Manchester Arena bombing: Suburb a 'hunting ground' for extremists

When Hashem Abedi was found guilty of planning the Manchester Arena bombing with his brother Salman, he became the latest home-grown terrorist to be convicted in a UK court. But he was also the product of a small area dubbed a “breeding ground” for extremists.

In south Manchester there is a small pocket of neighbourhoods, just a few square miles wide.

The suburbs here include trendy Chorlton, Rusholme, with its curry mile, Levenshulme and Burnage, home to the Gallagher brothers.

Salman and Hashem Abedi were born in the city and grew up in Fallowfield, one of the suburbs in an area that has produced more than 20 extremists.

They are men and women who’ve joined terrorist organisations, been jailed, disappeared or killed themselves.

Among them were an Islamic State group (IS) recruiter and at least two other suicide bombers.
‘Ostracised and demonised’

Youth worker Ismael Lea South knows these areas well and recognises a well-worn path.

“Manchester has long been a hunting ground for extremist groups and groomers,” he said.

“You get people who feel ostracised, dehumanised and demonised.

“They don’t feel 100% British but they don’t feel they belong to the country of their parents so there’s confusion.

“This is where the hotbed comes in. But far-right extremism is also a problem too.”

Salman and Hashem Abedi became radicalised after their parents left for Libya in 2016, while the the brothers remained at the family home in Fallowfield.

Salman Abedi was seen at demonstrations and even visited IS recruiter Abdalraouf Abdallah in prison.

Haras Rafiq, of the counter-extremism group, the Quilliam Foundation believes the brothers’ visit to Libya was the turning point.

“When they were living at home, they used to hear stories,” he said.

“But when they actually went out to Libya and saw the violence with their own eyes, that is something that gave them something tangible, something they could see, something they could potentially be part of when it comes to violence.

“So that actual tipping point when it comes to being violent in the name of a political cause, I think, really, really hit home.”

Mr Lea South said young people are still being groomed by extremists in the UK.

He decided to help other young people at risk after his nephew was radicalised in prison.

His organisation, The Salman Project, runs workshops in schools and mosques in Manchester and London.

He believes four or five people a year are still at risk of being radicalised in Manchester.

“It’s a lot. Definitely,” he said.

“But thankfully there are people working on the ground. And at the same time we need to get the communities working together.”

Mr Lea South gives talks on the problems of drugs and knife crime – which the Abedi brothers were involved in – and how they can lead to extremism.

“People might think they are transporting drugs for a dealer but they could be taking equipment in a bag.

“Like bomb parts that could be used for a mass killing, and not even know,” he tells his audience.
‘Head in the sand’

Naeem Briggs from Manchester is a youth worker but a few years ago he was preparing, with friends, to travel to Palestine or Afghanistan to fight abroad.

He said he knows about 20 people who’ve gone abroad to join terrorist organisations.

When he realised he was crossing a line, he turned to outreach work about radicalisation which he said is widespread.

“Go to your mosque, your bookshops. It’s people getting together at people’s houses. Honestly it’s not hard to come by. I think everyone in the Muslim community needs to discuss it openly and be honest.”

Too many mosques “have their head in the sand thinking extremism is not a problem,” added Mr Lea South.

Councillor Rabnawaz Akbar, Welfare Officer for Manchester Council of Mosques, said there was a challenge but radicalisation was not just restricted to Islamic fundamentalism.

He said most referrals to Channel, part of the government’s Prevent deradicalisation programme, were from the Far Right.

“There are people still getting radicalised by Isis ideology clearly and that isn’t going away”, he said.

“Mosques are there to play a role and tackle that, and actually right across the city we have other mosques doing outreach work which is what’s needed.”

A Home Office spokesperson said “more people than ever” were getting support through Channel to “reject the influence of terrorist groomers”.

They said Prevent “works best when delivered in partnership with communities” and “helped to empower over 142,000 people to build their resilience to terrorist ideologies” last year.

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