Government says it is ‘likely’ it had contact with former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group during 2011 uprising against Gaddafi
LONDON – The UK government has admitted it is “likely” it was in communications with former members of an al-Qaeda-linked Libyan militant group linked to the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi and his family during the country’s 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.
Following last May’s Manchester Arena attack, which killed 22 people, it emerged that Abedi, 22, the British-born son of exiled Libyan dissident, returned to the north African country in 2011 with his father to fight with factions linked to the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), alongside other anti-Gaddafi forces.
The rebels were also backed by NATO, with the UK, France and the US conducting air strikes targeting Gaddafi forces. Gaddafi himself was killed following an air strike on a convoy in which he was travelling in October 2011.
The LIFG was founded in 1995 by anti-Gaddafi Libyan fighters who had fought against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the group had contacts with the leaders of al-Qaeda, which also emerged out of the same fight.
But the LIFG subsequently distanced itself from al-Qaeda in 2009 and condemned the targeting of civilians.
“During the Libyan conflict in 2011 the British Government was in communication with a wide range of Libyans involved in the conflict against the Gaddafi regime forces. It is likely that this included former members of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and 17 February Martyrs’ Brigade, as part of our broad engagement during this time
many of its former members joined the 17 February Martyrs’ Brigade, one of the main anti-Gaddafi fighting forces as the revolution gathered pace in 2011.
Many volunteers from Manchester also fought for the 17 February Martyrs’ Brigade, including Ramadan Abedi, Salman Abedi’s father, who was reportedly a former member of the LIFG.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, who asked the question, said: “The Foreign Office has told me that it is ‘likely’ it had links to the Libyan rebel group for which the Manchester bomber fought.”
He said the response left the government with “serious questions” to answer over whether it facilitated Abedi’s travel to fight in Libya.
Fabian Hamilton MP, a member of Labour’s shadow foreign office team, told MEE: “These revelations show that the British government must look more closely at who it supports and has communications with, not only in Libya, but across the world. The situation in Libya in 2011 was extremely complex, and still is today, with several different organisations claiming to represent the people of that country, while showing a willingness to take part in violence to meet their political ends.”
‘No questions asked’
Several former Libyan rebel fighters now back in the UK told MEE that they had been able to travel to Libya with “no questions asked” and that “old-school LIFG guys” were allowed to travel to the country.
At the time, sources told MEE it appeared the government allowed the travel of Libyan exiles keen to fight against Gaddafi, including some whom it had earlier deemed to pose a potential security risk.
The UK government listed the LIFG as a terrorist organisation in 2005, describing it as seeking to establish a “hardline Islamic state” and “part of the wider Islamist extremist movement inspired by al-Qaeda”.
The US State Department has said elements of the LIFG had pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and designated the group a foreign terrorist organisation in 2004.
Former members of the LIFG deny that the group had any links with al-Qaeda and say it was committed only to removing Gaddafi from power.
The LIFG became a significant anti-Gaddafi force in Libya in the late 90s, until a government clampdown forced many members to flee – and many were granted refugee status in the UK.
But LIFG exiles found themselves under scrutiny in the UK following a rapprochement between the British and Libyan governments in 2004, which resulted in greater cooperation between the countries’ security services.
According to documents retrieved from the ransacked offices of the Libyan intelligence agency following Gaddafi’s fall from power in 2011, British security services cracked down on Libyan dissidents in the UK as part of a deal with Gaddafi, as well as assisting in the rendition of two senior LIFG leaders, Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, to Tripoli where they allege they were tortured.
Belhaj later returned to Libya and was a leading figure in the uprising against Gaddafi, while another former Libyan exile subjected to a control order in the UK was later tasked with providing security for visiting dignitaries including British prime minister David Cameron, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, MEE understands.
The Islamic State (IS) group, which was able to seize territory in Libya around the central city of Sirte as rival Libyan governments and militias emerged following the fall of Gaddafi, claimed responsibility for the Manchester bombing.
Ally turned enemy?
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told MEE the revelations showed the “complexity” of the Libyan conflict. “If you are dealing with a situation when armed groups are the dominant forces, you are obliged to deal with them, but in a fluid situation, as was the case in Libya, you can find that someone who was an ally one day can produce conflict the next,” he said.
Salman Abedi is reported to have also had contact with jailed IS recruiter Abdalraouf Abdallah, another British-Libyan from Manchester who suffered paralysing injuries while fighting with the 17 February Martyrs’ Brigade in Libya.
Abdallah was convicted in 2016 of assisting others in committing acts of terrorism after facilitating and arranging for British men, including his brother, to travel to Syria to fight for IS.
A security source told MEE that officials were unable to comment on Abedi and his family members’ travel in Libya, because of the active extradition request for Hashem Abedi, the brother of Salman Abedi.
Hashem Abedi, 20, was arrested in Libya shortly after his older brother blew himself up at the Manchester Arena, and UK authorities want him to return to the UK to face mass murder charges.
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