WASHINGTON -- Many years ago, I was attending a Middle Eastern conference in Libya when I had an experience that might shed some light on the roots of the terrorist bombing in Manchester on May 22.
It was the late '70s in Tripoli, and I had planned to go on to Jordan for an interview with King Hussein. The father-in-law of the king offered a ride in his small private plane to two of us correspondents. We were, of course, delighted with this unexpected high-level (literally and socially) invitation.
We took off late in the afternoon from Tripoli, which lies in the western part of the large, but also largely empty, country. After an hour or so, we approached the country's second city, Benghazi, just as the sun was setting. So, we'd stop, have dinner there and perhaps spend the night.
But when we landed, we were astonished to find the airport -- small, but substantial -- totally empty. Not a single plane! In fact, not a single person! We locked up the plane, hailed a car into the city and spent the night. In the morning, we returned to the airport and flew away.
In the entire, say, 16 hours of our unique visit, we had visited with no one. At the time, I thought of it as a rather strange and otherworldly experience, but now I realize it was something else.
Ostensibly, the "young colonel," Moammar Gadhafi, who had overthrown the traditionalist Senussi king in 1969, ruled the desert kingdom, rich in oil but poor in just about everything else. Libya was thought to be a country -- but as our trip showed us, it was really not.
Like so much of the "Third World," even then Libya was simply barely connected spaces, with little system and structure. ("Failed states," such places were called.) And after Gadhafi, who had become a nasty and rich dictator, was overthrown in a bitter revolt in 2011, the country dissolved predictably into its present-day reality of militias, gangs and terrorists.
And that is where Salman Abedi comes in.
The first stories to emerge after the suicide bombing portrayed Abedi, only 22, as a Manchester-born young man who had traveled to Libya and Syria, but who was a regular British guy, only of Libyan descent. As more became known, the stories changed: His father and, indeed, his whole family fought in the Arab revolts of 2011 against Gadhafi.
Then, respectable newspapers such as the Financial Times began to report tantalizing but troubling stories that British intelligence may have actually facilitated boys like Abedi returning to Libya to fight against Gadhafi. (British planes were in the NATO formations that helped destroy Gadhafi in 2011.)
The most recent stories, including those in The New York Times, reported that the British domestic intelligence agency, MI5, has now opened two internal investigations into earlier ignored warnings and "missed signals" about Abedi. And The Associated Press now reports that the Brits are monitoring 3,000 suspected extremists inside Britain, with a wider pool of 20,000 also being observed.
Manchester, with its 10,000 or more Libyan-born or related residents in a city of 530,000, is regularly referred to as a "cultural melting pot" and an example of multiculturalism at work -- but some ominously refer to it as "Libya's second capital."
The coverage of the May bombing, which took 22 lives and wounded scores of others, has included reporting that shows a suspiciously large number of this Libyan community as ingrown, unassimilated and unassimilating, and primarily committed to continuing to fight inside Libya, for whatever cause.
Inimitably worse, a young man who had all the advantages England could offer not only fought within Libya (on whose side, we do not know yet), but then struck his homeland in a meticulously planned, deliberative and utterly vicious manner.
What are the lessons here? It is too early to say. Personally, I would not adopt the anti-Islamic policies of President Trump, which are obnoxious to me. At the same time, Western countries must be realistic about events happening around the world, and even our culpability for them.
The Manchester massacre presents us again with one of the great questions of our times: How to defeat terrorism? We must acknowledge that many of the Libyans in Manchester are surely loyal Mancunians -- but a dangerous some of them, too, are not. They are not refugees, not immigrants, not exiles; they are temporary boarders in a foreign land, who are using that land as a base camp for their political purposes.
The first step is to understand that many Western communities are dysfunctional melting pots -- because, as Salman Abedi so tragically revealed, many are not melting.