Britain’s domestic security agency has said it is “profoundly sorry” after a public inquiry found that the 2017 Manchester Arena terror attack might have been prevented, had MI5 acted promptly on a key piece of intelligence relating to the bomber.
In his third and final report, inquiry chair Sir John Saunders on Thursday said that had the information been quickly written up and further probes conducted, MI5 may have followed Salman Abedi back to a car loaded with explosives days before the attack.
Abedi, a 22-year-old university dropout and Islamist radical, killed 22 people and injured more than 100 others when he detonated a homemade device at Manchester Arena on May 22 2017, after a concert by US singer Ariana Grande.
At the time of the bombing, Abedi was one of roughly 40,000 “closed” subjects of interest on the radar of security services, meaning he had previously been treated as a potential threat but had not been under active investigation since 2014.
However, the inquiry found one specific piece of intelligence — the details of which have not been revealed for national security reasons — could “have led to actions which prevented the attack” had it been acted on.
These included the potential for intelligence officers to have followed Abedi back to the block of flats in south Manchester where his car was being used to store explosives, four days before the bombing.
“Having considered the CCTV evidence showing how [Abedi] behaved around the Nissan Micra on May 18 2017, I find that, in the event that security service officers had successfully followed [Abedi] to the Nissan Micra, the attack might have been prevented,” wrote Saunders.
In a statement accompanying his report, Saunders added that it had been a “significant missed opportunity”, constituting “a failure by the security service, in my view, to act swiftly enough”.
Responding to the report, MI5 director-general Ken McCallum said: “Had we managed to seize the slim chance we had, those impacted might not have experienced such appalling loss and trauma. I am profoundly sorry that MI5 did not prevent the attack.”
Saunders’ conclusions come after a previous inquiry ruled it was “conceivable” that the atrocity could have been prevented “had the cards fallen differently”.
Richard Scorer, a solicitor at Slater and Gordon representing 11 families at the inquiry, said Thursday’s report had been “deeply painful to read, but also eye-opening”.
“It is now very clear that there was a failure to properly assess key intelligence about Salman Abedi; a failure to put it into proper context; and — most catastrophic of all — a delay in acting on it,” he said.
The inquiry, which took evidence for 18 months from September 2020 and heard some sessions in camera because of national security concerns, found a “Petri dish” of factors had contributed to Abedi’s radicalisation.
They included extremist parents with known links to violent Libyan groups, visits by Abedi to war-torn Libya from 2011 onwards as a teenager, “prolonged disengagement” from mainstream education and a close tie to Abdalraouf Abdallah, a convicted terrorist.
In a series of recommendations, Saunders called for the tightening of routine monitoring of people visiting terrorists in prisons. The inquiry had heard that “acute” issues identified in 2017 around staffing and counter-extremism training in the jail system had “arguably” not been addressed by 2021.
Responding to the report, home secretary Suella Braverman said she was “committed to working with MI5, policing and partners to study the recommendations” and “do everything possible to prevent a repeat of this horrifying attack”.
The release of Thursday’s volume of the report from the public inquiry comes after it found in November that one of the attack’s victims would probably have survived but for “serious” failures in the response of emergency services.