Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Police Investigate ‘Network’ of Salman Abedi, Manchester Bomber
New York Times
MAY 24, 2017

A police officer standing guard outside the Manchester Islamic Center, a former church also known as the Didsbury Mosque, where the Abedi family worshiped. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

MANCHESTER, England — He was a fan of Manchester United, like many in his soccer-obsessed hometown. He smoked pot. He lost a friend to violence last year. He recently dropped out of college. Last month went to Libya to visit his parents, who had moved back there after two decades in Britain.

A portrait of Salman Abedi, the 22-year-old who carried out Britain’s deadliest terrorist attack since 2005, began to come into focus on Wednesday as the police raced to track down what they called his “network,” in the first official confirmation that investigators believe Mr. Abedi had received help.

On Monday night, Mr. Abedi set off a crude improvised bomb as fans were leaving a pop concert by the American singer Ariana Grande at Manchester Arena. The explosion killed 22 people, including a police officer and an 8-year-old girl, and wounded 64 others; 20 were still listed in critical condition on Wednesday.

“It seems likely — possible — that he wasn’t doing this on his own,” Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, said on Wednesday morning. Chief Constable Ian Hopkins of the Greater Manchester Police later confirmed that “this is a network that we are investigating.” He added: “There’s an extensive investigation going on, and activity taking place across Greater Manchester as we speak.”

Indeed, minutes before he spoke, the police were raiding a house in the city center. Four men were arrested on Wednesday — three in the city center and one in Wigan, a town to the northwest — bringing the total number of people in custody to five, including Mr. Abedi’s older brother. What role they might have played in the attack has not been disclosed.

The government decided Tuesday evening to put the country on the highest level of alert — critical, meaning that another attack “may be imminent” — for the first time since 2014.

That decision was made because the authorities were still trying to find the “factory” where the bomb was produced and to discern whether Mr. Abedi had received help assembling the device, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding the investigation.

The BBC reported on Wednesday that officials said they believed Mr. Abedi had been a “mule,” carrying a bomb made by someone else. Officials also said they were looking into Mr. Abedi’s relationship with Raphael Hostey, a British recruiter for the Islamic State who is believed to have been killed in a drone strike last year.

The arrests came as Britain mobilized its armed forces to guard vital locations. Public tours of Parliament were called off until further notice, and the guard-changing ceremony at Buckingham Palace, long a favorite of tourists, was canceled. The military said it would deploy soldiers to support policing at Downing Street, the home and office of the prime minister; at the palace; at Parliament; and at embassies, among other sites. Britain will observe a minute of silence at 11 a.m. on Thursday for the victims.

Manchester, a city of half a million and the hub of Britain’s second-largest metropolitan region, is home to a sizable community of people of Libyan descent, many of whom fled the regime of the longtime dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in the 1980s. The violent overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi in 2011 during the tumult of the Arab Spring created a power vacuum in which the Islamic State and other extremist groups have gained support.

Many expatriates who fled the Qaddafi regime clustered in Manchester, creating one of the largest Libyan communities outside Libya, according to Nazir Afzal, who until 2015 was the chief prosecutor for northwest England, based in the city.

Among those expatriates was the Abedi family, who moved in 1993 to Britain. Salman was born there a year later.

Reached by phone on Friday, Ramadan Abedi, the father, expressed shock and denial.

“I don’t believe that it was him,” he said of Salman. “His ideas and his ideology were not like that. He was born and raised in Britain. He’s a British citizen and he does not hold such ideologies.”

Mr. Abedi confirmed that his son had been distressed by the murder of a friend, Abdul Wahab Hafidah, in May 2016 at the hands of suspected gang members. But he said it did not drive him toward radicalism.

“Yes, a friend of his was killed by the gangs of Manchester, but that doesn’t mean that he carried out an attack for it,” Mr. Abedi said.

However, the father’s account was contradicted by several people who knew the family. The BBC quoted a resident, who was not identified, as saying that neighbors called an antiterrorism hotline a few years ago, concerned that Salman Abedi had expressed the view that “being a suicide bomber was O.K.” That resident also said that Mr. Abedi had smoked marijuana and socialized with gang members.

