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Manchester Bomber Met With ISIS Unit in Libya, Officials Say
The bomber who killed 22 people at a pop concert in Manchester, England, last month had met in Libya with members of an Islamic State unit linked to the November 2015 Paris terrorist attack, according to current and retired intelligence officials.
The content of the communications between the attacker, Salman Abedi, and the terrorist cell remains unknown. But the possibility that he was directed or enabled by Islamic State operatives in Libya, as opposed to Syria, suggests that even as the group's Middle East base is shrinking, at least one of its remote franchises is developing ways to continue attacks within Europe.
On visits to Tripoli as well as to the coastal Libyan town of Sabratha, Mr. Abedi met with operatives of the Katibat al-Battar al-Libi, a core Islamic State unit that was headquartered in Syria before some of its members dispersed to Libya.
Originally made up of Libyans who had gone to Syria to fight in the civil war, the unit became a magnet for French and Belgian foreign fighters, and several were dispatched to carry out attacks abroad. Some of the terrorist group's most devastating hits in Europe, including the coordinated attack in Paris in 2015, were shaped by alumni of the brigade.
The contacts between Mr. Abedi and Battar members occurred when he went to Libya, especially in Tripoli and Sabratha, according to a retired European intelligence chief, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the case. The former official added that Mr. Abedi kept up contact with the group after returning to Manchester, his hometown.
When Mr. Abedi was in Britain, the contacts would sometimes happen by phone, the retired official said. If the content of the call was sensitive, Mr. Abedi used phones that were disposable, or dispatches were sent from Libya by his contacts to his "friend" – living in Germany or Belgium – who then sent it to Mr. Abedi in Britain, according to the former intelligence chief.
Mr. Abedi's contacts with the Battar brigade members in Libya – though not the details of the methods used to communicate or the specific locations – were confirmed by a senior United States intelligence official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Both officials said that Mr. Abedi's activities in Libya remained the focus of intensive investigations.
The leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have been actively coordinating with loyalists in Libya since at least the start of 2015, sending personnel back from Syria to help them establish their fledgling colony. Their Libyan province, headquartered in the port city of Surt, grew to become their most important outside of Iraq and Syria.
After nearly two years, the Libyan branch recently lost ground, with its forces routed from more than 100 miles of coastline. But no one believes the group has been destroyed there – instead it has dispersed, while maintaining its operational abilities.
The Battar brigade was formed by Libyan fighters who were seasoned veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was among the first foreign jihadist contingent to arrive in Syria in 2012, as the country's popular revolt was sliding into a broader civil war and Islamist insurgency, said Cameron Colquhoun, formerly a senior counterterrorism analyst at Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, its surveillance and intelligence agency.
"One of the things I remember from my time is the fact that some of the baddest dudes in Al Qaeda were Libyan," he said, citing a study of seized Qaeda personnel files by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, showing that as far back as 2007, almost 20 percent of the terrorist group's fighters in Iraq were from Libya.
"When I looked at the Islamic State, the same thing was happening," said Mr. Colquhoun, who now runs Neon Century, a corporate intelligence consultancy in London. "They were the most hard-core, the most violent – the ones always willing to go to extremes when others were not. The Libyans represented the elite troops, and clearly ISIS capitalized on this."
Soon, the Battar brigade's battlefield reputation began attracting newcomers, especially from a pipeline of recruits sent by Sharia4Belgium, a group in Brussels that lured numerous Belgian as well as French men to the cause. One was the son of a Moroccan shopkeeper who had moved to Belgium, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the future commander of the Paris attacks. Units like Battar al-Libi became the Islamic State's shock troops, specializing in the use of assault rifles and suicide belts or vests as they overrun positions. They fight as long as they can, then aim to set off their explosives at some critical spot or when they cannot go on, as happened at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.
