert. The target selection was cynically and horrifically made to cause maximum impact and damage.
As has now been made clear, this was the work of a terrorist network, some of whom may still be at large, rather than a low-tech, poorly planned “lone wolf” expedition, such as the Westminster Bridge attack of 22 March.
But the biggest novelty is the Libya connection: this is the first major terror attack carried out in Europe by someone based in, or in regular contact with, Libya.
Confused international interests
It was clear from the very start of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya in support of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi that there was a gulf between the gung-ho attitudes of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, and Barack Obama’s reluctance to get involved. The subsequent and total collapse of Libyan state authority and the rise of Islamic State in Sirte, Gadaffi’s former hometown, laid bare the failure of the intervention. The international community has tended to focus on the resultant migration crisis.
The situation on the ground remains very fluid: Islamic State has been dislodged from Sirte but are not a spent force in Libya. Indeed, the Oxford-based Libya expert Dr Alia Brahimi has reported that up to 350,000 armed men may have fallen in with radical Islamist groups in Libya.
Libyan-based terrorists attacked the BP plant in Amenas in Algeria in 2013, killing 40 people. The gunman who ravaged the beach in Sousse in Tunisia in 2015, killing 38 tourists (including 30 Britons) and those responsible for attacking the Bardo museum in the same year had trained at a Libyan Islamic State camp.
A new front
The Manchester attack represents a new front for Libyan IS. Hitherto attacks have taken place in neighbouring countries, relying on Libya’s porous borders and ready availability of weapons. To mount a sophisticated attack in the UK, relying on a skilled bomb maker and a co-ordination network, takes the Libyan threat to a new level, comparable with the threat from the Syria headquarters of the Islamic State that has directed attacks in Paris and across Europe.
Of course, at this stage we do not know whether Abedi’s network is directly connected to Libya, operating purely within the UK, or co-ordinating with other Islamic State networks in Syria or elsewhere. But we do know that there is a strong connection between the UK and Libyan Islamists. Members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a terrorist organisation affiliated with Al-Qaeda and opposed to Gaddafi, sought refuge in the UK in the 1990s with many settling in Manchester.
Significant numbers of UK-based Libyans, including from Manchester, travelled to Libya to join the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi. It has been alleged that MI5 turned a blind eye or even encouraged this tendency as a means of strengthening the coalition against Gaddafi.
Whatever the truth of these allegations, the fact is that Libya, one of the largest countries in the Mediterranean region, remains an ungoverned space on Europe’s doorstep. It is in this condition because of choices made primarily by British and French political leaders; decisions which were questioned at the time by the Americans and Russians.
Abedi’s atrocity in Manchester occurred during a general election campaign, and as campaigning resumes on Friday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has stated: “many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed out the connections between wars that we have been involved in, or supported, or fought, in other countries and terrorism here at home”.
Comparisons with Iraq
Turning to Iraq, IS in Iraq and Syria is largely a fusion of former elements of Al-Qaeda in Iraq with members of the Saddam-era Iraqi army. Faced with the allegation that British foreign and defence policy has made matters worse, politicians tend to fall back on the tired, “based on what we knew at the time, we did the right thing” defence.
The Chilcot inquiry demonstrated that this defence was highly debatable on Iraq in 2003; by 2011, with Iraq as a clear precedent, in Libya the defence is without foundation.
There is a very complex debate around radicalisation and the degree to which an individual may take action in response to British foreign policy.
But there is a much simpler argument that poorly-executed foreign misadventures have created ungoverned space where terrorist groups are allowed to flourish. It may be unpalatable to relate that to the heinous crimes committed against people enjoying a concert in Manchester on Monday night. But to dismiss any connection will lead us to repeat failing policies, expecting a different result.