3 March 2023

The Manchester Arena intelligence failures need concerted action, not empty words about ‘lessons learned’


The Chairman of the 2017 Manchester Arena public inquiry, Sir John Saunders, has just delivered the final volume of his report and he doesn’t mince his words.

This new final section focuses on whether the security services and counter terrorism police could have done more to prevent Islamist extremist Salman Abedi murdering 22 mostly young people at a pop concert. In the thousands of words published this week, these stand out:  

‘There was a realistic possibility that actionable intelligence could have been obtained which might have led to actions preventing the attack.’ 

It’s little surprise that families of victims have reportedly called this a ‘devastating conclusion.’ 

Abedi had been on MI5’s radar as a ‘subject of interest’ since 2015, but Sir John suggests both the security services and the police failed to act on intelligence that suggested he was devolving into murderous ideological violence.

We cannot know the details of two key pieces of intelligence that Sir John says were mishandled in the months leading up to the attack because they have been redacted in the interests of national security. This, despite the Chairman’s declaration in the preface to the report that he would not merely ‘salute the flag’ in deference to MI5 disclosure objections.

It remains to be seen whether he has achieved the right balance in the public interest. There is carefully coded criticism of the senior management of MI5 elsewhere in the report when he reveals a contrast between the ‘corporate’ response of spook managers to his inquiries and the evidence that he took directly from frontline operatives involved in evaluating the risks. He politely suggests that the corporate view might be more focused on post-hoc justification of actions taken or not.

Notwithstanding the lawyerly lingo, it is clear that there was a communications breakdown in the dissemination of these two pieces of information which Saunders said had ‘national security significance’, which ultimately meant counter-terror police in Manchester were kept in the dark. The consequences of this failure are unknowable but the ‘what if?’ must be torturous for the bereaved families only allowed a partial glimpse of an awful chain of events that ended in atrocity.

This is not the only failure that his report identifies. Sir John concludes that there was enough evidence of Abedi’s extremist background – as a likely combatant in the Libyan civil war for one example – for him to have been referred to the national counter-terrorism Prevent programme for those at risk of becoming radicalised. It’s a conclusion that bleakly echoes the 2021 inquest into the murder of two students by another Islamist terrorist, Usman Khan. There the coroner identified ‘serious failures’ by agencies including MI5, which were supposed to be managing his risk, and ‘missed opportunities’ to identify and deal with the harm he manifested.

While Prevent itself has been subject to severe criticism in the recent Shawcross Review, it is incredible that when Abedi stopped being of interest to the security services, he was not referred on to the programme. He was certainly more worthy of attention than dozens of more trivial referrals that have clogged up and discredited this strand of our national counter-terror strategy.

Of course, as Prevent is voluntary, there is no way to say whether this would have made a difference. But surveillance is a key way of deterring people from engaging in terrorist activities. Skilled Prevent practitioners might well have been able to discover and potentially disrupt his trajectory towards violence ahead of time. Even a refusal to engage would have been significant. We will never know.

Another key finding of the report was that Abedi himself was of ‘limited intelligence and ability’, and must have had significant help in preparing his attack. So, who were his likely accomplices?

The report concludes that the relationship between him and a convicted terrorist prisoner held in HMP Belmarsh, then Altcourse, was significant. Abdalraouf Abdallah who was himself imprisoned for a terrorist offence was in contact with Abedi in 2016 and 2017. The contact took the form of visits and phone calls. In the latter case these calls were made to and from Abedi via an illicit mobile phone found in Abdallah’s cell nearly three months before the bombing attack. Sir John found that although there was no evidence that a specific plot was discussed, Abdallah, confirmed by the court of appeal as providing emotional support for terrorists was a key person in Abedi’s radicalisation.

What response does this demand? Sir John suggests that prisons should pay more attention to the capacity for terrorism being supported from inside prisons. This was one of the key scenarios I identified in my independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons in 2016. There is no excuse for this blind spot then or now. The proliferation of mobile phones in prisons is now nearly out of control across the system. There is no doubt in my mind at all that radicalisation by phone is happening as I write. The ‘important role’ of radicalisers like Abdallah within prisons and through the walls is a clear and present danger.

While much of the focus is understandably on what went wrong, Sir John is also at pains to emphasise the skill and dedication of MI5 and CT police officers. It is obvious from my personal experience that none of the operatives who gave evidence, or their colleagues, get up in the morning with anything other than safeguarding our national security in mind.

That being said, we must guard against those in senior positions who say that it is inevitable people like Abedi will fall through the net. That rather depends on the strength of net. This report sets out clear failings in the handling of intelligence that may have contributed to one of the most heinous acts of terrorism this country has ever endured. These failures aren’t new, they are part of a dispiriting trend that needs urgent and decisive attention, not window-dressing and bromides about ‘lessons learned’.

The formal Inquiry has now concluded, but at the heart of this process are the bereaved families for whom there will never be closure.

In any case, the parents of eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos, who may have survived had the emergency response been better, don’t want closure. As her mother Lisa says: ‘We want to take her with us forever. I want to talk about her. I want to remember her. I want everyone to remember her.’

Her memory and that of all the victims is best served by making the safety net against evil as good as it can possibly be.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.