Mr. Colquhoun believes that it was inside the Battar brigade that Mr. Abaaoud was introduced to the techniques he later unleashed on civilians in Paris.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Middle East Forum who maintains an archive of original Islamic State documents, said that the Libyan brigade was an important fighting contingent. But after the Islamic State declared it was founding a caliphate in 2014, the unit was dissolved, as the ISIS leadership began trying to prevent the rise of battalions based on nationality or ethnicity.
Although it had been disbanded, the network the group had established survived. "Some personnel at least went back to Libya, helping to cultivate what would become I.S.'s Libyan provinces," Mr. Tamimi wrote in an email. "Some may also play a role as 'external plotters' based out of Libya."
Mr. Colquhoun, in his research, said he discovered that the returning Libyans established training camps where they taught bomb-making and weapons use, and they opened an "operations room" for terror activities. Their duties included guarding high-level Islamic State leaders as well as teams conducting targeted assassinations, he said.
They also began launching terrorist strikes in the region, including attacks in 2015 on a beach in Sousse, Tunisia, and the Bardo National Museum in Tunis that killed a total of 60 people, many of them foreign tourists.
An investigation later indicated that the perpetrators in the two attacks in Tunisia had trained in the same Islamic State camp in Libya in Sabratha, the same city that Mr. Abedi is believed to have visited to meet members of the Battar brigade.
"Most of the blood spilled in Europe in the more spectacular attacks, using guns and bombs, really all began at the time when Katibat al-Battar went back to Libya," Mr. Colquhoun said. "That is where the threat trajectory to Europe began – when these men returned to Libya and had breathing space. While they were targeted by drones, the opposition they faced there was not as intense as in Syria."
After the Sousse and Bardo attacks, the first time that a direct connection was found between Libya and an attack in Europe was in December, when a 23-year-old named Anis Amri rammed a container truck into holiday shoppers in Berlin's Breitscheidplatz, killing 12.
Two Libyan phone numbers were found on his phone, and a subsequent investigation discovered that he had traded Telegram messages with those numbers. Germany's BND intelligence agency linked the Libyan numbers to the Islamic State, according to another report by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.
"Anis Amri, the Berlin guy, received his instructions from Libya, not Syria," said Peter R. Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King's College London. "Clearly there are several centers of gravity."
Now, Mr. Abedi's contact with the group raises the possibility, though not the certainty, of a second terrorist attack in Europe that was remotely guided from Libya.
American officials have been concerned about the Libyan ISIS franchise's development for a long time. Even as there seemed to be a lull in European attacks by the Islamic State's Syrian-based terrorism-planning cell last year, the Obama administration began intensifying a campaign of airstrikes against the group's franchise in Libya, particularly around the city of Surt.
The Libyan developments were one of the biggest concerns of this former counterterrorism official, who was involved in targeting for the Obama administration and explained the ratcheting up of airstrikes on Libya. The former official added there was a lot of worry about Libya being where the Islamic State would displace to if it left Iraq and Syria.
It remains unclear whether the Islamic State was uprooting external attack planners from Syria and physically moving them to Libya, or if the colony in Libya simply obtained the skills on its own, following the first wave of Battar al-Libi returnees.
"My best sense of it is that it hasn't been necessarily a migration from Syria to Libya but has been rather a maturation of ISIS-Libya actually having an 'ex ops' program," said Joshua Geltzer, who was senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council until March and helped develop the Obama administration's strategy for targeting the Islamic State's infrastructure in Libya. He used an abbreviation for "external operations," referring to the Islamic State's campaign to conduct attacks outside of its core territories.
"Those of us following ISIS closely wondered, as we tracked the threat posed by ISIS-Libya, is it part of a deliberate global plan, so that even if they are squeezed in Syria, they can run their ex ops out of somewhere else?" said Mr. Geltzer, who now teaches law at Georgetown. "But it's not clear whether Libya is an alternative to Syria or, more likely, a redundancy."
[Source: By Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, 03Jun17]
Islamic paramilitary organizations
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