The Manchester Arena suicide bomber was identified associating with six separate MI5 “subjects of interest”, visited a terrorist twice in jails and regularly travelled to war-torn Libya, a public inquiry heard.
Intelligence on Salman Abedi came in to MI5 for six years and right up to the months before he blew himself up with a homemade bomb packed with shrapnel, murdering 22 bystanders and injuring hundreds more in the foyer of the arena at the end of an Ariana Grande concert on 22 May 2017.
On one occasion, Abedi had himself been made a “subject of interest”, but his file was closed five months later in July 2014.
Why is there a public inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing?
To investigate how, and in what circumstances, 22 people died in the attack at the Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017 and to make any such recommendations as may seem appropriate.
What happened to the inquests?
Sir John Saunders, a retired high court judge, was originally set to hear inquests into the deaths of the 22 people killed in the attack, as well as the bomber, Salman Abedi. But in 2019, the home secretary, Priti Patel, decided the inquests should become a public inquiry in order to keep some evidence secret. A public inquiry allows evidence to be heard in closed sessions.
Will it all be heard in public?
No. Saunders ruled that certain evidence from MI5 and the police should not be made public on national security grounds. Hearing it in open court could “assist terrorists in carrying out the sort of atrocities committed in Manchester”, he said. The rest of the inquiry will be streamed live – sometimes with a short delay – on YouTube.
Why has it taken so long to start?
The inquiry could not begin until all criminal proceedings relating to the attacks had finished. In March, Hashem Abedi, the bomber’s brother, was found guilty of planning the attacks and later sentenced to a minimum of 55 years. Though police are still searching for suspects, no further trials are imminent, meaning the inquiry could finally begin on 7 September 2020. Coronavirus also delayed the start.
What will the inquiry do?
It will establish how the attack unfolded, whether it could have been prevented, how Abedi was radicalised, whether the emergency response to the attack was adequate, and what steps may be taken in future to prevent a recurrence. It will also consider whether lessons have been learned from previous terrorist attacks and whether the right lessons have been learned from this tragedy.
Who will be giving evidence?
Witnesses include officers from Greater Manchester police and the British Transport Police, representatives of the fire and ambulance services and security staff from the Arena, as well as survivors. A number of people who witnessed someone fitting Abedi’s description acting suspiciously in the hour before the attarck will also be called, including one man who says he asked Abedi what was in his rucksack and another who claims to have seen him “praying”.
When will it finish?
As yet unclear, but “spring 2021”. Saunders will then write his report, which will be all made public except a chapter on whether the attack could have been prevented by the security services.
The most complete details yet given about the security services’ knowledge of Abedi before he carried out the attack was given by Cathryn McGahey QC, representing the Home Office, at the public inquiry in Manchester.
The inquiry, scheduled to last into next spring, is looking at events before, during and after the attack – including the radicalisation of Abedi and what the security services knew about him.
McGahey said some of the exact detail could not be made public and will be heard only by inquiry chairman, the retired high court judge Sir John Saunders, his legal team and government lawyers during closed hearings of the inquiry. But the QC said: “There is no question of secrecy being used to conceal failure.”
Abedi first came to MI5’s attention on 30 December 2010 through his links to an address relevant to a subject of interest (SOI). Three years later, an investigation into an SOI “A” suspected of involvement in planning to travel to Syria discovered telephone contact with Abedi.
In March 2014, Abedi was opened as an SOI but closed that July and investigation into him ended “based on his lack of engagement with individuals of interest” to MI5.
A year later MI5 found Abedi owned a telephone in contact with another SOI “B” previously linked to al-Qaida and under investigation for helping others travel to Syria.
He also met B in person and MI5 assessed Abedi’s extremism while likely to have been influenced by the contact, it was “unlikely” B knew of Abedi’s plans.
The same year intelligence was received Abedi was in contact with a “longstanding SOI” C, affiliated with extremists in Libya. Again MI5 assessed that C may have had some radicalising influence on Abedi, then aged 18, but no suggestion of involvement or knowledge of the Arena plan.
MI5 also had intelligence Abedi regularly travelled to Libya and that from 2015 onwards the service had “conflicting information” he was espousing pro-Islamic State views.
On three later occasions, Abedi was identified as a “second level” contact of three other SOIs, in April 2016 and April and January 2017.
The SOIs involved were suspected of providing support or recruitment for Isis in Syria or Libya. And in both February 2015 and January 2017, he visited Abdalraouf Abdallah, a convicted terrorist, in two separate UK jails.
Twice in the months prior to the attack, intelligence was received by MI5 about Abedi, but was assessed at the time to relate to possibly non-nefarious or non-terrorist criminality.
In retrospect, this intelligence was highly relevant to the planned attack, but the significance of it was not fully appreciated at the times, the inquiry heard.
Abedi’s name also hit a “priority indicator” during a separate “data-washing exercise” as falling within a small number of former subjects of interest who merited further consideration.
A meeting to consider the results was scheduled for 31 May 2017, nine days after the bombing.
However, even if MI5 had taken different decisions in the months before the attack it may not have stopped the bombing, McGahey said. It would have taken time to build up intelligence and allocate resources against a large number of other ongoing investigations, she said.
The hearing was adjourned until Thursday morning.