When Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old Libyan-British man, detonated a suicide bomb among concert-goers in Manchester last month, his attack was the latest of several linked to the Libyan chapter of the Islamic State. Abedi, born and raised in England, committed the attack days after returning from the last of several visits to Libya.

An anti-Gadhafi fighter fires a rocket-propelled grenade during fighting in Sirte, Libya.
An anti-Gadhafi fighter fires a rocket-propelled grenade during fighting in Sirte, Libya, in 2011. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Mauricio Lima

Three attacks in Tunisia—against foreign tourists in Sousse and Tunis in 2015, and on a border town last year—had origins at an Islamic State training camp in the Libyan city of Sabratha, 50 miles west of Tripoli, investigators have told journalists. Abedi also visited Sabratha and met members of Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, a unit formed by Libyan fighters who had joined ISIS and fought in the war in Syria, intelligence officials told the New York Times.

The pattern underscores that religious extremist groups—including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—are taking advantage of the chaos of Libya’s civil war to train attackers, including residents of Europe, and plan or inspire attacks in Europe and West Africa.

Libyan Kinship and Extremism

Violent extremist groups in Libya have evolved through family and kinship connections. When Libyans rose up during the 2011 “Arab Spring” against the 42-year dictatorship of Col. Muammar Gadhafi, many Libyans from the diaspora returned to their homeland to join the fight, often alongside Islamist militias. These included Abedi’s father, Ramadan, and many others from the city of Manchester, which has one of the largest Libyan communities in Europe.  

Involvement in the revolution often acted as a catalyst to radicalize those whose familial and kinship networks placed them in the country’s mix of Islamist militants. These included opponents to Gadhafi from the 1990s (such as Abedi’s father), veterans of the 1980s anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, and a new generation of Islamist militants.

While the details of Salman Abedi’s radicalization remain unclear, the investigation has focused quickly on his family ties, with his father and brother detained for questioning in Tripoli. That means his suicide attack may eventually help illustrate the important role family and kinship is playing in radicalizing Libyans. Like other recent violence, including the 2015 Bataclan theater attack in Paris, it also shows how easily radicalizers in Libya are using the strong networks of diaspora communications to create threats in Europe.

After 2011, the post-revolutionary government in Tripoli ostracized Sirte’s people, whom it accused of complicity with the former regime, and withheld essential governance services. The Islamic State was able to fill that void by providing some governance services itself, notably its form of sharia justice. Motivated by opportunism rather than ideology, former members of the Gadhafi regime and tribal fighters joined the Islamic State. But coalitions of local tribal militias last year helped oust the Islamic State from its only areas of significant territorial control—Sirte and the eastern port of Derna.

Shorn of its ability to hold territory, the Islamic State now operates as underground cells, reportedly in the rugged desert hinterlands around Tripoli and Sirte.

Governments in Europe and the United States declare the need to help Libya stabilize and restore governance that meets its people’s needs. To achieve that, and to help Libyans resist radicalizing efforts of ISIS and allied groups, a key step is for Libya’s international partners to help the country resolve the local divisions—in places like Sirte and Derna—that have given the extremists a foothold.

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