Ben Wray: The questions May must answer about Salman Abedi, Libya and Manchester

CommonSpace columnist Ben Wray says there are big questions hanging over Theresa May about UK connections to Libyan fighters

THE more we find out about Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber in last week’s horrific Manchester terrorist attack, the more serious questions there is for Prime Minister Theresa May to answer. 

Not only were security services aware of and warned (by the local community and other intelligence agencies) about Abedi, but there is growing evidence of a direct link between the UK Government’s critical role in overthrowing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and Abedi’s development into a terrorist, up to and including security services facilitating his activities.

MI5 has announced two reviews into what went wrong, but the explicitly secretive nature of this organisation means we, the public, will never get the truth from these reviews, just PR. 

The prime minister has to answer directly to this failure: not only is she ultimately responsible now, but she was home secretary in 2011 during the overthrow of Gaddafi.

The prime minister has to answer directly to this failure: not only is she ultimately responsible now, but she was home secretary in 2011 during the overthrow of Gaddafi, and therefore, must be held accountable for actions relating to UK citizens abroad during that period.

These questions are not side issues in the Manchester bombing. They are fundamental to a real understanding of what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it happening again.

Why did the security services operate an "open door policy" in relation to known UK terror groups travelling to and from Libya in 2011? Did the Home Office authorise it?

Middle East Eye reported last week that the UK Government operated an "open door policy" with "no questions asked" in relation to Libyan exiles and Libyan-UK citizens in 2011 during the overthrow of Gaddafi, even if they were members of proscribed terrorist organisations and had specific control orders placed on them by security services in the past.

This included Abedi and his father, who was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which had close links to al-Qaeda. Abedi, who travelled freely back and forth between Manchester and Libya on numerous subsequent occasions from 2011-2017, last returned from Libya only a few days before carrying out the terrible atrocity at the Ariana Grande gig in Manchester.

Theresa May must be held accountable for actions relating to UK citizens abroad during that period.

There is evidence that MI5 may even have encouraged fighters to travel. Belal Younis, a UK citizen, on his way back from Libya was stopped under counter-terrorism powers called 'schedule 7'. An MI5 officer spoke to him, saying: "Are you willing to go into battle?"

Later, Younis was in an airport travelling back to Libya and was about to be prevented from travelling by two counter-terrorism police officers who said if he went to fight in Libya he would be committing a crime but, after giving the name and number of the MI5 officer, was waved through. The officer later called him to say he had "sorted it out".

Manchester has been identified as a major centre of UK islamist fighters connected to Libya. The Financial Times reports that MI5 "facilitated Islamist Mancunians" to travel and that everyone in the Libyan community in Manchester knew someone who went over to fight.

Bilal Bettammer, an activist during the overthrow of Gaddafi and a lawyer in Canada now, told the FT that members of the community tried to warn the UK ambassador to Libya about the number of Salafists going to Libya but "were rebuffed" because the government thought they were a better fighting force against Gaddafi than secularists.

Bettammer said the long-term consequences were clear: "These kids go to a war zone populated by Islamists, then they come back to the UK, they know bombs, they know how to make bullets.

"[Salman Abedi] was in Libya fighting other muslims. What do you think he’s going to do when he’s back in the UK?"

These questions are not side issues in the Manchester bombing. They are fundamental to a real understanding of what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it happening again.

Was May aware that security services were supporting members of known terrorist organisations and UK citizens to travel freely between Libya and the UK, and even encouraging them to participate in the violent overthrow of the Libyan government? 

Does she accept that these activities helped foster the sort of terrorist networks that Abedi became entrenched in from 2011 onwards? Does she take responsibility for the complacency of this attitude and the danger it put UK citizens in, in the UK and Libya?

Does the UK Government regret its role in creating a failed state in Libya that is now a hotbed for terrorist activity?

The UK’s role in overthrowing Gaddafi in 2011 is well documented. At the time, then prime minister David Cameron was more than happy to make a big song and dance about how the UK helped liberate Libyans from a brutal dictator, appearing in Tripoli six months after the war alongside former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to tell Libyans they would help build a democracy.

But he has been almost silent on Libya ever since. Just like Iraq, he and the other Nato leaders had no plan for the aftermath. Libya has since collapsed, with no central control over the country and three warring factions controlling different parts. 

