By Hamish Macdonald
Akram Ben Ramadan was born in Manchester. He works as a mechanic, conducting MOT inspections — the annual check on vehicles to make sure they are roadworthy.
He lives in a diverse Manchester suburb, just upstairs from the brother of Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber.
Mr Ramadan grew up between the UK and Libya, always feeling drawn towards his ancestral homeland, believing — like many Libyan exiles — that one day dictator Moamar Gaddafi would be overthrown.
When revolution did eventually come, during the 2011 Arab Spring, Mr Ramadan was among droves of young Libyan-Brits who returned to Libya to fight.
Britain was leading the NATO intervention at the time with air strikes, and what NATO desperately needed were ground forces to do the military campaign’s dirty work.
They needed men like Mr Ramadan to pick up arms and form the front line. So why were the British authorities so relaxed about people going off to fight in Libya?
“They knew they were going for a good cause,” Mr Ramadan said.
“That’s, I think, the [British] theory or that’s the ideology at the time — that we couldn’t get rid of Gaddafi ourselves.”
Those fighters, like the British Government, opposed Colonel Gaddafi.
Many of those who traveled to Libya in 2011 — and during the ensuing years of conflict — saw heavy combat.
Mr Ramadan said he came close to death “many times, many, many times”.
On one occasion, he recalled, “A friend of mine was sitting next to me, he got riddled [with bullets], I just don’t know how I missed all the bullets to be honest”.
Freedom fighters radicalised battling with Islamist militants
We now know allowing British-Libyans the freedom to go and fight against the Gaddafi regime was a risky endeavor. They joined militias, or khatibas.
Many of those fighting groups were Islamist militias, in which fighters would often become radicalised.
“Some moved to Syria and we’ve never seen them again,” Mr Ramadan said. “They’re thinking they’re doing the right thing fighting the Syrian regime.”
So, was it a mistake for the British Government to allow so many to go off to Libya and fight, and then let them return home to Britain, no questions asked?
“I think it’s a mistake when people come back they didn’t get their brains examined and checked out,” Mr Ramadan said.
“Anybody who has been to a war zone, he needs some psychotherapy to find out if he’s gone off the bender or not.”
Manchester bomber’s ties to Libya scrutinised
The contribution made by foreign fighters during the uprising against the Gaddafi regime was significant.
Bilal Bettammer, a Libyan student and activist, recently told the Financial Times that during the revolution: “I’d say of the more hard-line groups, 60 or 70 per cent of their fighters in the beginning were from abroad.”
“In 2011 we noticed a big influence from Manchester. There were lots of them in Derna. “There were Libyan families here cashing British welfare cheques.”
But the presence of returned fighters currently living in the UK, and in particular Manchester, has come under increasing scrutiny since the attack on the Manchester Arena on May 22 this year.
Salman Abedi, the 22-year-old suicide bomber responsible for killing 22 others and leaving 116 people injured, had spent time in both Libya and Syria.
His father, who worked at the Didsbury mosque, had fought in a Libyan militia during the revolution.
British security services are now trying to understand the connection between the time he and his father spent in Libya and his apparent radicalisation.
Returned fighters isolated, not accepted in Libya or UK
Evidently, not everyone who went off to fight in Libya wants to bring the violence, or even the ideology, back home to Britain.
But the difficulty is that security services cannot always tell the difference.
Britain’s MI5 has identified 23,000 “suspects of interest” who are thought to pose a potential terrorist threat in the UK today.
Colonel Rich Kemp, the former chairman of Britain’s Cobra Intelligence Group which advises government and coordinates the work of MI5 and MI6, says that figure, “is just the tip of the iceberg”.
He told the BBC recently the UK was “reaping the horrors” after years of failing to deal with extremism.
Mr Ramadan acknowledged there was a serious challenge in managing the returned fighters. “These types of guys felt isolated between their home and the UK,” he said.
“They’re not accepted in the community here and they’re not accepted back home.
“Back home they call them ‘white Libyans’ and when they come here they’re called ‘terrorists’ or ‘fighters’.
“The lack of a social cohesion with them and understanding what’s gone wrong with them, it helps a lot of these recruiters to get in their heads.”
Hamish Macdonald is an Australian broadcast journalist and news presenter. Macdonald has previously worked at networks including Channel 4, ITV, Al Jazeera English and Network Ten.