The Manchester Arena terror attack might have been prevented if MI5 had acted on key intelligence received in the months before the attack, an inquiry has found.
Suicide bomber Salman Abedi killed 22 people and injured hundreds more when he detonated his homemade device at an Ariana Grande concert in May 2017.
But prior to the attack, two key pieces of information about Abedi were assessed by security services and were deemed unrelated to terrorism.
But inquiry chairman Sir John Saunders said having heard from MI5 witnesses at the hearings into the May 2017 atrocity – that killed 22 people and injured hundreds – he considered that did not present an ‘accurate picture’.
One officer admitted they considered a possible pressing national security concern on one of the pieces of intelligence but did not discuss it with colleagues straightaway and did not write up a report on the same day.
In his 207-page report, Sir John said: ‘The delay in providing the report led to the missing of an opportunity to take a potentially important investigative action.
‘Based on everything the Security Service knew or should have known, I am satisfied that such an investigative action would have been a proportionate and justified step to take. This should have happened.
‘Although I accept that Salman Abedi demonstrated some security consciousness and that this might have affected the efficacy of the investigative action that I have identified, there was the real possibility that it would have produced actionable intelligence.’
It could have led to Abedi, 22, being followed to the parked Nissan Micra where he stored the explosive and later moved it to a city centre rented flat to assemble, Sir John said.
The chair added that if MI5 had acted on the intelligence received then Abedi also could have been stopped at Manchester Airport on his return from Libya four days before the attack.
Sir John said: ‘It is also possible that a stop may have had a deterrent effect or led to investigative steps. There is a possibility that he had the switch for the bomb on him at that time.
‘The chances of a port stop 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.’
Neither ‘Piece of Intelligence 1’ or ‘Piece of Intelligence 2’ were shared with North West Counter Terrorism Police, the inquiry heard.
In March 2014, Abedi became a Subject of Interest (SOI) for MI5 over phone contact with another SOI but his case was closed four months later when he was deemed ‘low risk’.
He was also identified on six occasions as a direct or indirect contact of suspected extremists from December 2013 to April 2017.
During the inquiry, a number of MI5 witnesses – including a senior officer known as Witness J – and detectives from North West Counter Terrorism Police gave evidence behind closed doors.
The secret sessions – which included evidence about the two pieces of intelligence received months before the attack – were held so as not to compromise national security and the inner workings of MI5 and counter-terror police.
Sir John’s report on the circumstances surrounding the bombing at the end of an Ariana Grande concert also focused on the radicalisation of Manchester-born Abedi, of Libyan descent.
Abedi’s brother, Hashem Abedi, 25, was jailed for life after he was convicted of assisting the plot.
Sir John concluded: ‘The Abedi family holds significant responsibility for the radicalisation of Salman Abedi and Hashem Abedi.
‘That includes their father Ramadan Abedi, mother Samia Tabbal and elder brother Ismail Abedi, each of whom has held extremist views.’
He said their views ‘influenced the development’ of the brothers’ world views and it was ‘likely’ Salman and Hashem also ‘fed off each other’s ideas and radicalised each other’.
Convicted terrorist Abdalraouf Abdallah, a childhood friend of Abedi, also had an ‘important role’ in his radicalisation while another Manchester associate Raphael Hostey – an Islamic State member killed in a drone strike in Syria – was also ‘likely to have been an influence’.
Evidence into the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the atrocity was heard in the city between September 7 2020 and February 15 2022.
Thursday’s third and final report into the terror attack followed two earlier reports.
The first was issued in June 2021 and highlighted a string of ‘missed opportunities” to identify Abedi as a threat before he walked across the City Room foyer and detonated his shrapnel-laden device.
Sir John’s second report last November delivered scathing criticism into the emergency services response to the bombing.
He ruled that care worker John Atkinson, 28, would probably have survived but for the failures on the night, while there was a ‘remote possibility’ the youngest victim, eight-year-old Saffie-Rose Roussos, could have lived with different treatment and care.
Home Secretay 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.’
Security minister Tom Tugendhat added: ‘Today we remember the 22 people who lost their lives in the Manchester Arena attack. Our thoughts are with their families, and all those whose lives were changed forever as a result of this appalling act of terror.
‘The Government, our security services and emergency services are wholly committed to learning the lessons of this unspeakable tragedy. We will do everything in our power to continue strengthening our country’s defences, and to keep the British people safe.
‘I’m immensely grateful to all those who contributed their expertise, knowledge and experiences to the Inquiry, and to Sir John Saunders and his team for their thorough and meticulous work throughout the Inquiry.’
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