By Olivia Cuthbert
For a brief period after the Libyan uprising of October 2011 in which Qaddafi was killed by rebels, hope rose in the country’s exiled communities.
“We all rubbed shoulders and we all chanted the same chant,” said Mohamed Abdulmalek, a Libyan living in Manchester, a city in the north of England.
“When I look back on those days I miss them, they were incredible. We all came together, Islamists, atheists, liberals, socialists, those with no political views. Everyone wanted to play their part for Libya.”
But the dream of political stability quickly evaporated, taking the feelings of camaraderie with it. The National Transitional Council of Libya, the interim government that took charge after Qaddafi’s downfall, failed to fill the power vacuum and the country splintered into warring factions, fueled by tribalism and opportunists pursuing their own agendas.
This was mirrored in Manchester’s “Little Tripoli” where Libyan society fractured.
“I think my good Libyan friends are down to 10 or 12; it used to be hundreds,” said Hashem Ben Ghalbon, who moved to the city in 1976, after fleeing the regime. “People are very suspicious of each other.”
These issues were little known outside Manchester, home to the UK’s largest Libyan population of around 5,000 people, until last year.
“The Libyan community unfortunately got introduced to the wider population through Salman Abedi, otherwise we are one of those groups that are hidden in the UK,” Abdulmalek said.
Ben Ghalbon was watching television when news broke of the explosion during the Ariana Grande concert on May 22 last year. “I thought ‘I hope it’s not terrorism’ and then ‘please God, let it not be a Muslim, because I know the damage it’s going to cause, and we don’t need it now.’
“We had one eye on the horror of it all and another on who the suspect would be.”
More details quickly emerged as the world’s media descended on Manchester, a city more often recognized for its music scene and football prowess. Shocked Mancunians saw grainy CCTV stills of the 22-year-old Abedi, a Briton of Libyan descent, wandering the city hours before the attack as if weighing up his target, apparently also weighing up the city’s Piccadilly train station.
Instead, he walked into Manchester Arena and made his way to the foyer, where crowds would gather after the final song. As people spilled out of the venue, mostly young women and children thrilled at seeing the American pop star’s sell-out show,
Abedi detonated his home-made bomb, firing nails and screws into the crowd around him.
His action put Libyans in Manchester under the spotlight. At Didsbury Mosque, where the Abedi family used to pray, some young people stopped attending.
“Anyone who used to play football with Abedi or met him, was fretting,” said Ismael Lea South, a deradicalization specialist at The Salam Project, a community outreach initiative working with young people in the UK.
Mancunian Libyans, sharing in the horror that gripped the city, were thrown by the sudden focus on their little-known community.
“People were asking them why a Libyan would do this,” Mustafa Graf, the British Libyan imam at the mosque, told Arab News.
Abedi’s father, Ramadan Abedi, had been a muezzin at the mosque, housed in a former Methodist chapel off Burton road, a bustling thoroughfare lined with cafes and clothes shops that runs through the affluent south Manchester suburb of Didsbury, a neighborhood now inextricably linked with the devastating attack.
He was a member of the now-disbanded Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), set up in 1995 by Libyans who had fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan to overthrow Qaddafi.
After the revolution, he spent long periods in Libya, leaving the teenage Abedi and his three siblings, a sister, Jumana and two brothers Hashem and Ismail, to their own devices.
Some have speculated that the deteriorating situation in Libya after the revolution was a catalyst for 22-year-old Abedi, who grew up immersed in the ideology of violent Jihad. “The way his father raised Salman made him an easy target … he was vulnerable to these ideas,” said Nasser Shukri, a Libyan translator who knew Ramadan Abedi.
According to Shukri, it was a common scenario to have youngsters left in the UK by Libyan fathers in what he describes as a “lost generation,” caught between the culture of their parents and the country they grew up in. “I feel sorry for this generation, they feel neither fully British nor fully Libyan.”
Treated as “foreigners” and “outsiders” in the UK, many embraced their parents’ heritage, supporting the country’s national football team and hanging the Libyan flag on their bedroom walls.
“Our children, born and raised in the West, if possible, they were more Libyan than us,” said Abdulmalek.
To some of these youngsters, growing up in a post-9/11 climate, increasingly suspicious of Muslims, the dream of a Qaddafi-free Libya with oil wealth that would make it “the next Dubai” dangled a potent promise.
So when the opportunity came everyone wanted to join the fighting and the British government — eager to see an end to Qaddafi’s 42-year rule — did nothing to stop them.
One of them was Salman Abedi, described by friends after the attack as an “angry” young man who was into drugs and alcohol and involved in violent youth gang culture on the streets of Manchester’s Moss Side.
The area became a hunting ground for “a collective of groomers,” Lea South said, including Daesh recruiter Raphael Hostey, responsible for convincing hundreds of foreign fighters to join the group before it was reported he had been killed in a drone strike in Syria in May 2016.
Abedi, whose network is believed to have included Hostey among other known extremists, was investigated by British intelligence agency MI5 in 2014 and again in 2015, but at the time of the attack he was not under active scrutiny.
Much has been written about whether the security services could have prevented the attack, the deadliest on UK soil since the London Underground bombings in July 2005 that killed 52 people.
According to Dr. Sam Newbery, a security and counterterrorism expert at the University of Salford in Manchester, which Abedi attended for a time, MI5 “received intelligence a few months before the attack that in hindsight should have led to him being investigated again, but they also said it wouldn’t have prevented it from taking place.”
When he landed in the UK last May after spending a month in Libya for a family wedding, Abedi’s parents confiscated his passport, reportedly concerned by his views.
He convinced them he needed it to go on pilgrimage to Makkah, but instead, he booked a flight home.
The attack, which was claimed by Daesh, sent shockwaves through one of the UK’s most multicultural cities, prompting an outpouring of grief and a demonstration of a united front.
“There was this sense of solidarity across Manchester from people of all religions saying ‘we’re not going to let this divide us,’” said Amina Lone, a director at the Manchester-based Social Action & Research Foundation.
The incident also underlined the segregation permeating Muslim communities in the city. Attacks against Muslims rose by more than 500 percent in Greater Manchester in the month after the arena attack, with 224 reports of anti-Muslim hate crimes compared to 37 in the same period in 2016.
At Didsbury Mosque, churches, synagogues and neighbors in the local community left flowers and “showed solidarity,” Graf said, although a minority sent anthrax threats and hate mail.
“People would drive by and roll down the window to swear at us, a lot of worshippers were scared,” said security guard Amir Khan, 32.
“A lot of our children were upset that someone from their background had caused so much harm to the city they live and go to school in,” said Amna Abdullatif, 34, a Libyan who works with youth for Women’s Aid in Manchester. “My daughter turned to me and said ‘I know why they hate us now’ … that upset me a lot.”
Sondos Abdulmalek was part of a group of young Mancunian Libyans who produced a video showing members of the community “living, working and contributing to their city’s culture” as doctors, architects, photographers, runners, mothers, students and community workers.
“It was a retaliation to all the media attention,” she said. “We wanted to show the real Libyans.”
Top Photo: Women express their solidarity in Manchester a few days after last year’s terrorist attack. (AFP file)