The Libyan connection

Those who voted for the bombing in 2011 must share some of the blame for incidents like Manchester, argues Yassamine Mather

David Cameron and his Libyan friends

From accounts in the British media the family of Salman Abedi, the Manchester suicide bomber who perpetrated the horrific attack on May 22, were part of a large community of Libyan exiles in Manchester and other UK cities, who fled Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorial rule in 1980s. Many amongst those who fled Libya were liberal democrats opposed to the strange brand of dictatorship in their country. However, a considerable number were Islamists and, both within Libya and certainly after they settled in the UK, they were influenced by Salafi jihadist ideology. Their mosques and Islamic centres, often financed by Saudi money, became recruiting grounds for al Qa’eda and its various offshoots.

A prominent Libyan opposition group known to have connections with Manchester was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). It was founded by Libyans who had joined the mujahedin’s fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and its declared aim was the establishment of an Islamic state in Libya. With Saudi encouragement, UK security forces - eager to play a role in Libya regime change from above - recruited from the group.

According to the website Tracking Terrorism,

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, LIFG was banned worldwide because of its affiliation with al Qa’eda, which the group has consistently denied, stating that it refused to join the global Islamic front bin Laden declared against the west in 1998. Members of the group participated in the Libyan civil war under the name, Libyan Islamic Movement …1

There were many other anti-Gaddafi armed militia groups financed by Middle Eastern countries, with connections to western security forces. Most of them faced a difficult period during the years when Tony Blair’s government sought to make peace with Gaddafi. Throughout this period Saudi animosity against Libya persisted and the groups became even more dependent on funds from Riyadh, as well as the Emirates. After 9/11, as far as the security services were concerned, the LIFG - once an ally - became part of the ‘enemy’, as suddenly did all organisations connected with al Qa’eda.

But western policy towards Gaddafi changed again in 2011, when David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy joined with the US in an alliance to overthrow Gaddafi, and Islamist groups became allies once more. A number of anti-Gaddafi jihadist organisations, indoctrinated in Saudi-financed mosques, returned from Manchester to fight in Tripoli and the south of the country. According to the Manchester Evening News,

The city was such a hotbed of anti-Gaddafi feeling that when Benghazi rose up against the colonel’s rule, his son, Saif, said it was the work of Libyans in the west - and included the Manchester community in a diatribe on state TV.2

In the same year a senior cleric at Didsbury Mosque, returning from Libya, claimed in an interview with the same paper that he had been captured and tortured by pro-Gaddafi forces before leaving the country and that he was only arrested because he had a British passport - the Libyan authorities accused him of being a spy.

The Didsbury mosque denies any connection with al Qa’eda and IS, and no doubt most of those who pray there have no idea of the murky past of some of the other worshippers, who moved from being al Qa’eda sympathisers in Afghanistan to MI5 sources during the anti-Gaddafi years, who were later involved in regime change in Libya.

Coalition bombing

In the spring of 2011, Cameron, keen to keep up with two other ‘pro-democracy’ European leaders, Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, asked the Commons to allow UK planes to bomb government positions in Libya. No fewer than 557 MPs, including the majority from Labour, voted with him, the 13 who voted against including Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

In 2016, following a parliamentary review of UK policy towards Libya in 2011, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, Crispin Blunt MP, summed up the findings as follows:

The committee accepts that, as the government response suggests, UK policy in Libya was initially driven by a desire to protect civilians. However, we do not accept that it understood the implications of this, which included collapse of the state, failure of stabilisation and the facilitation of Islamist extremism in Libya.3

So air raids by western air forces (including US, UK, French and Italian warplanes) were instrumental in deposing the Gaddafi regime. However, the groups that took control of the country posed more danger - for the Libyan people and the rest of the world - than the mad dictator they deposed.

According to the website Middle East Eye,

The British government operated an ‘open door’ policy that allowed Libyan exiles and British-Libyan citizens to join the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, even though some had been subject to counter-terrorism control orders, Middle East Eye can reveal. Several former rebel fighters now back in the UK told MEE that they had been able to travel to Libya with “no questions asked” …4

The main group that initially benefited from the downfall of Gaddafi was the National Transitional Council, which was recognised by France as the sole representative of the Libyan people. NTC forces were supported by Nato air power.

