Manchester suicide bombing:
the price of UK foreign policy?

On May 22, 2017 Salman Ramadan Abedi detonated a homemade bomb at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena, killing himself and twenty-three other people and injuring over 500. The attack was the worst of its kind on British soil since the July 7, 2005 London bombings. In the aftermath of the attack, much was made of the attacker’s background, both religious and national, and it was soon found out that he had been known to be a risk to the police and the security services. There was very little addressed at first on the wider context of the attack, including the relationship between the security services and the attacker and his circle.

In 2011, during the Arab Spring, many British born Libyans went to fight alongside rebels in Libya against the then leader of the country, Muammar Gaddafi. Salman Abedi, at just age sixteen, is believed to have travelled to Libya with his father to join the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). According to the United Nations, this is a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and it has been listed as such since 2001.

As discussed by historian and British foreign policy expert Mark Curtis, Britain helped facilitate transport to Libya for members of the LIFG to fight alongside rebels in the uprising against Gaddafi. It was at that time that Salman Abedi is suspected to have travelled to Libya, although Curtis notes there is no actual evidence that his travel was personally assisted by British security services.

Abedi was known to the security services, and whilst he was at Manchester College he was reported to the police via the anti-terrorism hotline two times by separate people. Despite this high profile, he flew regularly, and was allowed back into the UK as recently as the week before the bombing in Manchester. Instead of being a one-off mistake or an error of judgement, this seems to be part of a worrying trend. The Middle East Eye spoke to sources who said that British government institutions such as MI5 allowed citizens who flew to join the Libyan revolution to return and leave almost as they pleased. Even those who had been flagged as potential national security threats were assisted in their travels.

Allowing individuals to travel and to fight alongside groups affiliated to known terrorist organisations is a strange decision for the British government to take. It goes against everything elected officials and security chiefs generally tell the public. It directly contradicts the anti-extremism positions and the war-on-terror that nearly every government claims to back. This stance is seen by some to be a hypocritical one that endangers British citizens.

The UK government wanted to support the revolution in Libya in order to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. The 2011 British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave a speech to the House of Commons in February of that year saying “Gaddafi must now go.” The removal of Gaddafi was seen as a crucial part of UK foreign policy, and government institutions went to great lengths to try and fulfill that goal.

In 2015, David Cameron said he believed the decision and commitment to overthrow Gaddafi was the correct one, citing the importance of stopping Gaddafi from carrying out mass killings in the country. However, his claim has been slammed by political opponents and investigatory committees alike. In 2016, a report by the foreign affairs committee found that British intervention into Libya was “carried out with no proper intelligence analysis.”

The British-backed toppling of Gaddafi sent Libya into chaos, allowing jihadi groups such as ISIS to gain a foothold in the country, according to CounterPunch writer John Wight. The destabilisation of Libya has had ramifications across the western world by creating a staggering number of migrants.

The British government’s decision to prioritize its own foreign policy objectives over the welfare of citizens has had a huge human cost, both at home and abroad. The Manchester bombing, carried out by a man most likely radicalized in the 2011 uprising, can be seen as a glaring example of the cost of this decision.

Lawrence Cwerner  (Leeds, UK)