CAIRO — The father of the 22-year-old Briton who police say bombed a concert in Manchester insisted Wednesday that his son was innocent and just had been preparing to go on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
Ramadan Abedi, 51, also known by his nom de guerre of Abu Ismail, spoke to The Associated Press by phone from the Libyan city of Tripoli. He confirmed that his other son, Ismail, had been arrested Tuesday around Manchester by British authorities in the concert attack probe.
“We don’t believe in killing innocents. This is not us,” the senior Abedi said. “We aren’t the ones who blow up ourselves among innocents. We go to mosques. We recite Quran, but not that.”
Authorities say 22 people died and nearly 120 were wounded in the bombing at an Ariana Grande concert.
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He said last time he spoke to the 22-year-old Salman was five days ago as he was getting ready for a trip to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah, a smaller pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
“Last time I spoke to him, he sounded normal. There was nothing worrying at all until two days ago (when) I heard the news that they suspect he was the bomber,” Abedi, the father of six children, said.
He said Salman visited Libya a month and a half ago and only returned to Manchester after winning a cheap ticket to Umrah. He said Salman, who was in his second year of studying economics, was planning to return to Libya to spend the holy month of Ramadan with the family. He denied that his son had ever been to Syria.
The senior Abedi worked as a security officer under dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s rule. In 1993, he fled the oil-rich North African country to Saudi Arabia after he was accused of helping Islamists by tipping them off before police raids. He denied having ties to any of Libya’s militant groups, including the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, which was linked to al-Qaida.
“This is nonsense,” he commented, adding that under Gadhafi, “anyone who went to a mosque raised question marks.”
After less than a year in Saudi Arabia, Abu Ismail said he fled to the U.K., where he sought political asylum and lived there for 25 years.
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In 2011, Abedi returned to Libya during the mass uprising that descended into a civil war and ended with Gadhafi’s ouster and death. Libya since then sank into lawlessness, with rebels turning into militias and undermining successive transitional governments.
The Abedi family, however, is a close friend to the family of al-Qaida veteran Abu Anas al-Libi, who was snatched by U.S. special forces off a Tripoli street in 2013 then died in US custody in 2015. Al-Libi was on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list and was accused of having links to the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa.
The wife of Abu Anas told the AP that she went to college in Tripoli with Abu Ismail’s wife, who was studying nuclear engineering. The two women also lived together in the U.K. for years before they returned to Libya.
Even though the senior Abedi denied that he was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting group, former Libyan security official Abdel-Basit Haroun told the AP that the elder Abedi was a member in the 1990s of the group, which had links to al-Qaida.
Although the LIFG disbanded, Haroun says the father belongs to the Salafi Jihadi movement, the most extreme sect of Salafism and from which al-Qaida and the Islamic State group both hail.
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The elder Abedi has been appointed administrative manager of Tripoli Central Security forces, which answers to the U.N.-backed government.
“My message to the world is that there are hidden hands that want to tarnish the image of Muslims who live in the west,” he said.