However, its grip on power was very short-lived. In January 2012, protesters against the NTC stormed the organisation’s Benghazi headquarters, demanding greater transparency, the sacking of all Gaddafi-era officials and that sharia law should be the source of the new constitution.

The Libyan Freedom and Democracy Campaign was a secular group that called for the separation of mosque and state, but it was completely sidelined by Islamists and did not have the kind of material and financial support enjoyed by them. Such Salafi jihadi groups dominated the post-Gaddafi era and the subsequent civil war, which has lasted for six years and is actually a battle between these forces.

The current battles represent an escalation of a long-standing conflict between supporters of Mufti Sheikh Sadeq al-Gheriani, based in Tripoli, and those of a rival brand of Salafism, inspired by Saudi sheikh Rabee al-Madkhali.

According to a report prepared for the European Council of Foreign affairs, the latter group, “colloquially known as Madkhalis”,

detest the Muslim Brotherhood and all forms of political Islam. As a result, many Madkhalis joined Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity in eastern Libya. Their critics suspect they may be a Trojan horse for Saudi influence in Libya.5

Libyan volunteers, who fought in northern Syria as part of IS, set up the first branch of the jihadist group once they returned to their own country in 2014.

Libya has strategic and tactical importance for IS - there are rumours that senior members of its leadership are based there. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organisation’s leader, claims a number of provinces are part of his caliphate. Although the group is benefiting from the chaotic hell that is Libya, in recent months it has lost ground to the Mujahideen Shura Council, a coalition of competing jihadist groups, including LIFG.

Defeats in Syria, Iraq and Libya have meant that IS needed some successes to divert attention from events that have created disillusionment among and led to the desertion of many volunteers. One such ‘success’ is the dreadful crime committed in Manchester, taking the lives of teenage victims at a pop concert thousands of miles away. In my mind there is no doubt that the Labour MPs who voted for the bombing of Libya in 2011 must share some responsibility for that crime. Those who voted for the bombing in 2011 must take some of the blame not just for Manchester, but for the hell we are currently witnessing in Libya itself.

It is ironic that the atrocity came just two days after Donald Trump’s speech at the Saudi-organised conference to form a coalition against ‘terrorism’, when he implied that Iran’s Islamic Republic is the only terrorist force in the region. But, for their part, Iranian minsters have been quick to link the Manchester bombing to the terrorist incident that took the lives of 10 soldiers in Mirjaveh, in southern Iran. On May 23, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said: “We believe that the roots and the ideological origin of the terrorist incidents in Iran’s Mirjaveh and the UK’s Manchester are one and the same.” The 10 soldiers were killed by the Jaish al-Adl group, which is allegedly funded by Saudi Arabia.

The Kayhan daily argued:

The United States, France and England have supported the takfiri terrorist groups in west Asia, and have led thousands of families to lose [their children], but these terrorists have now … turned into pythons and are returning to the western countries, group by group … the occasional attacks in France, England, Belgium and America are signs of this (May 24).

In summary, successive UK governments supported Libyan jihadists when they returned from Afghanistan and were needed to help implement regime change in Tripoli, but for a few years in the middle of all this, when Tony Blair was wooing Gaddafi, they became the enemy and that is when they consolidated their alliance with Saudi/Salafi forces. It is amazing that in 2011 the imperialists did not grasp how dangerous their former allies had become.

In the infamous words of Hillary Clinton:

You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.6

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. www.trackingterrorism.org/group/libyan-islamic-fighting-group-lifg.

2. www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/support-anti-gadaffi-paramilitary-group-13087255.

3. www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/foreign-affairs-committee/news-parliament-2015/libya-gov-response-16-17.

4. www.middleeasteye.net/news/sorted-mi5-how-uk-government-sent-british-libyans-fight-gaddafi-1219906488.

5. www.ecfr.eu/mena/mapping_libya_conflict.

6. www.ndtv.com/world-news/snakes-in-your-backyard-wont-bite-only-neighbours-hillary-to-pak-573412?browserpush=true.