On May 22, 2017, Salman Abedi blew himself up at a pop concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people. It was the worst terrorist attack in Manchester’s history — and the worst in the U.K. since the London bombings of 2005. The youngest victim was just 8 years old.
But was this horrific suicide attack in 2017, at least in part, blowback from British foreign policy? Did the NATO-backed war in Libya play a role in radicalizing Abedi?
You remember Libya, right? It was the military intervention of 2011, launched by U.S. President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy under a NATO umbrella and with the backing of a U.N. Security Council resolution, which was supposed to prevent Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from carrying out a massacre in the coastal city of Benghazi. The mission, however, soon morphed into regime change. NATO forces intervened on the side of Libya’s rebels who eventually captured Gadhafi in the desert, sodomized him with a bayonet, and shot him dead. “We came, we saw, he died,” laughed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Hilarious! But as I explain in this sixth and final film of my series on blowback for The Intercept, there was nothing funny about post-Gadhafi Libya, which quickly descended into violence and chaos as rival militias, including jihadi groups, fought for power and influence. As an official report by a select committee of the British Parliament later acknowledged, “The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight.”
Indeed. NATO member governments were well aware of what kind of extreme and violent groups they were backing on the ground. Some members of the Canadian Air Force, which flew 10 percent of the missions during NATO’s Libyan campaign, privately joked among themselves that they had become “Al Qaeda’s air force.”
Yet the British government, which cracked down on British citizens who went out to fight in Syria or Iraq, looked the other way at those who went out to fight in Libya. One U.K. citizen of Libyan descent, who had been under house arrest due to concerns that he might join violent extremists in Iraq, said he was “allowed to go [to Libya], no questions asked.” In fact, so many Libyan exiles went out to fight the Gadhafi regime from Manchester alone that today, there is even a mural in Tripoli to commemorate them. One of those exiles was Ramadan Abedi, a member of the Al Qaeda-aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and his 22-year-old son … Salman.
Former friends and acquaintances of Salman Abedi say he returned to the U.K. from Libya a “completely different guy.” The one-time partygoer, who took drugs and enjoyed a drink, came back an angry young man who had fought against Gadhafi and, allegedly, signed up with the Islamic State. (ISIS would later claim the Manchester attack.)
Remember: To explain how Abedi became a bomber is not to excuse him. He is responsible for a grotesque act of mass murder; the merciless killing of innocent kids. But who helped him find likeminded, hate-filled individuals with whom to train and fight? Who provided him with the battlefield on which he was recruited and radicalized? How did the Libya he travelled to end up becoming a haven for ISIS?
“Enough is enough,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May, in the wake of the London Bridge terror attack, which occurred just a month after the Manchester bombing. “When it comes to taking on extremism and terrorism, things need to change.”
Yes, they do. How about we stop allying with and arming unsavory groups abroad? How about we quit the Middle East regime-change business? How about we stop pretending that our wars abroad don’t lead to blowback at home? The sooner we do so, the more innocent lives we might be able save.
This series of videos was written by Mehdi Hasan, executive produced by Lauren Feeney, and produced by Dina Sayedahmed, Omar Kasrawi, and Nicole Salazar.