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Police Investigate Manchester Bombing Suspect's Connection To Libya


We learned yesterday that the father and brother of Salman Abedi had been detained by local authorities in Libya. But given that there are three different factions vying for control of the country, just who are the local authorities? Libya has been in conflict since the Arab Spring and the fall of the Gadhafi regime.

Earlier I spoke with Suliman Ali Zway via Skype. He's a stringer for The New York Times and has worked for NPR. He spoke with Abedi's father, Ramadan Abedi, before his arrest. I asked Zway what Abedi's father said about the allegations against his son. He says the father was certain his son Salman was not the bomber, but when Zway talked to neighbors of the family, they told him a different story.

SULIMAN ALI ZWAY: The father had been communicating his concerns about this particular son and...

CORNISH: Right, going as far as taking away his passport at one point, right?

ZWAY: Absolutely, absolutely, which is something that he had denied to me personally when I spoke to him. He said, I trusted the man he was, and there was no reason for me to take out his passport. Then when I asked him, you know, what - you know, was he recently in Libya, he'd said, yes, he was in Libya to spend the month of Ramadan, which didn't add up because Ramadan didn't start yet. So I asked him, so Ramadan is not here yet, but he died in Manchester. How do you explain that? And then he said that's because he got a unique opportunity to do the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia via Manchester, and that's why he went back to Manchester.

From his account, all I could think of is either he had been thinking about a message to stick to and he's been delivering that message to me, or he's been in complete denial.

CORNISH: At this point, there are roughly three factions trying to gain control of Libya. The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord is the one that's sort of recognized internationally. So when we hear that a counterterrorism force in Libya has arrested the bomber's brother and father, who is that? Who's the faction that represents?

ZWAY: They are talking about a militia group known as the Special Deterrence Force, which theoretically falls under the Government of National Accord. But it is a complex situation in Libya where, you know, loyalties of such militias are very fickle, and they could change. Also calling it counterterrorism force is giving it more credit than it is. Although, this force had been credited to a lot of ISIS cells' arrests over the last two years and they have been working on criminal gangs and seminars things in the capital, Tripoli. And that's as far as their control extends - where they, you know - where their control is actually also shared with many other militia groups.

CORNISH: So does a government like the U.K. have a real partner to work with in terms of an investigation or counterterrorism?

ZWAY: They don't. They don't have one partner because what they deal with is a big country with three different known governments and hundreds, if not thousands, of militia groups. Who they reach to at which part of the country, you know, any given time all depends on many different scenarios and how willing those people who control that part of the country to cooperate with the U.K. government.

CORNISH: So how prominent is ISIS or the Islamic State in Libya at this point?

ZWAY: They've been completely routed out of Sirte a few months ago. That was their stronghold which is in the middle of the country. And they have been largely driven out of Benghazi. I would estimate - and this is my personal opinion - that the ideology may not have died, and we may have some people or individuals, small sleeper cells here and there. Especially there are the - so many reports about some who are present and southern Libya where it's largely lawless.

CORNISH: We know South Manchester has been home to one of the largest Libyan communities outside of Libya for many years, right? And at times, there had been periods where expats had gone back to fight in the country including after the Arab Spring. But have the authorities been more concerned about this traffic since the rise of ISIS and ISIS recruiters?

ZWAY: I would say yes because the U.K. as well as the U.S. have been a part of the coalition that helped - the forces that have recaptured Sirte from the Islamic State. They've aided with both intelligence and also air support. So they have been involved a lot, and that shows that they've been concerned about the spillover of ISIS, if you will, to Europe.

CORNISH: Suliman Ali Zway is a freelance journalist. He works for NPR and writes for The New York Times. Thanks so much.

ZWAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.