Terrorist Salman Abedi could have been caught carrying the switch for his suicide bomb when he arrived in the UK four days before the Manchester Arena terror attack, it has emerged.
Chairman of the public inquiry into the attack, Sir John Saunders, said MI5 missed a “significant” opportunity to take action that might have prevented Abedi carrying out the attack which left 22 people dead and hundreds injured on 22 May 2017.
In the months leading up to the attack, security services had obtained two key pieces of intelligence about Abedi but did not share them with local north west counter terrorism police, the inquiry found.
Had they done so, Abedi could have been subject to a “port stop” under Schedule 7 or the Terrorism Act 2000 when he flew into Manchester Airport from Libya on 18 May 2017.
Sir John noted problems between the systems used by MI5 and counter terror police to communicate with each other.
In an apparent reference to the National Common Intelligence Application, which has been exposed as flawed, he said: “Both the security service and counter terrorism policing accepted in their closed closing statements that there were difficulties with the current systems and were receptive to recommendations that might assist in reducing or resolving these difficulties.”
In the third and final volume of his public inquiry report, Sir John said it is a “real possibility” that Abedi had the switch for the bomb used in the attack in his possession at the airport.
The Sistema 45910 switch, later recovered by police from the scene at Manchester Arena, was manufactured in early March 2016 in Romania and then sold to wholesalers in Italy, Tunisia and Denmark. The Tunisian wholesaler supplied Libya, where Abedi was based, the report revealed.
Sir John said that while he accepted the security services’ opinion that it was “unlikely” Abedi would have had incriminating material on him when he passed through the airport, he noted “a possibility that he had the switch for the bomb on him at that time”.
The exact details of the intelligence MI5 had in its possession about Abedi before the attack has never been publicly disclosed and officers were permitted to give evidence during “closed” sessions of the inquiry, an approach criticised by the relatives of those killed.
However, Sir John said that he disagrees with a previous assessment, made by Lord David Anderson KC, that MI5 thought the intelligence was “to do probably with drugs or organised crime and not something to do with terrorism or national security”.
In his report, he said: “There was a significant missed opportunity to take action that might have prevented the attack.
“It is not possible to reach any conclusion on the balance of probabilities or to any other evidential standard as to whether the attack would have been prevented. However, there was a realistic possibility that actionable intelligence could have been obtained which might have led to actions preventing the attack.”
A security officer known as “Witness C” told the inquiry that he or she “had in mind the possibility of activity of pressing national security concern” when they assessed the intelligence, but did not immediately flag it with others.
“Given that Witness C had that in mind, s/he should have discussed it with other Security Service
officers straight away,” Sir John said.
“Moreover, s/he should have written the report on the same day, but in fact did not do so.
“In the context of national security, if there is a need to do something it is usually necessary to do it promptly.”
Sir John said he was unable to conclude definitely whether Abedi could have been stopped if security services had flagged their concerns to police services in the North West.
However, he said Abedi’s reentering the UK at Manchester Airport would have been “treated extremely seriously” and a number of actions could have been taken, including a “port stop”.
While Abedi was unlikely to have cooperated with officers, he may have been discouraged from the attack, Sir John said.
It could also have led to Abedi being followed to the Nissan Micra where he had been storing the explosives for his bomb, the report said.
In his 226-page report, Sir John offered a number of conclusions including his belief that Abedi’s family hold “significant responsibility” for the radicalisation of both Salman and his brother Hashem who is serving life in prison for his role in the attack.
Neither Abedi’s father Ramadan or mother Samia Tabbal cooperated with the inquiry and Salman’s elder brothers Ismail left the country despite being told to give evidence.
Ismail was “uniquely placed” to assist the inquiry but refused to cooperate citing his right to avoid self-incrimination, the report said.
Under current legislation, Sir John said there is a is a “potential gap” that allows witnesses to put “themselves beyond an inquiry’s reach without first threatening to do so” which needs to be addressed.
Despite numerous arrests in the UK, no other individual other than Hashem Abedi has ever been prosecuted for their involvement in the bombing, including those who bought chemicals for Salman via the internet.
In several cases, the Crown Prosecution Service decided the evidence available does not meet the threshold required for a realistic possibility of conviction.
Sir John said he agrees with that conclusion though he said the Greater Manchester Police should remain open.
“I can readily understand that there is considerable suspicion in the minds of many about the other individuals who were involved in the purchase of precursor chemicals,” he said.
“I am satisfied that Operation Manteline [the police investigation] carried out a robust investigation into each one of those individuals.
“I have seen nothing, in any of those cases, that leads me to doubt the decisions made not to charge those
individuals with involvement in the Attack.
“I make clear that I have not simply accepted the conclusions of Operation Manteline uncritically. I have made my own assessment.”
However, Sir John said it is “probable” that there were others in Libya who helped the Abedi brothers build the bomb and avoid detection while in the UK.
He also highlighted the role of Abdalraouf Abdallah, a convicted terrorist visited by Abedi in prison who Sir John described as a “key figure”.
Abdallah was seriously injured while fighting in Libya as a member of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade and on his return to Manchester was treated with “hero status” by “impressionable” young Muslim men in the area.
Sir John said he does not accept Abdallah’s description of himself as a “normal Islamic Muslim person who lives in the west”.
After Abdallah was forced to give evidence at the inquiry in November 2021, a prison officer came forward to say that Abdallah had offered much more detail about his knowledge of Abedi before the attack.
Abdallah said Abedi had talked about causing harm to others for “years” and specifically about “killing people in a public space”, the prison officer said.
But Abdallah claimed that because Abedi had never done anything, he had not taken it seriously, the prison officer said.
Abdallah then claimed to have been “shocked” when Abedi carried out the attack.
The Prison Service needs a scheme designed to address the risk that radicalised
prisoners present both to other prisoners and to visitors, Sir John said.
None of the educational establishments attended by Abedi were at fault in failing to identify him as at risk of being radicalised, Sir John said, but he said “more needs to be done” about schools and colleges sharing relevant information about vulnerable students.
While the mosques attended by the Abedis were not an “active” factor in their radicalisation, Sir John said the leadership of Didsbury mosque in south Manchester “did not pay sufficient attention to what went on at its premises and did not have policies in place that were robust enough to prevent the politicisation of
its premises, which I find occurred. It should have done.”
Acknowledging the burden on Britain’s security services, Sir John noted that 27 “major Islamist extremist” terror plots were disrupted between May 2013 and July 2019.
The inquiry heard that when terror risks ramped up in 2017, particularly around Islamic extremism, security officers in the North West were “struggling to cope.”
A security officer recalled telling a manager before the Manchester attack that they feared “something inevitably would happen at some point.”
A “closed” version of Volume Three of the inquiry report with more details around security services failings has been provided to the Government.
“I am sorry that I have not been able to reveal in my open Report everything I have
discovered,” Sir John added.
“I know that what I have revealed, while increasing public knowledge, will raise other questions that I have not been able to answer in Volume 3 (open).”
He added: “The wish to understand is a vital part of all our humanity and it is something that I have
also borne in mind at all times.
“I am grateful for the dignity that the bereaved families have demonstrated throughout the Inquiry.
“I hope that what I have been able to say publicly adds to their understanding of the circumstances in which their loved ones died.”