The Manchester bomber grew up in a neighborhood struggling with extremism
The exact pathway to radicalization that led Salman Ramadan Abedi to detonate a suicide bomb and kill 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in his own city Monday is not yet fully known. But a picture has emerged of his links to jihadis in the south Manchester neighborhoods where he lived, as well as his exposure to hard-line Salafist ideology in his family, community, and mosque.
Abedi, 22, was born in Manchester to Libyan parents who arrived in the U.K. as refugees fleeing former dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. He lived at an address in Elsmore Road in Fallowfield, south Manchester, a nondescript suburban street of red-brick terrace houses that was cordoned off by police when VICE News visited Wednesday, after officers stormed the property using a controlled explosion the previous day.
The family belonged to a community of Libyan dissidents that included members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an Islamist militia that the U.S. State Department says has links to al Qaeda. Abedi’s father, Ramadan, reportedly fought with the militia during the Libyan revolution in 2011. Ramadan Abedi has lived in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, since 2008 and was joined there by other family members following the revolution; he and another of his sons were reportedly arrested there Wednesday.
During their time in Manchester, the bomber and his family worshiped at the nearby Didsbury Mosque, which hit the headlines in 2011 when it was claimed that worshipers had raised money for the LIFG. One former Libyan worshiper at the mosque, al Qaeda operative Abd al-Baset Azzouz, left Britain in 2009 to join the terror group’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan, before heading to Libya to run an al Qaeda network in the east of the country.
Rashad Ali, senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and counter-terror expert, told VICE News the mosque preached a “fairly radical, puritan” brand of Salafist Islam and was “effectively taken over at certain points by various Libyan militia groups, including ones associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.” He said the Abedi family subscribed to a radical political strain of Salafism – a background which suggested the bomber would have had a shorter pathway to radicalization than others.
“It is easier because the mindset is there,” Ali said.
Investigators believe Abedi, who dropped out of university last year and had been working at a bakery, was part of a wider terror network, and there have been reports that the bomb he used had same type of explosive as seen in the Paris and Brussels terror attacks, which were both claimed by ISIS.
“The level of sophistication of the attack is something that we have not seen since the attacks in London in 2005,” Rizwaan Sabir, a counterterror expert at Liverpool John Moores University, told VICE News, adding that support had “definitely” been provided.
The hunt for Abedi’s collaborators has thrown up links to other extremists active in the south Manchester area, which has produced at least 16 other terrorists in recent years. These include Raphael Hostey, a prolific ISIS recruiter who was reportedly a friend of Abedi’s and worshipped at the Didsbury mosque, believed to have been killed in a drone strike in Syria last year. Another is Abdal Raouf Abdallah, a fellow member of Manchester’s Libyan community who was jailed for nine and a half years in 2016 after being convicted of funding and preparing acts of terrorism.
“When they go home on their smartphones, they’re watching this weird heretic stuff”
Ismael Lea South is the director of a deradicalization programme known as the Salam Project, which works with young Muslims in the south Manchester neighborhoods around where Abedi lived – although the bomber never came into his orbit. South told VICE News that radicalization has long been an issue in the area’s Muslim communities, but that the problem had escalated in recent years with the rise of jihadist propaganda on social media – to the extent where he would encounter 4-5 radicalized individuals in the community each year.
“When they go home on their smartphones, they’re watching this weird heretic stuff,” he said. “They start with videos that are middleweight then go into something more hard. It’s like drug users would start smoking weed, then you put a little heroin or crack in the weed and become a cokehead or a heroin addict.”
Attempting to win back extremists
South’s work focuses on a neighborhood called Moss Side, about 1.6km from Abedi’s home, and the center of the recent wave of jihadists from the area. The neighbourhood became a heavily Muslim area after an influx of Libyan, Somali, Kurdish, and Afghan migrants in the 1990s. Moss Side has high levels of deprivation and unemployment, with one-in-five people out of work, as well as struggling with an entrenched gang problem.
“You’ve got many young guys who have graduated from university and can’t get a job, they’re looking to move to London because they don’t see any opportunities for them in Manchester,” he said.
In neighborhoods like this, where people struggled to find meaningful work or social engagement, people were particularly vulnerable to radicalizing narratives, South said. Members of the local Libyan community have said that local British-Libyan youth had battled to find their place in U.K. society. “They don’t belong to either society. They are neither Libyan nor British. They are not accepted anywhere,” Akram Ramadan, who fought with Abedi’s father during the Libyan revolution and worshiped at Didsbury Mosque, told the Guardian.
South said that as well as the threat posed by online propaganda, which had been put to devastating effect by ISIS to recruit support worldwide, locals were also vulnerable to radicalization through Salafist street preachers, who he said had a tendency to target “gang members, or people with a violent, aggressive, or volatile nature, because they are easy to brainwash.”
“Their conversion to jihadi Salafism is very easy, since it has the same aggressive confrontational and intolerant narrative and culture as the gangster street life they are used to,” he told VICE News.
Once his group identifies a radicalizing individual, he said, they would try to introduce them to “a moderate scholar who will tell them this is not the teachings of Islam.”
“What it takes is mentorship, where they can be with someone on a regular basis. But the reality is there’s no resources in this. Sometimes you just call the police.”
First hand experience
Adam Nazar, a former Muslim extremist, told VICE News that he had become radicalized during his late teens in London, when he had come into the orbit of young fundamentalists from Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist organization banned in several countries, that seeks the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
“It was cool because it was this movement of young people,” Nazar explained, saying that as a young Muslim finding his identity in modern Britain, being affiliated with the radicals gave him a strong sense of belonging.
“I didn’t see anything wrong, because nothing was telling me it was wrong”
Nazar was “wowed” by their lectures, and as a young man, lacked the intellectual wherewithal to challenge what he was being taught. “All young people are driven by emotion. If they can rattle your emotion they’ve got you hooked – radicalism has nothing to do with logic.”
Nazar’s radicalization occurred in the 1990s – when at one stage he planned to wage jihad in Bosnia – and he has long since changed his views.
But while new technology has handed a whole new set of tools to those who seek to lure young men into extremism, Nazar says the message – and draw to young Muslims – remains the same. Radicals preach that Western society is a corrupting force and foster a sense of Muslim victimhood, pressuring their targets to fight on behalf of Muslims. “There’s a utopia they build in your head,” he said.
In Abedi’s case, investigators believe there was a network supporting the bomber. A U.S. official told CNN Thursday that Abedi likely received ISIS training in the months before the bombing, while the UK’s terror threat level has been raised to its critical amid fears that his conspirators are at large and plotting another attack. Police have now arrested eight people in the investigation, and seized “very important” items in raids, Manchester Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said Thursday.
Manchester may have its own problems with extremism to confront, but the proliferation of online propaganda, much slicker and universally accessible, has allowed groups to propagandize events from anywhere in the world to an international audience.
“It triggers a spark inside you,” said Nazar. “You can easily become radicalized just on your own.”
Cover: Associated Press