Salman Abedi was short-tempered. He was a lonely child. He was respectful of elders. He was quiet. He was devout. And he grew up just a few miles from the Manchester arena where he detonated a suicide bomb during an Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 people and injuring 59, many of them young girls.
As British authorities have started the slow, painstaking process of piecing together what happened on Monday night, disturbing details have begun to emerge about the 22-year-old British citizen of Libyan descent who carried out the vicious attack.
And they paint a troubling picture of a man whose behavior and recent movements seem to raise every red flag in the book, but who somehow still managed to slip through the security services’ net. Even more concerning, officials now believe he was not a lone actor but may have in fact been part of a much wider terrorist network.
“It’s very clear that this is a network we are investigating,” Greater Manchester Chief Constable Ian Hopkins told reporters on Wednesday. So far, British police have taken at least four people into custody in connection with the attack, said Hopkins. A man believed to be the bomber’s younger brother, Hashem Abedi, has also been detained in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, the Wall Street Journal reports.
So who was Salman Abedi? And what could have possibly led him to target a stadium full of innocent young girls in the deadliest terrorist attack on British soil since 2005?
Let’s take a closer look.
“Salman? I’m astonished by this.”
Abedi was born in the UK to Libyan parents on New Year’s Eve in 1994 and was the second of four children. His parents had fled Libya for the UK because they opposed the brutal rule of Muammar Qaddafi, who ruled Libya with an iron fist for six decades until he was killed with US assistance in 2011. Today, Abedi’s father once again lives in Libya, while his mother is believed to still be in Manchester.
Abedi’s father, whose name was Ramadan Abedi but who was known as Abu Ismail (who was just arrested), was very well known in the community. He would take his sons, Salman and Ismail, to the local Didsbury mosque. It was there that Abu Ismail would sing the call to prayer and guide his sons through their spiritual journey. “His boys learned the Quran by heart,” a member of the Libyan community told the Guardian.
Now that community is under scrutiny as police conduct raids in connection with Monday’s attack. But this isn’t the first time the community has been through this. According to British authorities, the area “was known to have been home to a number of Islamist extremists in recent years; some with links to Syria and Libya; some alive and some dead,” reports the BBC.
Abd al-Baset Azzouz used to live in that neighborhood. He left Manchester to run a terrorist network in Libya overseen by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda, reports the Telegraph. Azzouz is an expert bombmaker and has been accused of running an al-Qaeda network in eastern Libya.
But even though he grew up in that environment, Abedi seemed to be a normal kid. A former classmate of his told the BBC that "he was a very jokey lad" even if he was also "very short tempered.” He had shown respect for his elders and was very good at soccer. He even smoked cannabis.
“Salman? I’m astonished by this,” a community member told the Guardian when Abedi’s name was announced as the Manchester bombing terrorist.
“He was such a quiet boy, always very respectful towards me. ... Salman was very quiet. He is such an unlikely person to have done this,” that community member said.
“Salman showed me a face of hate”
One particular incident from 2015 stands out. Mohammed Saeed, an imam at the mosque Abedi attended, delivered a sermon denouncing terrorism, saying there was no room for murder on behalf of political causes.
Abedi was furious. “He scared some people,” a neighbor told the New York Times. “Salman showed me a face of hate after that sermon,” Saeed told the Guardian. “It’s not a surprise to me” that he was named as the terrorist, he said.
It was also around that time that Abedi dropped out of Manchester’s Salford University, where he had been studying business management. He had also begun to dress "Islamically," in a long robe, and was growing a beard, a family friend told CNN.
Instead of attending classes, Abedi started traveling more frequently to Libya, which has been mired in conflict since the Libyan civil war began in February 2011. The chaos there left a vacuum that allowed for groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda to establish a foothold and train terrorists. CNN reports that ISIS may have trained Abedi in Libya.
Abedi’s behavior began to change noticeably. Lina Ahmed, a member of Manchester’s Libyan community, said that Abedi and certain members of his family had “been acting strangely.”
“A couple of months ago he [Abedi] was chanting the first kalma [Islamic prayer] really loudly in the street. He was chanting in Arabic. He was saying ‘There is only one God and the prophet Mohammed is his messenger,’” she claimed.
Eric Rosand, a former senior counterterrorism official in the State Department, said in an interview that Abedi “very much” fits the profile of a modern-day terrorist. He was young, was well educated, grew up in the area, and, of course, was clearly open to radicalization.
Authorities believe Abedi had only just returned from his most recent trip to Libya this week. "He went to Libya three weeks ago and came back recently, like days ago," a school friend said. US officials confirmed to CNN that Abedi had been in Libya for three weeks before the attack.
His behavior began to pique the interest of intelligence officials. His frequent trips to Libya raised some red flags among authorities — and rightfully so. His growing connections to Libya — a terrorist hot spot — and his change in behavior certainly put Abedi on the radar.
But even then, he was only known to British intelligence services “up to a point,” British Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the BBC.
It looks like Abedi may have been part of a bigger network
Rudd told reporters “it seems likely — possible — that he wasn’t doing this on his own,” but she didn’t specify with whom he might’ve been working. Still, that Abedi may have had help makes sense when looking at the details of the attack.
Unlike other recent attacks in Europe where vehicles were used to run over scores of people, such as in Nice, France, last year, the Manchester assault required planning. Abedi needed a bomb, he needed money, and he needed training.
It was no accident that he detonated the bomb in the foyer between the arena and busy Victoria Station, the subway stop next to the arena’s exit at the end of the concert. It’s where the blast would have maximum impact as concertgoers flooded out of the arena. It requires some knowhow to understand that that was the best place to set off the device.
Hopkins and his team are looking into Abedi’s possible connection to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and/or any other terrorist groups. After the attack, ISIS claimed Abedi as one of their own, saying he was a “soldier of the caliphate.” But the message was short and generic, didn’t mention Abedi, and got some details of the attack wrong, so it’s not clear whether ISIS actually had any involvement in directing, planning, or executing the attack or whether they’re just opportunistically taking credit for it.
Meanwhile, Abedi’s family members have been arrested — his two brothers and father — in connection to the attack. There are even some reports that Abedi’s younger brother, Hashem, told Libyan authorities who arrested him that he was an ISIS member. They suspect him of “planning to stage an attack” in Libya.
So while it looks likely that Abedi worked with others — as the recent arrests seem to indicate — it’s still a mystery how the attack wasn’t stopped.
Beyond tracking his travel patterns in and out of Libya, the only way authorities could really have known what Abedi was up to is if members of his community relayed that information to the authorities, Jeffrey Ringel, a 21-year veteran of the FBI, told me in an interview. And while community members have been very forthcoming to reporters since the attack, it’s unclear whether anyone reported their suspicions about Abedi to the authorities.
In addition, the bomb he used was fairly simple to keep under the radar. Abedi reportedly used a “homemade” bomb that can be made with over-the-counter materials. Those bombs “can go very well undetected,” Ringel said. After all, authorities aren’t going to investigate everyone who buys nails or other items that could be placed in one of those bombs.
As of now, intelligence officials believe Abedi may have been the “mule” for the bomb, the BBC reports. In other words, someone else made the device, but Abedi carried it on his person all the way to the detonation point. He was just the delivery system.
But in the end, it was a suicide bombing, and if someone wants to kill themselves, “that’s hard to stop,” notes Andy Liepman, a former longtime US counterterrorism official.
Regardless of what happened, the ultimate blame lies with Abedi, who felt the need to hurt innocent civilians when they were having a fun night out at a pop concert.
The “face of hate” indeed.