One man represents the link between 9/11 and the Manchester Arena bombing – and for years he lived quietly in Didsbury.
Anas al-Libi, a senior figure in al-Qaeda, was a friend and confidant of 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden, and even acted as his bodyguard. He was also a family friend of Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who killed 22 people on May 22, 2017, in Manchester.
Walking through the leafy streets of suburban Didsbury in late 1990s, Anas al-Libi gave the appearance of a 20-something post-grad concentrating on his studies.
Only those much closer to him, and the security services, knew or suspected he was so much more than a graduate of Tripoli university, with a degree in electronic and nuclear engineering.
It was from his flat in Didsbury that he was suspected of plotting to bomb US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania – the same pad where police would later find a 180-page jihadi guide.
It was while in south Manchester that the alleged al-Qaeda commander cemented his relationship with the Abedi family, fellow Libyan exiles and Muslims with a common hatred for their homeland’s secular ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Al-Libi was respected by Ramadan Abedi, a fellow pillar of a small but tight-knit community of Libyan expats who had made south Manchester their home. Like Ramadan, he had been associated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who opposed Gadaffi. A number of LIFG men, including al-Libi, would also become senior al-Qaeda operatives.
Both al-Libi, and his friend Ramadan Abedi, would be enthusiastic participants in the Arab Spring uprisings which ended in the death in Libya of the hated Gaddafi.
But the hatred didn’t end with Gaddafi – it extended to all regimes considered ‘godless’ according to radical Islamist ideology.
And, at the heart of politically charged chatter inside the Abedi household, were radicals like Ramadan and his friend, al-Libi.
It was this atmosphere which helped to shape the young minds of of Ramadan’s sons Salman and Hashem Abedi, jointly responsible for the bombing of Manchester Arena one Monday night in May 2017, as children were leaving a concert by the American pop star Ariana Grande.
The radicalisation of the brothers can be traced back to the likes of al-Libi and – and even to al-Libi’s commander in chief, Osama bin Laden.
Real name Nazih Abdul-Hamed Nabih al-Ruqai’i, but known by the nom-de-guerre Anas al-Libi, the computer specialist had followed many of his contemporaries in the Libyan dissident community and set up home in Manchester from 1995, living in a flat in Didsbury.
He had successfully claimed political asylum in Britain, like a number of his countrymen, by arguing he faced persecution from Colonel Gaddafi’s regime back home.
Al-Libi is said to have spent time living in London, near Finsbury Park mosque, but then joined his fellow refugees in Manchester, having reportedly swerved an extradition request from Egypt – who suspected he had been part of a failed plot to murder then President Hosni Mubarak. It was deemed he could not face a fair trial in Cairo.
Back then al-Libi could walk the leafy lanes of south Manchester untroubled, even though it was suspected he had been plotting an assassination. It is now believed he was also plotting the mass murder of US nationals from his home in Didsbury.
His association with a then largely unknown Islamist warlord plotting vengeance against America, Osama bin Laden, was yet to be revealed.
Al-Libi was arrested on suspicion of terror offences as early as 1999 but was released without charge.
Police tried to to arrest him again in May 2000 but by then he had fled his Didsbury flat, leaving behind the 180-page jihadist guide to the ‘overthrow of godless regimes’- a text which became known in jihadi circles as the ‘Manchester Manual’.
By the time twin towers came down in September 2001 at the behest of bin Laden – killing almost 3,000 – bin Laden’s face was familiar the world over, but his trusted lieutenant and security guard al-Libi remained unknown except among secret service circles.
By now al-Libi was already a fugitive.
When President George Bush launched his ‘war on terror’, al-Libi was on the inaugural list of the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ terrorists, alongside bin Laden.
Al-Libi was wanted in connection with the devastating bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 – while he was living an anonymous existence in south Manchester – which claimed 224 lives and injured 4,500 more, a prelude to the attack on New York three years later.
It was suspected he was plotting this attack from his Didsbury pad. US officials had evidence he had taken pictures of the US embassy in Nairobi in 1993.
By the time of 9/11 al-Libi had left Manchester.
There were reports he had been captured in Afghanistan in 2002, while US officials told the Washington Post he had been captured in Sudan and that negotiations were continuing to secure his release into American custody. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported he may have been held in a ‘secret CIA prison’, but he was also reported to have spent several years in Iran.
