Manchester bombing shows overlooked global threat in Libya
MI5, the British domestic intelligence and security agency, is conducting an inquiry into its assessment over the past decade of the largest community of Libyan exiles in Europe.
Manchester, in northern England, was a magnet for opponents of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, such as the Abedi family. Ramadan, the father of Salman, the bomber who killed 22 people in a terrorist attack in Manchester, was exfiltrated from Libya by MI6, the agency dealing with international security. He was an officer in the Libyan Army and known for his links to Islamist groups in the 1980s when there were attempts to overthrow the Libyan dictator.
British intelligence had long-standing dealings with the community, including its Islamist contingent. MI5 facilitated the travel of many Islamist Mancunians to Libya after 2011 — they were reckoned to be “good fighters.”
Tunisian and Algerian security officials acquainted with Libya said such a policy was reckless. Tunisian officials had to cope with the fallout of Qaddafi’s fall on their own country. The gunman who killed 38 tourists on the beachfront in Sousse two years ago was reportedly trained at an Islamic State (ISIS) basis in western Libya near the Tunisian border.
The 32 militants who attacked the Algerian gas field of Tigantourine, killing 40 people, in January 2013, crossed from the nearby Libyan border. This was the most ferocious attack against a gas field of its kind and, had the Algerian security forces not intervened brutally, Tigantourine would have been turned into a ball of fire.
Security officials in both countries had a far more sophisticated understanding of Libyan tribal politics than their Western counterparts.
British intelligence officers well understand the dangerous dynamics the Syrian crisis has unleashed: Young Britons who will be brutalised by the conflict, skilled in the tools and trade of war, well-connected to transnational networks of fellow fighters by powerful bonds of kinship. The same applies to young Frenchmen.
What the British and French seem to have overlooked was that the civil war in Libya was nurturing the same dynamics. France gave refuge to few Libyans but not so Britain. Manchester gave refuge to thousands of Libyans but the city is not responsible for how grievances festered. As the former director of global counter-terrorism operations at MI6 has pointed out: “It’s the ability of groups like ISIS to wrap up your individual and local anxieties and grievances into this huge overall picture — to make you somebody.”
Fingers are being pointed at the state whose collapse after the fall of Qaddafi allowed radicalisation to become entrenched. In 2015-16, ISIS fighters took control of the former Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte, from where they were later ejected by fighters from Misrata. As it lost ground in Iraq and Syria, the ISIS leadership saw Libya as a fallback zone and, with its oil resources, a fount of financing. With youth unemployment close to 40%, ISIS finds it easy to recruit young Libyans to its ranks.
The United Nations authorised a limited intervention to save the inhabitants of Benghazi from being slaughtered in keeping with the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which requires UN Security Council authority for any such intervention. There was no UN authority for Western forces to stay on after achieving that objective or to be used to assist in the overthrow of Qaddafi.
The abuse of the UN charter had dire consequences on the West’s relations with China and Russia and inhibited its policy towards Syria. As the regime collapsed, US President Barack Obama realised Libya was a “shit show.” He was surprised by the incompetence and passivity of America’s key allies French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The faith Obama had in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being interested in following up after Qaddafi’s death turned out to be misguided.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has enthusiastically endorsed US President Donald Trump’s fight against “radical Islamic terrorism,” was quick to bomb alleged ISIS training camps in eastern Libya after the latest attack against Copts complicated matters.
There has been a series of large-scale attacks on the Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority in recent months. Meanwhile, international peacekeepers describe the fighting in Sinai as beginning to resemble the conflict in Afghanistan. Human rights groups estimate that 40,000-60,000 political prisoners are in Egyptian jails. They include members of the Muslim Brotherhood but also secular pro-democracy activists.
How will the European Union react if the arc of instability facing its southern shores rim spreads from Libya into Egypt? Will the southern region of Tunisia, which has close ties with neighbouring Libya and is in open revolt against the richer north, add to the growing confusion?
One can only hope an ill-tempered Brexit will not discourage close security cooperation between Britain and its European neighbours. The blowback of reckless policies in North Africa since 2011 have come to haunt Britain and the European Union.