Libyan-Canadian cleric linked to Manchester bomber plans return to Canada to clear his name
'I challenge whoever accuses me of such a connection to produce evidence,' says Abdul Baset Egwilla
A Libyan-Canadian cleric linked in U.S. and British media reports to Manchester bomber Salman Abedi says he will return to Canada in weeks with the intention of clearing his name.
Abdul Baset Egwilla was an Ottawa-based imam until his return to Libya in 2007. In an exclusive interview with CBC News over Skype, Egwilla denied any connection to Abedi.
"I challenge whoever accuses me of such a connection to produce evidence, such as a time, date and place where I met with the suicide bomber," Egwilla said.
CBC News has agreed not to disclose Egwilla's current location due to concerns for his safety, as he is the subject of death threats in Libya.
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Salman Abedi, 22, was identified on May 23 as the suicide bomber who killed 22 people and wounded more than 60 others, including children, at a pop concert in Manchester. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The bomber's father, Ramadan Abedi, who denies his son was a member of ISIS, has since been arrested by Libyan counter-terrorism officers.
U.S. and British media reports, citing anonymous sources, have claimed a link between Salman, his father and Libyan-Canadian cleric Egwilla.
Linked by the media
A senior American official told the New York Times on May 24 that Salman Abedi "had links to a radical preacher in Libya" identified as Abdul Baset Egwilla, and that Egwilla's son had died fighting for ISIS.
Egwilla's son did die in 2016, but Libyan news reports and a martyrdom notice at the time said he was killed fighting for the Omar Mukhtar Brigade, a Libyan Islamist militia that is not a listed terrorist organization.
The Times newspaper in the U.K. reported May 27 that Ramadan Abedi was an associate of "extremist Canadian-Libyan preacher" Egwilla, and that the Libyan-Canadian is believed to have radicalized Ramadan's son, Salman Abedi.
The father would regularly meet with Egwilla at Friday prayers in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in 2015, added the Times, citing a resident of the city who asked not to be named.
The Greater Manchester Police Force would neither confirm nor deny to CBC News that Egwilla is under investigation for possible involvement in the Manchester bombing.
Egwilla, who has been absent from Libya for several months since fleeing a plot to assassinate him, said he has never, to his knowledge, met either Salman or Ramadan Abedi.
"I am a public figure, I appear in the media. I show up in mosques and preach to a multitude of people. People know me, but I do not know them," Egwilla said.
"And if I met him once or twice before, it could be that he changed his beliefs later on, but I never met him in the first place," Egwilla said of the Manchester bomber.
Encouraging jihad in Libya
Declassified documents released by Canada's Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre in 2014 flagged a YouTube video in which Egwilla is seen "promoting violent jihad in Libya."
"In the video, Egwilla urged an audience of Libyan Islamist fighters to take part in jihad, stating that 'jihad is simply and easily accessible, and does not require moving as in the past, as it was for Afghanistan and Iraq,'" the report said.
Egwilla says that call to jihad was made to recruit people to fight specifically against a militia led by a former general in Moammar Gadhafi's regime, and not a call to support the global jihadi movement.
"I spoke about jihad only through Fajr Libya Dawn (a rebel militia alliance) and only when [Moammar Gadhafi] suppressed peaceful demonstrators and bombed them with anti-aircraft weaponry," said Egwilla. "This was unjust and an act of tyranny."
Egwilla's years in Libya
Egwilla said people claiming to be with the government of Canada have attempted to reach out to him using the app Viber, though he says he has never agreed to an interview.
Egwilla said he intends to speak to authorities to clear his name when he returns to Canada.
After seven years in Ottawa, Egwilla left Canada for Libya in 2007, when Gadhafi's regime began sending signals that it would not persecute returning dissidents.
He began working at a Tripoli religious radio station and associated with a group of clerics that included Sadiq al-Ghariani, who today is the country's Grand Mufti, the top religious leader, and a strong supporter of Islamist militias.
When rebellion broke out in 2011, Egwilla was a prominent supporter, and after the fall of Gadhafi's regime, was promoted to be the administrative director for the mosques in Tripoli. He said he became a prominent imam and broadcaster.
In 2014, as splits emerged between liberals and Islamists over the direction post-Gadhafi Libya should take, Egwilla identified with the "Libya Dawn" coalition of Islamist militias that seized Tripoli from the UN-backed government.
Libya Dawn soon found itself involved in a war with the secular forces of Gadhafi-era general Khalifa Haftar, and Egwilla's Ottawa-raised son Owais joined one of the Islamist militias battling Haftar. Owais died in combat in March last year.
It was reported in some quarters that Owais Egwilla had died fighting for Islamic State. In fact, martyrdom notices posted at the time of his death show him as a member of the Omar Mukhtar Brigade, an Islamist militia that was part of the coalition that fought Islamic State and drove it out of its Libyan stronghold in Sirte.
Rival Islamists, deadly enemies
Egwilla says he fled Libya eight months ago following the kidnapping and murder of fellow cleric Nadir al-Omrani by assassins of the Madkhali sect of Sunni Islam.
Madkhalis, followers of a school of thought founded by a Saudi cleric, have become increasingly active in Libya. Like Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Madkhalis in Libya have destroyed ancient shrines and manuscripts they deem un-Islamic and they consider voting to be heresy.
In a videotaped confession seen by CBC News, one of the killers told Libyan police that his group had a hit list that also included Egwilla.
Egwilla says he also received threats from ISIS, which did indeed produce videos denouncing his group and fatwas calling for them to be killed.
It is a breach of Canadian law to call on private citizens to engage in violent extremism, said Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a former national security analyst for the government of Canada.
When Egwilla returns
Egwilla's willingness to speak to security agencies in Canada in an attempt to clear his name should not be taken as a hallmark of innocence, says Carvin.
Individuals who go abroad for extremist purposes tend to engage in a number of activities, including developing funding networks and radicalization activities, she says.
"When they come back, we can expect that they will also engage in those activities," says Carvin.
Egwilla, a Canadian citizen, has the right to return to Canada.
Bill C-51, however, would allow Canadian national security agencies to obtain a federal court warrant that would authorize a violation of that right as long as it does not cause harm or invade sexual integrity, says Kent Roach, a professor of law at the University of Toronto.