Counter-terrorism police and MI5 failed to communicate information about the Manchester Arena bomber after the rollout of a flawed IT system in the months before the attack.
The Manchester Arena Inquiry today found MI5 missed a “significant” opportunity to prevent Salman Abedi carrying out the attack which left 22 people dead, as it failed to share vital information with counter-terror police officers.
Information was not shared because of problems with the “systems used” by security services and counter-terrorism police, according to the chairman of the inquiry.
The third and final report published by former high court judge Sir John Saunders looked at whether MI5 and counter-terror police could have prevented bomber Abedi from carrying out the atrocity.
Sir John detailed how, during the inquiry’s investigation, “several examples of communication failures have been found” and concluded that these “problems” emerged “from the systems used by the security service and counter terrorism policing to communicate with each other”.
The report did not name the system the officers were referring to, but the criticisms of the technology were strikingly similar to those of counter terrorism IT system the National Common Intelligence Application (NCIA) – the primary tool responsible for storing, managing, and sharing intelligence in Manchester at the time of the attack.
A 2015 draft foreword to a confidential handbook for officers using the NCIA, seen by i, states the system is “directly connected” to MI5 and will “be the primary route for communication with our key security partner”. The program promised to “make a significant contribution” to the joint working between counter-terror police and MI5.
But a former counter-terror officer who used the system at the time of the Manchester bombing told i the NCIA was “the wrong piece of equipment, at the wrong time.”
They said: “The sharing issues with the system were there for everyone to see and this, in my opinion, is indicative of those issues.”
Officers had been warning as early as 2013 about the very problems identified in the inquiry, according to an investigative report by BuzzFeed News and BBC Newsnight carried out last year.
In Sir John’s report, he said the security service and counter-terror police had accepted “there were difficulties” with the current systems used.
“The general view of witnesses was that matters had improved already, since the Attack,” he said. “However, there is undoubtedly still more that can be done, and I will make some recommendations that I hope will assist.”
The BuzzFeed and BBC Newsnight investigation cited hundreds of pages of confidential police emails, intelligence files, and internal police memos, along with interviews with five sources inside Britain’s counterterrorism police, and found that the NCIA was plagued by crashes and blackouts, and bogged down by mass duplications that made sifting through crucial intelligence almost impossible.
Officers repeatedly warned that sharing intelligence between agencies was a “critical” problem which risked “intelligence failure.” They repeatedly deemed it “not fit for purpose” but claimed their concerns were brushed aside.
One officer who spoke to BuzzFeed News who used the NCIA in the immediate aftermath of the bombing to help determine whether another attack was imminent came to believe the NCIA was a reason why police did not prevent the bombing in the first place.
“A terrorist attack is a perfect storm when a dozen different factors go wrong at the same time,” the officer said. “But in Manchester, NCIA made up 11 out of 12 factors.”
At the time of reporting, a spokesperson for UK Counter Terrorism Policing said in a written statement that the NCIA “is constantly being improved” and the “suggestion that concerns are ignored is simply not true.”
“Following the 2017 attacks CT Policing and partners undertook a significant review of UK Counter Terrorism, leading to 104 recommendations for improvement,” the statement said. “The NCIA has been an essential tool in helping us achieve this.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office added in a statement that the NCIA had “greatly enhanced” authorities’ ability to respond to the Manchester bombing and “manage the huge volumes of intelligence.” They added that the public inquiry into the Manchester bombing would decide whether the data systems they used “impacted their ability to prevent the attack.”
In the months before the attack, MI5 received two pieces of intelligence that were highly relevant to the plot and failed to share them with counter-terror police officers, Sir John concluded.
The first piece of intelligence, he said, was not passed on by an MI5 officer accompanied by sufficient contextual detail and, had this happened, it is likely that further investigative steps would have been taken in relation to Abedi. The chairman said there is a “material possibility” it would have led to investigators learning more about Salman Abedi’s activities had it been shared promptly.
The second piece of intelligence “gave rise to the real possibility of obtaining information that might have led to actions which prevented the attack,” the chairman said.
Sir John said the fact that intelligence was not shared was of “concern” and proved “a further example of a communication breakdown between the Security Service and CTPNW.”
Responding to the report, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: “Today is a difficult day. On 22 May 2017, an act of pure evil took the lives of 22 people at Manchester Arena. My thoughts are with their loved ones and all those who had their lives changed forever.
“Over the past three years, the Manchester Arena Inquiry has carefully analysed critical evidence to ensure vital lessons are learned. I am grateful to Sir John Saunders and his team for their thorough and considered approach.
“I am committed to working with MI5, policing and partners to study the recommendations. Together we will do everything possible to prevent a repeat of this horrifying attack.”
MI5 Director General Ken McCallum said he was “profoundly sorry that MI5 did not prevent the attack”, adding: “I deeply regret that such intelligence was not obtained.”
The public report does not say what the intelligence was and much of MI5’s evidence to the inquiry was heard in secret for reasons of national security, meaning the report is limited in what it discloses.
“I am sorry that I have not been able to reveal in my open Report everything I have discovered,” Sir John said. Adding: “I have only permitted my findings to remain undisclosed to the public when I have been persuaded that to say more would damage national security.
“Throughout the Inquiry I have had in mind the importance of preventing terrorist attacks, and nothing must be done by this Inquiry to undermine that.”
Head of Counter Terrorism Policing, Matt Jukes, promised to “act quickly” on the inquiry findings and insisted officers will remain “relentless in our work to keep the public safe”.
In a statement he said: “I am sorry that, despite our determined partnership (with MI5), we did not stop the loss of life, nor the injury and trauma that happened close to here, almost six years ago.
“I want those who have lost loved ones to know that their loss has steeled us to ensure our counter-terrorism partnerships are stronger, faster and more effective.
“And I pledge that alongside MI5 that we will act quickly to apply the findings published today and that we remain relentless in our work to keep the public safe.”