Analysis: UK investigating possible ‘network’ behind Manchester attack

Note: This article was first published at the Weekly Standard.

The investigation into the Manchester Arena bombing quickly turned to the possibility that the bomber, 22-year-old Salman Abedi, had accomplices. “I think it’s very clear that this is a network that we are investigating,” Chief Constable Ian Hopkins of the Manchester Police told reporters yesterday. The U.K.’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office was more circumspect, cautioning that “at this stage it is still not possible to be certain if there was a wider group involved in the attack.”

But the dragnet has only widened since Monday evening, and now stretches from the U.K. to Libya.

Authorities are looking into Abedi’s travels abroad, including to his parents’ native Libya, and whether he met with terrorist operatives. The bomb he deployed was well-crafted, with shrapnel packed around a powerful explosive charge. The jihadists have disseminated literature on how to construct similar devices, but bomb experts have yet to determine if it was an exceptional home brew, or professionally built.

As of this morning, according to Manchester police, eight men, including one of Abedi’s brothers, have been arrested in the U.K. It remains to be seen if charges are brought against any or all of them. One woman who was detained as part of the investigation has since been released.

Meanwhile, in Tripoli, another one of Abedi’s brothers and his father, Ramadan, have both been detained by Rada, Libya’s Special Deterrence Force.

Rada posted a picture of Hashim Abedi, Salman’s younger sibling (seen above), on its Facebook page along with a message saying that he had incriminated himself. Rada alleges that Hashim admitted he was aware of all of the details of the Manchester Arena plot and that the two brothers had joined the Islamic State. U.K. and U.S. officials are seeking to verify the claim.

Earlier yesterday, Ramadan Abedi insisted that his son Salman was innocent during an interview with the Associated Press. “We don’t believe in killing innocents. This is not us,” the Abedi father told the AP. “We aren’t the ones who blow up ourselves among innocents. We go to mosques. We recite Quran, but not that.” It was shortly after that that Rada detained Ramadan in Tripoli for questioning. They did not bring charges.

The Abedi family is from Libya; the 2011 uprising in that country brought the parents back to their native land. A family friend, Akram Ramadan, provided some background information to the Guardian. Akram Ramadan says that he fought alongside Ramadan Abedi during the revolution against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. The senior Abedi was apparently a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which failed in its attempt to overthrow Gaddafi during the 1990s. The LIFG has been designated a terrorist organization in the U.S. because of its ties to al Qaeda. Senior LIFG figures fought alongside al Qaeda in pre-9/11 Afghanistan and a number of them merged with Osama bin Laden’s enterprise. In fact, some LIFG members went on to serve in al Qaeda’s most senior roles.

Gaddafi’s regime imprisoned numerous LIFG members through the years, but many of them were released from prison both before and during the 2011 revolution. One of them, Sufian ben Qumu, went on to lead Ansar al Sharia (an al Qaeda-affiliated group) in Derna, a city in eastern Libya, and was linked to the September 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi.

Other former LIFG figures decided to play politics in post-Gaddafi Libya, and this led to heated criticism from the Islamic State.

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s international organization rejects any form of politics. Only the top-down, authoritarian implementation of sharia law is legitimate for governance, according to the group’s ideologues. All other forms of rule are prohibited. Thus, the Islamic State has blasted Abdelhakim Belhadj, one of the most prominent former LIFG leaders, as an apostate. Belhadj, who reportedly knew Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, has joined one of Libya’s rival governments in Tripoli. There have been erroneous reports saying that Belhadj joined the Islamic State, but this is clearly false.

The Islamic State made Libya the third most important country in its caliphate between late 2014 and 2016. The group captured the coastal city of Sirte, portraying it almost on par with Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq–the two capitals of Baghdadi’s nascent state. But the jihadists lost Sirte in December of last year, forcing them to regroup elsewhere.

In January, the U.S. bombed two Islamic State training camps south of Sirte. Importantly, the Pentagon said that the airstrikes had targeted the Islamic State’s “external plotters,” who had been tied to terrorist planning in Europe. CNN then revealed that some of these same terrorists had connections to the December 19, 2016, Christmas market attack in Berlin, which was carried out by an Islamic State member from Tunisia.

This raises the possibility that the Manchester terrorist, Salman Abedi, met with the Islamic State’s “external” operatives during his time in Libya. Authorities are still piecing together a picture of his travels, but it appears that Abedi spent time in Libya just prior to returning to Manchester. Other, unconfirmed reports say he also traveled to Syria.

The investigation has led to tensions between U.K. officials and their counterparts in the U.S. The two countries have a robust intelligence-sharing relationship, but details are being leaked to the American press shortly after being transmitted by the Brits. For instance, photos and granular details about the bomb used in the attack were published by the New York Times yesterday.

The leaking has led the U.K. government to complain at multiple levels. Prime Minister Theresa May reportedly will raise the issue with President Donald Trump during NATO meetings in Brussels later today.

The U.K. National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) issued a statement that is scathing, at least by British standards.

“We greatly value the important relationships we have with our trusted intelligence, law enforcement and security partners around the world,” the NPCC statement reads. “These relationships enable us to collaborate and share privileged and sensitive information that allows us to defeat terrorism and protect the public at home and abroad.”

The NPCC statement continues: “When that trust is breached it undermines these relationships, and undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families. This damage is even greater when it involves unauthorised disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counter terrorism investigation.”

That investigation is focused on Salman Abedi’s possible co-conspirators. And the leaks complicate efforts to roll up what may be a much larger network in play.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Arjuna says:

    The Abu Anas al Libi links to the Abedi family are really alarming. Dad loved him, and posted FB tributes. (Nuclear scientist) Mom is a close friend of Al Libi’s wife. I wonder if she discussed dirty bombs with them? What fissile material did she have access to?
    Baby Snake Salman could have made that knapsack bomb. I again blame online instructional videos for making the terrorism problem much worse by making terrorism a paint-by-numbers game. Salman’s brother says they watched ISIS instructional videos together to make their bombs (they are both suicide bomber wannabes). Baghdadi himself appears in some of these bombmaking videos. They are quite comprehensive.
    Nuke scientist Mother? Of course he could mix up some Mother of Satan.
    I bet he got help in Libya, Syria or Germany w the dead man’s switch.
    Let’s switch off jihad by locking up people like the Abedis. Pronto.

  • mosul says:

    maybe this jihadist obeyed hamza bin ladin’s message from 12 days ago, but isis took credit for it.

  • Arjuna says:

    I wish I didn’t know so much about terrorists (the sick, sad vermin of society):
    There are reports of a woman speaking Arabic into her cellphone and looking frantically at the targeted corner entrance right before the bomb blew up. Please find her.

  • Arjuna says:

    This op was in train without any connection to Hamza. ISIS people helped him. However, his parents are tight with AQ. Hamza hasn’t “spoken” yet.
    Speaking of online instructions which the CIA thinks are hakuna matata….
    In a separate incident Friday, Damon Smith, 20, was sentenced to 15 years in a young offenders’ institution after a London court found him guilty of planting a bomb on a London Underground train. He built the device using online al-Qaeda instructions.


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