A memorial for those killed in the Manchester bombing (Picture: Russell HarryLee on Flickr)

The MI5 spies of British state security missed a “significant opportunity” to stop the Manchester Arena bomber when they did not act on intelligence, an official inquiry has concluded. But the truth about what took place in the build-up to the appalling attack stays mired in secrecy.

The information could have led to Salman Abedi being stopped when he returned from Libya just four days before the attack on 22 May 2017, a senior judge concluded.

Sir John Saunders, the chair of the public inquiry into the attack, in which Abedi killed 22 people after a pop concert, said “opportunities to intervene were missed”, including finding the deadly explosives in Abedi’s car.

But this is to ask questions not answer them. MI5 director general Ken McCallum said he is “profoundly sorry that MI5 did not prevent the attack”, adding, “I deeply regret that such intelligence was not obtained.” As usual, this will be followed with a demand for more resources for the spooks.

Saunders repeatedly side-stepped the elephant in the room—Britain’s role in the downfall of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the war of 2011.

Abedi was a 22-year-old with a Libyan background whose family had fled and settled in Manchester to escape Gaddafi’s regime. Abedi’s father, Ramadan, was a long-standing member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which was founded to overthrow Gaddafi. The LIFG was until 2009 an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

In 2011, both Ramadan and a young Salman Abedi returned to Libya to fight in the civil war that toppled Gaddafi, partly thanks to a Nato bombing campaign in which Britain played a key role.

Salman later made repeated trips to Libya. Saunders devoted much time during the inquiry to a minute examination of the response of the emergency services. The spooks, while criticised, have received less scrutiny.

Salman Abedi and Hashem Abedi were among 100 Britons evacuated from Tripoli by the Royal Navy’s HMS Enterprise when fighting broke out in 2014. The inquiry heard that he “agreed to be debriefed”. Incredibly, the inquiry report makes no mention of this debriefing and mentions the evacuation only once.

Salman Abedi was also not stopped for questioning when he returned from Libya four days before the arena attack — something MI5 has since admitted was a mistake.

The extent of the knowledge MI5 and terrorism police had about Abedi will never be known because the majority of evidence was heard in secret. Four MI5 witnesses and ten detectives answered questions behind closed doors after  Saunders ruled that a public airing would jeopardise national security. In this context, Saunders’ complaint that Abedi was not referred to the Prevent programme seems beside the point—at best. 

On 15 February last year, the inquiry’s final day of evidence after 17 months of hearings, a “gist”, or summary of what they said, was read out. Officials admitted that intelligence passed to MI5 before the bombing was dismissed even though it was of “pressing national security concern”.

Britain encouraged Libyan exiles and British Libyan citizens to join the 2011 uprising but this is ignored. Some of these British Libyans had previously been under control orders, which subjected them to electronic tagging and required them to remain at a registered address for 16 hours a day.

But the British government had decided that these Libyans were allies again. MI5 pulled strings to allow people to travel to Libya and fight with “no questions asked”. Britain helped people they said were terrorists to travel to Libya and join up with radical Islamist groups, including the LIFG.

Socialist Worker also has questions. Why were these control orders lifted and on whose advice? What caused the government to change its mind? Why are Mi5 and MI6 operations around Libya still covered in mystery?

The bombed and destroyed city of Sirte in Libya

Britain helped to torture Libyan group, then made them allies

Accounts of the links between imperialist intervention in Libya and the Manchester bombing have downplayed the role of Britain. In particular, the official story obscured how the British state handed people over to be tortured, then embraced them.

Who the US and Britain wanted as allies in the Middle East shaped Libya. The oil industry decided the pace of events. British governments have carried out murderous interventions in Libya for years.

Muammar Gaddafi took power after the overthrow of the king in 1969. He closed US and British bases, and partly nationalised foreign oil and commercial interests.

The West saw him as an enemy. US president Ronald Reagan sent warplanes to assassinate Gaddafi in 1986. The missiles missed and hit a residential area of Tripoli, killing some 100 people.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an anti-Gaddafi Islamist militant group, was formed in 1990 by Libyan veterans of war against Russia in Afghanistan.

In 1996, with the backing of MI6, it tried to assassinate Gaddafi. It failed and was brutally repressed.

After years of considering Libya a pariah state, the West lifted the sanctions against it in 2004. Firms had their eyes fixed on the country’s oil.

In 2007 BP signed an exploration deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation—with Tony Blair looking on. Having backed it before, the British government now decided to list the LIFG as a proscribed terrorist organisation in 2005.

Libyan exiles with links to the LIFG were placed on control orders and subjected to surveillance and monitoring.

According to documents retrieved from the offices of the Libyan intelligence agency following Gaddafi’s fall, British security services cracked down on Libyan dissidents as part of the deal.

They assisted in the rendition of two senior LIFG leaders, Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, to Tripoli where they were tortured.

A letter “for Musa in Tripoli from Mark in London”, about Abdel Hakim Belhaj, was written by Sir Mark Allen, MI6’s then counter-terrorism chief. Allen went on to work for BP.

The letter was addressed to the then Libyan foreign minister Musa Kusa. Allen wrote, “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years.”

Calling Belhaj “air cargo”, Allen thanked Kusa for the support shown to an MI6 agent. “I am so glad,” he said. “I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out.”

In 20111 they changed their minds again.  After the revolt in the country in 2011 and a revolution ground to a stalemate, Britain, France and the US carried out airstrikes and deployed special forces soldiers.

The rebel groups were victorious only because of Nato airstrikes, but they were incapable of filling the vacuum created after Gaddafi fell.

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