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‘Forgive Me’: Manchester Bomber’s Tangled Path of Conflict and Rebellion

It is the story of a strict father’s flight from the repression of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s leader at the time, and a personal jihad against that dictatorship, which in turn shook up his children’s world.

The seismic tremors from Libya’s revolution in 2011 reverberated across geographical and generational borders, in Manchester’s sizable Libyan population — the largest outside Libya — and in the Abedi family as well. Almost certainly, the events that helped set Salman Abedi on his hauntingly familiar path, from quiet boy in a strict Islamic household to troubled young man to, eventually, suicide bomber, began there.

As Colonel Qaddafi tottered in 2011, Mr. Abedi’s father, Ramadan, returned to Libya to finish the fight he had started two decades earlier, and took his British-born teenage sons with him. The elder Mr. Abedi, a onetime Qaddafi enforcer, fled Libya in 1991 after supporting Islamists seeking to overthrow the brutal leader. Now, as Western warplanes pummeled Tripoli, the capital, that dream was finally coming true.

His sons — Ismail, Salman and Hashem — accompanied Mr. Abedi to Tunisia, where he worked on logistics for the rebels in western Libya. The sons knew very little about Libya, having grown up in the Whalley Range, a working-class area of Manchester. But their father, a proud Islamist, wanted them to follow in his footsteps at this euphoric moment.

Salman, a lanky 16-year-old at the time, joined his father as the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade descended on the Libyan capital that summer. A year later, Ramadan snapped a photograph of the 15-year-old Hashem holding a machine gun.

“Hashem the lion… training,” read the caption on the father’s Facebook page.

They were not the only ones to make the journey from Britain. Akram Ramadan, who fought alongside Ramadan Abedi, recalled there being a strong contingent known as “the Manchester fighters.”

“We were all fighting,” Mr. Ramadan said in Manchester. “Drug dealers from here were fighting — everybody went.”

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Ramadan Abedi, the bomber’s father, this past week in Tripoli, Libya, where the family is from. Credit Hani Amara/Reuters

After gaining a taste of battle, Salman was sent back to Manchester, while his father decided to stay.

There is no way to prove that this experience in Libya put Salman on the path that led him to the doors of the Manchester Arena. But the experience of armed struggle in one generation can beget violence in the next, terrorism experts say, even with an entirely different ideological underpinning.

“The older generation normalizes militancy,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a specialist in researching terrorism at the Royal United Services Institute. “Which direction it goes depends on the time. And the kids rebel against their parents.”

And rebel Salman certainly did. According to accounts by family friends and neighbors, his strict Muslim upbringing was upended by the events of 2011.

He had been a quiet boy who was teased, and sometimes bullied, at school, a former classmate recalled. A fan of Manchester United, he developed a passion and aptitude for soccer.

“He was polite, just a normal teenager,” said one neighbor, who remembers him as a boy.

‘They Can Get Lost’

But that changed with the fall of Colonel Qaddafi. While Salman’s father stayed in Libya, he lived with his mother and siblings in Manchester, where he began to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana. Some said he fell in with local gangs. He became known for a temper and a readiness to fight.

Mr. Ramadan said the absence of a father figure was often a problem for Libyan families, particularly the Abedi sons, whose father imposed strict discipline.

“There was a lot of it here, putting pressure on their kids to become very, very, over the top, good Muslim kids,” Mr. Ramadan said.

“When the revolution kicked off and all these dads went to Libya to fight, the kids found freedom,” Mr. Ramadan said, adding that Salman’s mother, Samia, was unable to control him.

Salah Rashid, 69, the mother’s accountant, concurred. “I’ve seen many residents leave for Libya,” he said. “If they don’t embrace their children and teenagers, they can get lost.”

In Libya in the days immediately after the bombing, the father was arrested by a militia, the Special Deterrence Forces, which said it had also detained Salman’s younger brother, Hashem, now 20. It was a spokesman for the militia who provided the details about Salman’s phone call to his family before the bombing.

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Salman Abedi in an undated Facebook photograph. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

His father divided his time between Manchester, where he led prayers at a local mosque, and Tripoli, where he worked as an administrator in the Interior Ministry. As other Arab countries plunged into conflict, he cheered on like-minded Islamists like the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Syria.

In Manchester, the Abedi family were well known at Didsbury Mosque, a longstanding establishment popular with Manchester’s large Libyan population and the diaspora from other Arab countries. Ramadan Abedi, who had studied the Quran in Saudi Arabia, often did the call to prayer.

Known by the honorific Abu Ismael, he had a “particularly beautiful voice,” congregants recalled. Salman’s older brother, Ismail, helped out at the mosque with I.T. support and some teaching. He was arrested in Britain in the days after the bombing.