If he was detained it wasn’t for long enough.
By 2011, an intelligence source told CNN al-Libi was back in Libya, where he was believed to be taking part in the Arab Spring uprising, an armed revolt against the nation’s secular ruler Colonel Gaddafi. It’s suspected he was setting up an al-Qaeda base in Tripoli.
He ran out of luck in October 2013 when he was captured by US commandos as he made his way home from morning prayers in the Libyan capital.
He had been caught by surprise by masked men in a Mercedes van who pulled up outside his family home. His name had been out of the spotlight for some time so he had abandoned his habit of carrying a gun. His health was beginning to fail and he had ambitions for a quiet life in the nation’s oil ministry, according to his family.
The Abedi family learned of his capture within hours.
Ramadan posted an image of al-Libi on his Facebook page with the words: “The Prophet knows how many have a picture of this lion in their profiles. The weak are forbidden to share it.”
This is the same ‘lion’ suspected by the FBI of having conspired in the bombing of US the embassies in Africa, killing hundreds.
Al-Libi’s wife insisted in an interview with CNN he had not taken part in any bombings – although she conceded he was a member of al-Qaeda, had acted as one of bin Laden’s personal security guards and took part in jihad in Afghanistan.
But al-Libi would never stand trial for the terror charges he denied – he died in January 2015 of liver cancer, weeks before the hearing was to begin.
US investigators believed he was an al-Qaeda computer specialist and later an operational commander who had spent time with bin Laden in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The similarity in bearing meant he sometimes acted as bin Laden’s body double, it’s believed.
Documents found in bin Laden’s compound, following his killing at the hands of US Navy Seals in 2011, were reportedly to be used in the prosecution of al-Libi.
He was among 21 suspects who were indicted in the US in connection with the embassy bombings, five of whom were finally convicted and sentenced.
He was also well known to, and indeed respected as a combatant, as well as a family friend by the Abedis.
Ramadan left Libya in 1991 – he had worked for the government as a security official but had been accused of leaking information to anti-Gaddafi Islamists.
In 1994 Ramadan settled in south Manchester with his wife Samia and eldest son Ismail, making Fallowfield their home. They went on to have four more sons and a daughter.
Ramadan would take future terrorists Salman and Hashem back to north Africa during their summer holidays to take part in the Arab Spring uprisings. Hashem was taken out of school aged 14 because the entire family returned to Tripoli in 2011, following the death in Libya of Gaddafi.
But the country’s turmoil didn’t end there and the Abedi family returned to Manchester two years later.
Having grown up steeped in the language of Libyan religious radicalism, Salman and Hashem developed their own extremist concept of jihad. Not merely against Colonel Gadaffi, but against the West. While older family friends were associated with al-Qaeda, the younger men looked to Islamic State.
Wider members of the Abedi clan knew al-Libi as a ‘terrorist’ who had a laptop shop in Tripoli and believed he had radicalised the brothers.
The detectives who investigated the Arena outrage have not, to this day established the ‘controlling mind’ who inspired the brothers. But with the likes of al-Libi as role models, their minds were poisoned early.
When their parents finally went back to Libya, neighbours reported the brothers flew the black Islamic State flag from the roof of the family home.
The connections between their father Ramadan Abedi and al-Libi went beyond their shared dissident background.
The men’s wives had been friends since their college days in Tripoli, they both had young families, and as likely members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), they had sworn to pursue jihad against Gaddafi’s government in Libya and replace the regime with a sharia state.
Academics have said that at one stage or another all the leaders of LIFG lived in Manchester – it was their second home.
A home suicide bomber Salman Abedi was prepared to attack with the enthusiastic support of brother Hashem, who is now serving a minimum 55 years behind bars for helping prepare the bomb.
The attack on the twin towers may have taken place 20 years ago – but the Islamist hatred of the west which lay at the heart of it has inflicted pain and suffering still felt in Manchester and elsewhere today.
And the trepidation about what is to come among senior counter terrorism police in Manchester remains today, their fears heightened by the exit from Afghanistan of US and British forces which has left behind the Taliban.
The last time the Taliban governed the country – between 1996 and 2001 – it was a refuge for bin Laden. Indeed Bin Laden, and fellow Islamists in al-Qaeda – and the LIFG – cut their teeth as guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s, fighting the Soviets, before turning on the West.