Why did the security services operate an "open door policy" in relation to known UK terror groups travelling to and from Libya in 2011? Did the Home Office authorise it?

Such circumstances are perfect for the likes of Isis, which has made Libya a central location for its north African terror operations. An enormous refugee crisis now exists in the country, and human rights organisations have reported regular and brutal abuses from all local militias.

In September 2016, a foreign affairs select committee report was damning in blaming the UK Government and Cameron for what happened.

"Through his decision-making in the National Security Council, Cameron was ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy," the report stated.

The report said there was no forward planning, no "defined strategic objective", no attempt to limit the war after the protection of citizens in Benghazi, no attempt to secure Gaddafi’s weapons after his fall, that the rise of terrorist groups was always a danger and "should not be the preserve of hindsight", and so and so forth.

No wonder Barack Obama called Libya the biggest mistake of his presidency and blamed Cameron ("distracted") for not taking responsibility for the "shit show".

Abedi’s terrorism developed in this fertile territory of Libya becoming a failed state and a hotbed for terrorist organisation and activity. Does May regret it? Does she accept the UK Government’s culpability in Libya’s collapse?

Abedi’s terrorism developed in this fertile territory of Libya becoming a failed state and a hotbed for terrorist organisation and activity. Does May regret it? Does she accept the UK Government’s culpability in Libya’s collapse? Will she apologise?

Does the mounting evidence of the war on terror’s failure not show that it is time for a fundamental foreign policy re-think?

The UK Government’s direct role in the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011 and the emerging evidence of MI5’s facilitation of UK citizens in the war opens up a bigger question: has the war on terror failed? Has it not made UK citizens more unsafe since 2001?

A wider lens is needed here to understand the repeated prioritisation of the UK Government in forcing regime change over security.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deposed brutal regimes in Baghdad and Kabul, but they were also largely stable countries. Furthermore, Saddam Hussein’s
Baathist regime in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan were supported by the UK when they were seen to be geopolitically favourable.

Does the mounting evidence of the war on terror’s failure not show that it is time for a fundamental foreign policy re-think?

After more than a decade of war and many millions dead or displaced, they are now destroyed countries and centres of global terror, with Isis growing from Iraq into civil war-torn Syria, at one point controlling territory larger than the size of the UK.

In Libya, Gaddafi was one of the UK’s favourite dictators for a period when he was in their pocket and BP could establish oil wells. A quick google search will show an embrace of the Colonel by one Tony Blair when he was prime minister. 

The leaked Hillary Clinton emails revealed that despite Nato-backed rebels connected to al-Qaeda being involved in ethnically motivated killings, motivations for Western intervention included accessing Libyan oil and, shockingly, stopping the establishment of a pan-African currency backed by Gaddafi’s large gold and silver reserves to challenge "Francophone Africa". 

As discussed above, Libya is now in such disarray it can no longer be properly understood as one country.

Meanwhile, the despotic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, key funder of Middle Eastern terror groups and involved directly in the bombing and destruction of Yemen, continues to buy billions in UK bombs and weapons and is given political support.

A wider lens is needed here to understand the repeated prioritisation of the UK Government in forcing regime change over security.

Indeed, UK arms sales have risen as the Middle-East has become ever more entrenched in bloody warfare, especially in Syria, in a war that has annihilated a country and killed hundreds of thousands. 

The UK Government’s direct role in Syria is to drop bombs, first aimed at the Assad regime and then at its enemy, Isis. The only constant thread in the UK’s activities in the Middle East and north Africa appears to be to support regimes favourable to it and undermine regimes that won’t fall into line.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was 100 per cent right to ask if the war on terror is a failure. Like the war on drugs, the war on terror has created a vicious circle of war and violence that makes security and peace harder, not easier.

Just look at this graph of the rise in terror attacks since the war on terror began in 2001.

Rather than asking these questions of May, the media has instead focused on whether it is "appropriate" or not for Corbyn to be raising these issues. This is a dereliction of its responsibility to hold those in power to account on the issues that matter. 

With a General Election just over a week away, the public will have to ask these questions of the prime minister if the media won’t. 

If we don’t, the whole vicious circle will go on: avoid the root causes, continue to repeat past mistakes; more war, more terror and more hate.

Picture courtesy of Jim Mattis

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