In addition, the French interior minister, Gérard Collomb, said on Wednesday that Mr. Abedi had “most likely” gone to Syria and had “proven” links to the Islamic State. The father said he had no knowledge of such a trip.

Mr. Abedi’s parents in Libya had become worried about his radicalization, and they had even seized his British passport, according to a friend in Manchester who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety.

Mr. Abedi had told his parents that he wanted to visit the holy city of Mecca, so they returned his passport. But instead of flying to Saudi Arabia, he returned home, the friend said.

The father denied that account. “I did not take his passport,” he said. “He was a man and I trust the man that he was. That’s why I let him do what he wanted.”

The father said he had yet to be contacted by the British security services over the bombing — and he challenged them to prove that his son was responsible.

“Why don’t they give us a finger, or something to identify him? Why have they not called me, the British government. They surely have my phone number.”

A short while later, Hashem Abedi, Salman Abedi’s younger brother, was arrested in Tripoli. “We have been following him for at least a month and a half now,” said Ahmed Omran, a spokesman for the Special Deterrence Force militia, adding that they suspected that Hashem Abedi was a member of the Islamic State.

Several waves of Libyans from Manchester have waged jihad abroad, according to Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had a contingent in Manchester, Mr. Pantucci said. And in 2010 and 2011, when the war against Colonel Qaddafi intensified, a number of Libyan-Britons left Manchester for Libya as foreign fighters, he said. More recently, a cluster left for Syria, he said.

In Fallowfield, a neighborhood south of the Manchester city center, residents recalled Mr. Abedi as a quiet and respectful young man who showed a passion and aptitude for soccer as a boy and, as a child, often wore a T-shirt with the emblem of Manchester United, one of the city’s renowned soccer teams.

Officials at the Manchester Islamic Center, also known as Didsbury Mosque, where the Abedi family worshiped, have condemned the attack, but declined to talk about the family, except to deny reports that Salman Abedi had once worked there. The father, who goes by the honorific Abu Ismail, occasionally issued the call to prayer there.

“The horrific atrocity that occurred in Manchester on Monday night has shocked us all,” a mosque trustee, Fawzi Haffar, told reporters. “It has indeed shocked us all. This act of cowardice has no place in our religion or any other religion for that matter.”

In 2015, according to a neighbor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about safety, an imam at the mosque, Mohammed Saeed, delivered a sermon condemning terrorism and murder carried out in the name of a political cause. The sermon prompted a heated discussion among congregants, some of whom signed a petition taking issue with it, according to the neighbor.

“He was angry,” the neighbor said of Mr. Abedi. “He scared some people.”

However, a senior member of the Libyan Youth Association, a community group in Manchester, said the sermon was controversial not because it criticized the Islamic State but because it praised Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan military commander who was involved in the 2011 revolution. The association member, who declined to be identified because of safety concerns, added that he did not know if Salman Abedi had been involved in the dispute.

Recently, according to several people who know the family, Mr. Abedi dropped out of the University of Salford, in Greater Manchester, where he had been studying business administration.

Many in the Libyan community in Manchester who, like Mr. Abedi’s parents, have returned since Colonel Qaddafi was ousted spoke of the abundance of extremist messages being spread around young people there. “He would have been radicalized there and then brought it back to Manchester,” the neighbor said.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack but did not describe Mr. Abedi’s links to the network. In several past terrorist assaults, extremists traveled to Syria from Europe for indoctrination and training.

Ms. Rudd, speaking to the BBC, said on Wednesday that the bomb “was more sophisticated than some of the attacks we’ve seen before.”

Follow Katrin Bennhold @kbennhold and Stephen Castle @_StephenCastle on Twitter.

Katrin Bennhold and Stephen Castle reported from Manchester, and Suliman Ali Zway from Berlin. Reporting was contributed by Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Sewell Chan from London, Declan Walsh from Cairo, and Nour Youssef from Cairo.

No comments: