31 May 2017

nvestigators face challenges as Libya becomes a key focus of bombing probe

By Sudarsan Raghavan

TRIPOLI, Libya — As British investigators seek clues to potential accomplices and motives of Salman Abedi, the bomber who killed at least 22 at a Manchester pop concert, they are also focusing increasingly on Libya — and the Islamic State’s presence here. 

Authorities say Abedi, a British citizen of Libyan origin, spent four weeks here, returning to Manchester days before Monday night’s attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State. His brother, Hashem Abedi, was arrested in the capital, Tripoli, on Tuesday night for suspected ties to the group, and authorities say he was planning an attack on this Mediterranean city. 

What investigators want answered is whether Salman Abedi’s network of co-plotters extended all the way to Libya. Did he receive training or assistance in building the bomb or other preparations for the assault from Islamic State cells or operatives in Libya? 

But pursuing leads in this war-riven North African nation is rife with obstacles. A constellation of rival militias control different regions, even enclaves within the capital. There are three competing governments; the one recognized by Western powers and the United Nations wields no influence in the east. Even government bodies, including those dealing with law enforcement, are plagued by competing factions and lack of structure and cohesiveness. 

For instance, Hashem Abedi, as well as the brothers’ father, Ramadan Abedi, were arrested by a counterterrorism militia affiliated with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord. But human rights groups have accused the force of abusing prisoners, potentially raising questions about their confessions. 

After six years of civil conflict and a revolving door of political and military players, it’s also unclear whether Britain and its Western allies have reliable contacts and sources to help with the probe. Every Western embassy in Tripoli has been closed for at least two years or longer; Italy’s reopened only this year. 

There are also several other extremist groups operating in Libya, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror network’s North African branch. All have skilled bombmakers and experts in weapons and militant training. 

The Islamic State itself is in flux. If anything, the carnage in Manchester underscored the lingering potency of the group in Libya, despite recent setbacks to its operations and its ambitions — provided its suspected links to the brothers prove true. 

“They used to be in Sirte, and so we knew their location,” said Badra Gaaloul, a military analyst who heads the Tunis-based International Center of Strategic, Security and Military Studies, referring to the Islamic State’s former Libyan stronghold. “Now they are everywhere, and it’s incredibly hard to detect them and target them.” 

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, emerged in Libya after the 2011 revolution, part of the Arab Spring uprisings, when NATO airstrikes helped oust dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who was subsequently killed by rebels. Seizing advantage of the instability, tribal rivalries and abundance of weapons in the country, the Islamic State in Libya became the group’s strongest branch outside the Middle East. 

In early 2015, its fighters entered Sirte, a coastal city that was Gaddafi’s birthplace and where he was killed. By the summer, the group controlled Sirte, nestled in the county’s lucrative petroleum crescent, the heart of much of its oil and gas reserves. 

In Sirte, the Islamic State ruled through fear and brutality, mirroring the group’s counterparts in Syria and Iraq. But it also sought to create a government, an effort to extend its self-proclaimed caliphate into Libya. Under pressure in the Middle East, the group saw Sirte as a possible substitute capital, particularly if its Syrian haven of Raqqa fell. 

But last summer, pro-government militias laid siege to Sirte. Backed by U.S. airstrikes, they drove the Islamic State out of Sirte. While many militants died, hundreds of others managed to escape the city, according to security officials and military analysts. 

Today, the Islamic State is diminished in size, but remains a major concern. 

In March, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that instability in Libya and North Africa “may be the most significant near-term threat” to the interests of the United States and its allies in Africa. 

He said that while the Islamic State has left Sirte, its fighters are gathered “in small numbers and are regrouping.” The Islamic State in Libya, he added, “remains a regional threat with intent to target U.S. persons and interests.” 

According to U.S. military and intelligence officials and regional analysts, many Islamic State militants have fled to southern Libya and are believed to be regrouping there. 

Others have crossed Libya’s southern border into Niger, perhaps heading to Nigeria, Mali or Chad to join other militant groups aligned with the Islamic State, such as northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram, said Claudia Gazzini, a senior Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group. 

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“My sense is that they are transiting through the south and going out,” said Gazzini, who recently visited southern Libya. 

Other fighters have crossed into Tunisia or have joined al-Qaeda and other militant groups, said Gaaloul. The Islamic State in Libya, she said, is more dangerous than ever because many fighters have scattered and are moving under the radar in Tripoli and other parts of the country. 

“Now, I don’t know who is an ISIS fighter,” said Gaaloul. “They have strength and power in hiding themselves. They can pose as civilians. And [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has given them the freedom to become lone wolves. He’s told them, ‘If you have the opportunity to attack our enemies, do it.’ ”

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