The families of victims of the Manchester Arena attack accused MI5 of a “devastating” failure after an official inquiry found the agency missed a “significant opportunity” to stop the deadliest terror plot in Britain since the 7 July 2005 attacks in London.
A public inquiry led by Sir John Saunders concluded that there was a “realistic possibility” that the bomber could have been thwarted if the security services had acted more decisively on intelligence.
Andrew Roussos, whose eight-year-old daughter Saffie-Rose Roussos was one of the 22 people killed in the blast, blamed MI5 for a “cataclysmic failure” and said the spy agency was “not fit to keep us safe and therefore not fit for purpose”.
In the long-anticipated final report of the inquiry, Saunders said it was “quite impossible” to say definitively whether any different action would have prevented the blast but that there was a “significant missed opportunity to take action that might have prevented the attack”.
The conclusion triggered a rare public apology from MI5’s director general, Ken McCallum, who said it was of “deep regret” that the agency did not obtain sufficient intelligence to stop the “terrible tragedy”.
He added: “Gathering covert intelligence is difficult – but had we managed to seize the slim chance we had, those impacted might not have experienced such appalling loss and trauma. I am profoundly sorry that MI5 did not prevent the attack.”
But the apology was rejected by Roussos, whose daughter was the youngest victim of the attack. He said it was “insulting” for MI5 to say there was only a “slim chance” of stopping the attack, adding: “He [McCallum] had loads of chances, transparent chances. I can’t accept an apology for losing my daughter.”
The 226-page report, which came two-and-a-half years after the inquiry began, found that:
Salman Abedi’s return from Libya four days before the blast would have been taken “extremely seriously” by MI5 had key pieces of intelligence been taken more seriously in the months before the blast.
The spy agency could have found Abedi’s homemade device, stored in a car in Manchester, if an investigation begun at this stage. The attack “might have been prevented” if MI5 had found the vehicle.
MI5 failed to share two significant pieces of intelligence with counter-terrorism police in the run-up to the blast, amid what Saunders described as a “communication breakdown” between the agencies.
Abedi’s family holds “significant responsibility” for his extremist beliefs but he should have been referred to the anti-radicalisation scheme, Prevent, up to two years before the attack.
Twenty-two people died and hundreds more were injured when Salman Abedi detonated a suicide bomb at the end of an Ariana Grande concert on 22 May 2017.
The “significant missed opportunity” identified by Saunders concerned the handling of two pieces of intelligence by MI5 in the months before the attack.
The report does not describe the nature of these two pieces of intelligence. However, it rejects a previous claim by the Security Service that they related to “non-terrorist criminality” by Abedi.
Saunders said that on occasion MI5’s “corporate position” did not reflect how its officers viewed this material and instead was more of a “retrospective justification for the actions taken or not taken”.
Caroline Curry, whose 19-year-old son Liam Curry was killed in the bombing alongside his girlfriend Chloe Rutherford, 17, hit out at public bodies for failing to quickly acknowledge their failures during the inquiry, saying: “Shame on you all.”
In an emotional statement delivered near Manchester Hall, where families of the victims had gathered to read the report, Curry added: “Forgiveness will never be an option for such evil intentions and those that played any part in the murder of our children will never, ever get forgiveness.
“From top to bottom, MI5 to the associates of the attacker, we will always believe that you all played a part in the murder of our children.”
Unlike previous investigations, the public inquiry heard evidence from the MI5 officers who analysed the information and who testified that together they were of “potential national security concern”.
MI5 witnesses told the inquiry that if the first piece of intelligence had been received today it would have prompted “low-level investigative inquiries, in conjunction with the police”.
Saunders said there was a “material possibility” that this would have led to MI5 uncovering Abedi’s plans.
One MI5 officer, Witness C, believed the second piece of intelligence could be of “pressing national security concern” but failed to raise the alarm promptly, the report found.
It said the agent should have raised concerns to colleagues “straight away” and written a report on the same day but did not do so.
Saunders said this delay “led to the missing of an opportunity to take a potentially important investigative action”.
This was significant, Saunders said, because the intelligence gave rise to the “real possibility of obtaining information that might have led to actions which prevented the attack”.
The retired high court judge said more decisive action would have led MI5 to take “extremely seriously” Abedi’s return from Libya, where he had been fighting alongside Islamists, four days before the attack.
He said it could also have led investigators to the Nissan Micra where he had stored his homemade explosives and, had they found the vehicle, “the attack might have been prevented”.
Much of the evidence from MI5 and counter-terror police was heard in secret due to national security concerns.
In a statement at Manchester Hall, Saunders said he realised that this meant that his public findings – which did not include the most sensitive intelligence – would leave the families of the victims “wanting to know more”. He added: “All I can say is that I have done my best to reveal what I can.”
Nicola Brook, a solicitor from Broudie Jackson Canter who represents five victims’ families, said it was “disappointing that the families will never know the full truth of what happened”.
Richard Scorer, a solicitor at the law firm Slater and Gordon, who represented 11 of the families, described the failures as “devastating and unacceptable”.
The public inquiry, which began in September 2020, previously concluded that Abedi should have been identified as a security threat on the night of the attack, and that at least two victims could have survived had they not faced an “interminable” wait for treatment by the emergency services.