Salman was a more solitary figure. “He barely even attended Eid prayers,” said Mohammed Fadil, 25, who knows Salman’s older brother. “He kept away from the community. When prayer finishes, you stay behind, you chat. With him it was different.”

When he did come, it was usually with his father, Mr. Fadil said, “but after his father had moved back to Libya, there was no reason for him to come anymore.” And with his father gone, Salman was showing signs of following a different path.

The last time Salman was noticed at the mosque was during a Friday prayer session in 2015 when the imam gave a sermon that was critical of the Islamic State. Salman angrily objected. It was around this time that at least two members of the congregation reported him on a counterterrorism hotline for expressing extremist views.

But as older Libyans spent their time discussing politics in their homeland, some younger ones, like Mr. Abedi, found an ideology elsewhere — one that by now had supporters in both Britain and Libya.

Salman Abedi and other family members visited their father in Libya regularly. By 2015, the Islamic State had established a base in the city of Surt, and had hidden pockets of support in cities like Tripoli, where the Abedi family is from.

It was there, according to officials from Libya and the United States, that Salman established a connection with Abdul Baset Ghwela, a radical preacher whose son had died fighting in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Back in Manchester, he is believed to have had links with other young residents of the city who joined the Islamic State in recent years, security officials said. One of them is Raphael Hostey, a prolific recruiter for ISIS who is believed to have been killed in a drone strike in Syria in May last year, aged 24.

Despite denials from Mr. Hostey’s brother, Junade, officials believe that Mr. Abedi and Mr. Hostey knew each other before Mr. Hostey left for Syria in 2013. “He was his hero,” one law enforcement official said of Mr. Abedi’s admiration for Mr. Hostey.

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Found at the Scene in Manchester: Shrapnel, a Backpack and a Battery

The Times got access to evidence photographed at the crime scene, and it suggests an improvised device made with forethought and care.

OPEN Graphic

The killing of Mr. Hostey was the start of a fateful two weeks that may have further steeled Mr. Abedi’s urge for revenge.

A week later, another acquaintance, Abdalraouf Abdallah, 24, was jailed for nine years after being convicted of funding terrorism and preparing acts of terrorism. The very next day, Abdul Wahab Hafidah — a friend of Salman and a close friend of his younger brother — was run over and then stabbed to death in Manchester, in what the police called a gang-related episode.

The killing was a “wake-up call” for Libyan parents about their children’s involvement with gangs, said Ahmed Sewehli, a psychiatrist. “It was a big deal in the Libyan community.”

‘He Was Always Alone’

Around this time, Salman is believed to have started planning Monday’s attack. He opened a bank account, which would go unused until he used it to buy supplies for his suicide bomb from two hardware stores nearly a year later. The money in the account came from student loans, officials confirmed on Saturday — loans that he continued to receive even after dropping out of Salford University, where he enrolled in 2015 to study business management.

He made little mark at the university. One fellow student said he had come to just a handful of lectures before disappearing.

“I saw him in the prayer room sometimes,” said Abdul Omar, 22, a second-year student who presides over the university’s Islamic Society. “I remember seeing him waiting a bit earlier for the prayer. He was always alone.”

In recent months Mr. Abedi had been worshiping at the Salaam Community and Masjid in the Moss Side area of Manchester. But here, too, things did not go smoothly.

Though typically quiet and withdrawn, he was reprimanded twice, once for lingering after dawn prayers when he was supposed to have left the building. When admonished by Abdullah Muhsin Norris, the chairman of the board of trustees at the mosque, he reacted badly, saying he didn’t want to be shouted at, only to be told in response that he was “acting like a child.”

On a separate occasion, Mr. Abedi objected when a beardless Libyan member of the congregation was about to lead prayers. “He walked out,” said Mr. Norris, who added that he had not seen Mr. Abedi since he reprimanded him and that, had it not been for those two incidents, he would not have noticed him.

Tensions were growing within the Abedi family. Alarmed at the direction his son was taking, Salman’s father forced him to come to Libya this spring and briefly confiscated his passport.

When Mr. Ramadan, the family friend, last met Mr. Abedi less than three months ago, he initially failed to recognize the young man, who was leaning on a car outside his brother’s home, waiting to pick him up for prayers in a long, beige-colored, Islamic shirt.

But Mr. Abedi recognized his father’s friend and greeted him with the Arabic term for “uncle.”

“I hope you are not doing any naughty tricks or pranks anymore,” said Mr. Ramadan, referring to Mr. Abedi’s past reputation.

“No, no, no,” Mr. Abedi had answered. “I quit doing pranks.”

Source: NYT > World

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