MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5) has drawn fierce criticism for its actions which led to the Manchester Arena bombing. The attack resulted in the deaths of 22 people, with many more injured. MI5 now stands accused of neglecting to follow up on intelligence regarding Salman Abedi, the bomber, when he returned from Libya to the UK.
However, that’s not the whole story.
MI5 facilitated jihadists
The Manchester Arena bombing inquiry’s final report argued that MI5 failed to prevent the tragedy. However, it’s probably more accurate to say that the Security Service facilitated the jihadists.
For example, in 2011, British citizen Belal Younis was stopped and questioned on his return to the UK from Libya. He claimed an MI5 officer told him:
the British government have no problem with people fighting against [then Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi.
On another trip to Libya he was again questioned by two counter-terrorism police officers. However, they allowed him to proceed after he gave them the name of the MI5 officer who’d previously questioned him. He claimed that while waiting to board the plane he received a phone call from that officer saying he’d “sorted it out”.
One Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) fighter told Middle East Eye that MI5 returned their passports, and also that Heathrow Airport counter-terrorism police were told to let them board their flights.
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There were also claims that MI5 allowed Abedi and others linked to the LIFG to travel unhindered between Libya and the UK. This was described by Middle East Eye as an ‘open door’ policy.
Indeed, on 18 May 2017, Salman Abedi re-entered the UK via Manchester airport. In the final report, Inquiry chair John Saunders argued that MI5 chose not to follow Abedi. Had they done so, they would have come upon the parked car that contained the explosive. Saunders commented that “the attack might have been prevented” if the check had taken place.
Manchester Arena bombing: NATO’s role
The backstory to this tragedy is not just about the role of MI5. It’s also about the active assistance that the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) military alliance provided the Libyan jihadists.
For example, Declassified UK reported that the jihadists were trained and covertly supported by NATO. They formed part of the offensive against Libyan leader colonel Muammar Gaddafi. SAS (Special Air Service) operatives based in Egypt provided further training.
The UK also organised the supply of arms to the jihadists. Indeed, a report by the private geopolitical intelligence agency Stratfor – published by WikiLeaks – stated that NATO “served as the de facto rebel air force” during the push into the Libyan capital.
In another Declassified UK article, it was reported that Ramadan Abedi and his three sons – Salman, Ismail, and Hashem – fought alongside NATO. Clearly the alliance had no problem exploiting jihadists when considered convenient. It is also noteworthy that Salman and Hashem were among those evacuated by the Royal Navy when the anti-Gaddafi forces got into difficulty.
MI6’s destabilising role
Then there’s the destabilising role played by Britain’s spy agency, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
According to former MI5 staffer Annie Machon, MI6 representative David Watson provided $40,000 to an LIFG contact codenamed ‘Tunworth’. A leaked CX (MI6) document dated 4 December 1995 provided details of a plot to assassinate Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Explanatory notes to that document suggested that the permanent under-secretary’s department, GCHQ (General Communications Headquartes), MI5, the Ministry of Defence, and MI6 stations in Tunis, Cairo, and Washington knew about the plot.
Under Tony Blair, UK foreign policy regarding Gaddafi was generally supportive. For example, in March 2004 the UK played a role in the rendition of LIFG leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj. Libyan intelligence subsequently tortured him. Several documents discovered by Human Rights Watch showed the extent to which MI6 intervened in Libyan affairs.
David Cameron went on to reverse Blair’s policy, instead providing support to rebel forces – such as the LIFG. In 2018, secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs Alistair Burt admitted to parliament that the UK had been “in communication” with rebel groups in Libya. That included the LIFG:
Caroline Curry, who lost her 19-year-old son Liam in the Arena bombing, said after the inquiry published its final report:
Forgiveness will never be an option for such evil intentions and those that played any part in the murder of our children will never ever get forgiveness from top to bottom, MI5 to the associates of the attackers. We will always believe that you all played a part in the murder of our children.
However, it’s not just MI5 that had a role in the tragedy, but also the reckless interventions in Libya by NATO and MI6. Indeed, journalists Mark Curtis and Nafeez Ahmed argued that the Manchester bombing was “blowback” for the UK’s foreign policy, saying:
While a number of factors operate to contribute to an individual’s radicalisation, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that one of these contributory factors is British direct and covert action in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Without these actions – by Britain and its close allies – it is conceivable that [Salman] Abedi might well not have had the opportunity to become radicalised in the way he did.
Meanwhile, the families of the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing demand to know far more than what has been provided by the inquiry.
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