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Mosque calls for further scrutiny of Manchester bomber family's links to MI5

Didsbury Mosque says it has been subjected to 'demonisation' at public inquiry into 2017 Manchester Arena attack
Fawaz Haffar, now the chair of Didsbury Mosque, addresses media outside the mosque in May 2017 following the Manchester Arena bombing (AFP)

A Manchester mosque has rejected accusations that it "turned a blind eye" to extremism, made at a public inquiry into a 2017 bombing at a music venue in the city, and called for further scrutiny of possible UK intelligence agency links to the bomber's family.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Manchester Islamic Centre, which is commonly known as Didsbury Mosque, suggested that the bombing was "fallout" from a British government policy of supporting Libyan rebel groups fighting to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi during the North African country's 2011 uprising.

'We observe that MI5 and MI6 have not provided a full account of any relationship they may have had with Ramadan Abedi'

- Manchester Islamic Centre

"Didsbury Mosque cannot be held responsible for the fallout of a decision of the British government, working with some Libyan groups to remove the Gaddafi government, which encouraged some Manchester Libyans to go and fight in Libya, creating a radicalising environment and extremism among some in Manchester," the centre said.

Twenty-two people were killed and hundreds injured in an attack by a British-Libyan man, Salman Abedi, on crowds leaving an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in May 2017. Abedi, 22, blew himself up in the bombing which was subsequently claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.

Abedi's younger brother, Hashem Abedi, was last year jailed for 55 years after being convicted of helping to plan the bombing. His older brother, Ismail Abedi, left the UK last year after being summoned to give evidence to the inquiry, and is the subject of an arrest warrant.

The inquiry into the attack has heard that Salman Abedi likely fought in Libya alongside his two brothers, his father, and others from Manchester's Libyan community who joined the anti-Gaddafi 17 February Martyrs Brigade, including some who were subsequently convicted of terrorism offences.

'Trained by Nato'

The inquiry heard that some anti-Gaddafi fighters were "trained by Nato", the western military alliance that intervened in the conflict to help topple the longtime leader.

It also heard that Abedi's father, Ramadan Abedi, had links to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an Islamist militant group formerly proscribed in the UK, and al-Qaeda.

Members of the family continued to travel back and forth to Libya as IS was gaining territory there, and in 2015 material indicative of support for IS was found on a phone belonging to Ismail Abedi during an airport stop.

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The inquiry heard that MI5, the UK's domestic security service, first received information about Salman Abedi in 2010 when he was 15. MI5 made him a subject of interest in March 2014 but closed the inquiry shortly after he travelled to Libya in July the same year.

It received further intelligence on him in 2015 and 2016, and has admitted at the inquiry that it dismissed two pieces of evidence in the months before the bombing which it said in retrospect were "highly relevant to the planned attack".

Much of MI5's evidence to the inquiry, which concluded hearing new evidence earlier this month, was heard in weeks of closed sessions, with only a vetted summary of the hearings released to the public.

In its statement, Didsbury Mosque called on the inquiry to examine possible links between the Abedi family and British intelligence services.

"We observe that MI5 and MI6 have not provided a full account of any relationship they may have had with Ramadan Abedi. We will ask the inquiry to investigate this further and consider if that in any way could have contributed to the failure to adequately monitor Salman and Hashem Abedi," it said.

Ramadan Abedi left the UK in April 2017 and is believed to be currently in Libya. He is a suspect in the investigation into the Manchester bombing but has never been questioned or charged over the attack.

'Open door policy'

In 2017, Middle East Eye reported that the British government had operated an "open door" policy that allowed Libyan exiles and British-Libyans to travel to Libya to join the revolution against Gaddafi, including some who were subject to counter-terrorism control orders restricting their movement.

Didsbury Mosque has faced scrutiny at the inquiry following reports after the bombing that members of the Abedi family worshipped there, and that Ramadan Abedi had sometimes led the call to prayer.

In a closing statement to the inquiry, John Cooper, a counsel representing the families of 12 of the victims of the bombing, said the mosque had "buried its head in the sand" in failing to address the "presence of extremist and violent sentiment among parts of the congregation and the South Manchester Muslim community more generally".

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But the mosque said such remarks were "misleading" and "a diversion from focusing on the very real failings of those agencies with a duty to protect the public and prevent such attacks".

Sources close to the mosque told MEE that Salman Abedi was only seen praying at the mosque on odd occasions as an adult, and also prayed at other mosques in the area.

In its statement, the mosque also linked criticism to government plans for a new Protect Duty, which would require public venues to put in place measures to mitigate the threat of terrorism and which public consultation documents suggest could be imposed on places of worship, including mosques.

"We are further of the opinion that Didsbury Mosque has been continuously demonised to make the case for government measures that will securitise places of worship," it said.

It said it was "open-source knowledge that one of the families represented by Mr Cooper has a relationship with the government, collaborating with them on the expansion of the Protect Duty".

The family group represented by Cooper includes Figen Murray, a prominent counter-extremism campaigner whose son, Martyn Hett, was killed at the Manchester Arena and who subsequently launched the "Martyn's Law" campaign to introduce legislation to improve venue security.

In January, Home Secretary Priti Patel acknowledged the Home Office had "worked closely with Figen Murray, victims' groups and partners" on developing the Protect Duty.

"We will be raising with the inquiry the possibility of a conflict of interest and seeking reassurances that the inquiry will remain independent of the government," the mosque said.

Close working relationship

The mosque also rejected criticism that it had not condemned the attack strongly enough, or posted a statement of condemnation on its website.

It said: "We made it clear that this barbaric act had nothing to do with Didsbury Mosque, Islam or the Quran, immediately after the attack. This was in front of the world's media which had a greater reach than the few people who visit our website."

MEE has contacted John Cooper, Figen Murray and Slater and Gordon, the families' legal firm, for comment.

A spokesperson for the Home Office told MEE that the conduct and proceedings of the inquiry were a matter for the chair, John Saunders.

'Although the Abedis did attend there, perhaps more than first admitted, it’s difficult to see what the mosque could have been expected to do'

- Pete Weatherby, counsel for families of the victims

"The inquiry operates independently of government, and its independence is crucial to its effectiveness," the spokesperson said.

"We are grateful to the chair for his extremely thorough examination of the evidence as well as the campaigners for their tireless efforts to effect change."

The mosque also criticised Dominic Scally, the head of Counter Terrorism Policing North West, who told the inquiry that Didsbury Mosque had been "less positive" than other mosques in the area when approached by police to involve them in a messaging campaign aimed at stopping people from travelling to Syria.

"We have had a close working relationship with the police for a very long time and will now provide evidence of that relationship to the inquiry," it said.

"The truth is that according to our knowledge at no point has anyone from the police, CT [Counter Terrorism], or MI5 ever contacted us with concerns about the Abedis."

MEE has contacted Greater Manchester Police for comment.

The mosque also cited the closing statement made by lawyers representing another group of families of the victims of the bombing, which urged the inquiry to focus on the security services.

"Although the mosque hasn't covered itself in glory in terms of the evidence, it is not in any sense known for extremism. It is a large and mainstream multi-heritage place of worship.

"Although the Abedis did attend there, perhaps more than first admitted, it's difficult to see what the mosque could have been expected to do," Pete Weatherby, counsel for the families, told the inquiry.

The inquiry is due to publish its findings on the actions of the security services later this year.