A three-year inquiry into the Manchester Arena attack has uncovered a series of opportunities that were missed by the security services.
Inquiry chair Sir John Saunders said MI5 had missed a “significant” chance to stop the May 2017 bombing, which left 22 victims dead, through its flawed handling of intelligence on the bomber.
“It is impossible to say whether any different or additional action taken by the authorities could have prevented the attack,” he said. “It might have done; it might not have done.”
Salman Abedi had been on the security services’ radar since the age of 15, and was known to support Isis, being linked repeatedly with jihadis in Manchester and Libya.
He had travelled to the conflict zone several times with relatives, but the inquiry found that both MI5 and counterterror police had “underestimated the risk from Libya” in 2017 because of their focus on Isis fighters returning from Syria.
Abedi was not under active investigation by the time the two pieces of intelligence came in during the months preceding the attack, though he had been flagged by an internal trawl of previous information. A meeting to consider him further had been scheduled for 31 May 2017 – nine days after the attack.
These were the missed opportunities found by the inquiry:
‘Piece of Intelligence 1’
The information, which has been kept secret for national security reasons, was received by MI5 in the months leading up to the bombing.
The inquiry was told that if the Security Service were to have received the same intelligence now, Abedi would have been subject to “low-level investigative enquiries, in conjunction with the police”.
The report said that an MI5 officer who drew up a report on the information “should have provided further context”, which could have triggered an investigation.
Sir John said the information alone was unlikely to have revealed Abedi’s plot, but added: “There is a material possibility that it would have led to the security service and/or counterterror police learning more about Abedi’s activities … this would have increased the overall prospect that the attack would have been prevented by reason of Piece of Intelligence 2”.
‘Piece of Intelligence 2’
MI5 received information on Abedi on a second occasion in the months before the attack, during the period when he was preparing his deadly suicide bomb.
The inquiry found that it was received by the same MI5 officer who had received the first piece of intelligence, and that the officer knew it could indicate “activity of pressing national security concern” but did not write up a report or discuss it with their colleagues straight away.
“S/he should have written the report on the same day, but in fact did not do so,” Sir John said. “[The officer] did not provide a report on Piece of Intelligence 2 as promptly as s/he should have … the delay in providing the report led to the missing of an opportunity to take a potentially important investigative action.”
Sir John said that further investigation of Abedi “should have happened”, and that if it had, his return from Libya to the UK four days before the bombing would have been “treated extremely seriously”.
The report said that MI5 could have followed Abedi from Manchester airport to the parked Nissan Micra where he stored bomb components, or he could have been stopped, searched and questioned under counterterrorism powers at the airport.
“There is a possibility that he had the switch for the bomb on him at that time,” Sir John said. “The chances of a port stop on 18 May 2017 disrupting the attack may have been low, but I consider they cannot be discounted altogether.
“In my view, Piece of Intelligence 2 gave rise to the real possibility of obtaining information that might have led to actions which prevented the attack. We cannot know what would have happened, but there is at least the material possibility that opportunities to intervene were missed.”
Failure to refer Salman Abedi to Prevent
The terrorist had first come to be on the security services’ radar at the age of just 15, and the inquiry found that he had been radicalised by his father and older brother, by Isis-supporting friends in Manchester, by travelling to Libya during the civil war, and by Isis propaganda.
The inquiry found that authorities had considered referring Abedi to the government’s Prevent counterterrorism scheme in 2014, when he was 19 years old. The scheme is designed to use a range of measures, from ideological mentoring to mental health treatment and education support, to stop people from being drawn into terrorism.
MI5 and counterterror police told the inquiry that the decision not to refer Abedi to Prevent was “reasonable”, but Sir John disagreed, writing: “I consider Abedi should have been subject to a Prevent referral at some point in 2015 or 2016.”
The inquiry chair acknowledged that Abedi might not have “responded positively”, and that his older brother Ismail had rejected contact from police officers who had discovered extremist material on his devices.
But he added: “While any particular individual will only benefit from Prevent if they engage with it, that does not mean that a refusal to engage will be irrelevant to those involved in countering terrorism.
“On the contrary, such a refusal may provide an indicator to be taken into account when any assessment of that person and their risk is undertaken.”
Messages with Isis recruiter Abdalraouf Abdallah
A police investigation, codenamed Operation Oliban, had resulted in Abedi’s friend Abdalraouf Abdallah being jailed for recruiting Isis fighters who travelled to Syria. But in 2015, police failed to pass messages from Abdallah’s phone to MI5, and Abedi was not identified as one of his extremist contacts.
“Abedi should have been identified, and the Operation Oliban messages should have been passed to the Security Service,” Sir John concluded. “This would have added to the picture that the Security Service and Counter Terrorism Policing North West held about Abedi’s actions and intentions.”
Abedi’s contact with Abdalraouf Abdallah in prison
While he was in prison, Abdalraouf Abdallah had access to an illicit mobile phone that was used for at least three phone calls to Abedi. But although the handset was seized by prison authorities on 17 February 2017 and downloaded on 3 March 2017, there was a delay in getting authorisation to obtain detailed billing data.
It did not come through until 1 June 2017 – more than a week after the Manchester Arena bombing – but Sir John said it “should have been obtained within a month of the download”.
“It was a concerning delay,” the report said. “Potential intelligence about a prisoner serving a sentence for Terrorism Act 2000 offences and known to be a potential radicaliser should be obtained and analysed more quickly.”
Abedi as a ‘de-facto’ subject of interest
Abedi had been subject to investigation by MI5 in the past but was not thought to pose a threat to UK national security himself. The inquiry heard that, between 2015 and 2016, he was “treated as being a Tier 2 subject of interest (SOI)” but not officially made a subject of live investigation.
“It was not helpful for Abedi to be treated in this way,” Sir John said. “If Abedi had been formally opened as a SOI, then he would have continued to have been treated as such, or there would have come a time when he was considered for closure.
“At the point of closure, there would have been a formal assessment of the risk that Abedi posed to national security.”
The inquiry found that this would have been a “valuable opportunity to take stock of the intelligence” held on him, and that it could have triggered fresh consideration of a referral to Prevent.
It concluded: “By consciously allowing Abedi’s categorisation to fall into this uncharted grey area, the investigative team deprived itself of the rigours and precautionary processes that were in place for other open SOIs so as to ensure that national security was best protected.”