he attack on Manchester Arena, claimed by Islamic State, is the deadliest to have hit Britain since the 7/7 bombings and, what’s more, it targeted children and teenagers. It is reported that the perpetrator, Salman Abedi, had recently returned from a three-week stay in Libya, where his parents now reside.
While Abedi might represent a new terrorist profile – a UK national with possible connections to broader terrorist networks based in Libya – his attack is part of a larger trend that has confronted Europe since 2012. In this new wave, terrorist operatives are both capable – witness the suitcase bomb packed with explosives used in Brussels – and very difficult to detect, given our lack of “eyes and ears” on key jihadist arenas such as Syria and Libya. In the past, it was usually one or the other: capable terrorists who operated within well-known hierarchies that the security services could monitor and disrupt; or loners who stayed beneath the radar but didn’t have the knowhow to execute sophisticated attacks.
It’s possible, therefore, that the Manchester attack binds together the terror threat in the UK with long-running challenges in Libya. Extremist groups of many stripes have taken advantage of governance failures and the mismanagement of the post-Gaddafi transition – and, it must be said, western governments’ lack of interest after he was toppled in 2011.
The weakness of the central authorities – which fractured into two rival governments in 2014 before being joined by a third UN-backed government in 2016 – led directly to the breakdown of the rule of law, security vacuums, corruption, economic stagnation and the empowerment of violent and unaccountable militia, including jihadist groups.
The 32 militants who laid siege to the In Amenas gas plant in 2013, killing 40 people, are believed to have crossed into Algeria from Libya. Likewise, the gunman who killed 38 tourists on the beachfront in Sousse, Tunisia, reportedly trained at an Isis base near Sabratha. The two gunmen killed in the attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis in 2015 were graduates of that same camp.
But it was in central Libya, around the former Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte, that Isis built up its north African proto-state. The coastal town had been deserted by the transitional government, and the militia that had run amok there were eventually co-opted by Isis. Libya was seen by the Isis leadership in Iraq and Syria as a fallback zone and, with its oil riches, as “a well of resources that cannot dry”.
However, in May 2016, after two of its suicide bombers struck forces from Misrata – the next major town along the coast – Misratans fought back and within months ejected Isis from Sirte. Moreover, widespread revulsion over Isis’s brutal methods and its “foreign” governance meant the group hadn’t managed to generate a social base.
Still, Isis is far from a spent force in Libya. Key commanders are known to have escaped and regrouped south of Sirte. In fact, a month after Sirte was “liberated”, American stealth bombers struck two Isis encampments 30 miles outside the city, where militants were “actively plotting” attacks on Europe. And an Italian intelligence document has suggested that Isis fighters seek to enter Europe by exploiting a scheme designed to treat injured soldiers aligned with the Libyan government.
Of course, if planned in Libya, an attack such as that in Manchester would signal to the world – and also its keenest rival, a resurgent al-Qaida – that Isis in Libya lives on, after Sirte, albeit in a different form.
The crisis in Libya is intensifying. On the political side, there was talk of a breakthrough earlier this month, when the heads of the two main rival camps met for face-to-face talks, brokered by the United Arab Emirates. However, there has been no word since then of any agreement, and the situation on the ground has escalated significantly.
In a battle last week near the south-western Libyan town of Sebha, an estimated 141 people were killed, with reports emerging of mass executions and beheadings. Conflagrations of this nature could potentially tip the country into full-fledged civil war.
These developments are a boon to Isis and other extremists. Not only do such groups blossom in situations of conflict and social turmoil, but the underlying drivers of radicalisation become entrenched. In the wake of the Sousse attack, the Tunisian ambassador to the UK observed that radicalisation will only be fuelled by the economic hardship resulting from a decline in tourism. In Libya, with youth unemployment approaching 40%, there can be little surprise that some of its estimated 250,000-350,000 armed men have fallen in with radical groups.
Even the challenge of migration can be understood in economic terms. Leaders from the Tuareg, Tebu and Awlad Suleiman ethnic groups have stated that they would be willing to stem the flood of migrants transiting through southern Libya, in exchange for aid and development from Europe.
Irrespective of whether the Manchester bombing is traced to Libya, meaningful re-engagement by the UK is long overdue. Through groups such as Isis, Libya’s most urgent problems – from warring governments to humanitarian crises – have the potential to become our own.