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Manchester's Libyans react to killer in their midst

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 26/05/2017

Members of Manchester's Libyan community are struggling to come to terms with the fact one of their own was behind a bomb blast at a concert that left 22 people dead and scores wounded.

Salman Abedi, 22, who was born in the northern English city to Libyan parents, is believed to have carried out the attack, which was claimed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The dead at the Ariana Grande performance at the Manchester Arena on Monday evening included children, teenagers, and adults who had arrived to pick up those attending.

In the aftermath of the attack, the media spotlight has turned on the city's Libyan community and what, if anything, they could have done to prevent it.

Earlier reports in British newspapers claimed the imam of Didsbury Mosque, which Abedi often frequented with his family, had noticed his sympathies for ISIL but had not contacted the authorities.

INSIDE STORY: How to protect 'soft targets' after Manchester bombing?

However, US intelligence officials later leaked information suggesting members of the community had informed British security services about his views on the group, which is also popularly known as ISIS.

Al Jazeera spoke to several members of the Libyan community in Manchester and worshippers at Didsbury Mosque, who as well as expressing shock, painted a picture of a periphery figure in their community known more for the family he belonged than who he was himself. 

"The Libyan community in Manchester is very close to each other, so if you don't know someone directly you'll know of their family," said Ali Mahmoud, explaining Salman Abedi would often accompany his father, Ramadan, to prayers at Didsbury Mosque.

"We don't know much about him personally. I've seen him a couple of times here and there in Manchester, at football games, he just seemed like a normal guy.

"I don't think you can tell who's [an ISIL] sympathiser but there were no clear signs."

Few are willing to go on the record about Abedi given the intense media focus on the area, but one of his neighbours described a young man who engaged in behaviour fairly typical of others in his age group.

The man, who only gave his first name Ahmad, said he frequently saw Abedi under the influence of cannabis, a claim repeated by another neighbour in the local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News.

"The dad was a nice guy but [Salman] was high all the time," he said, adding "every other Friday khutba [sermon] at Didsbury was about how bad ISIS are".

"Now we're finding out what he believed and that he hated the mosque, it's clear he only went there because all the other Libyans go there."

Where and how Abedi became sympathetic to ISIL and undertook the training to carry out the attack is the subject of intense speculation in the UK.

Many pundits have pointed to Libya's revolution and the war to topple its former dictator Muammar Gaddafi as a key factor, but locals dispute that explanation.

"The point you need to understand about the war is that the revolution wasn't an Islamic revolution," said Mahmoud.

He explained many Libyans in Manchester did join the struggle against Gaddafi, but the war's role in forming Abedi's ideas was likely overstated.

"It was against a dictator and you had people from different strands in society coming together against him."

Nevertheless, Mahmoud argued that Abedi had possibly taken advantage of the current instability in Libya to form ISIL contacts during his visits to the country, but it was in the UK and over the internet specifically that he would have been radicalised.

Students and asylum seekers

Manchester's Libyan community includes many exiled or forced to flee by the former leader for their political views.

Many have ties to Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups, but there are also left-wing dissidents who came to the UK as refugees during Gaddafi's rule.

As a result, Manchester is now the site of one of the largest Libyan diaspora communities outside of the country.

"I think this came about because initially some people came as students to the university and as any minority, they follow each other with time," explained Ali Khalid, who moved to Manchester from Libya two decades ago.

"It is also the case that the early asylum seekers in the early '90s settled in Manchester and subsequent asylum seekers followed," he said.

Now as security forces track down Abedi's accomplices, focus within the community is turning to how to stop a repeat of Monday's massacre.

"If you're coming into Friday prayers once a week, you're going to come in and you're going to go out, without it making much difference," said Mahmoud.

"Didsbury Mosque and others did make extra effort, they went out to talk to the youths, had lectures in the mosque, encouraged youths to participate in activities with non-Muslim groups to encourage them to integrate into society."

Manchester attack: Defiant residents stage vigil

Where mosques are lacking, according to Mahmoud, is in taking their message to social media, where he believes most radicalisation takes place. 

For Adam, a youth worker, there is no escaping the fact work needs to be done to prevent another attack.

"What he did was outrageous, unbelievable, especially that there were kids involved... Knowing he was Libyan was another shock," he said, still visibly shaken by the week's events.

"We can't overlook the fact that there might be other people out there who have similar ideologies.

"We really want people to know that he doesn't represent the Libyan community and that he only represents himself."

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