Report: Manchester Attack Might Have Been Prevented

An independent assessment of the UK’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 and police reveals that the May 22 attack on Manchester Arena might have been prevented, had authorities appreciated the available intelligence.  

Manchester Aftermath
AP Photo / Rui Vieira
– Manchester Aftermath
A fan leaves the Park Inn hotel in central Manchester, England, May 23

David Anderson QC, the UK’s former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, penned the report dubbed “Attacks in London and Manchester.” In June, Anderson was hired by the UK’s home secretary to provide independent quality assurance to police and MI5 reviews of the four terrorist attacks on London and Manchester between March and June 2017.

The report states “it is conceivable that the Manchester attack in particular might have been averted had the cards fallen differently.”

Emphasizing that the report’s aim wasn’t to blame anybody but rather learn from mistakes, Anderson comes to the conclusion that MI5’s intelligence on the attacker Salman Abedi “can be seen to have been highly relevant to the planned attack” in retrospect.

MI5 had closed Abedi as a subject of interest (SOI) after an investigation in 2014. According to the report, the agency has a process of identifying subjects it previously lost interest in, but who merited further examination, “using targeted data exploitation and other automated techniques.”

Abedi had fallen into that category, and a meeting, which had been arranged before the May 22 attack, was due to take place on May 31 to reassess his case.

Anderson’s review team concluded, that the decision to close Abedi as a SOI was “sound on the basis of the information available at the time,” and that the significance of the intelligence MI5 handled in early 2017 “was not appreciated at that time.” 

Manchester Arena Explosions
Peter Byrne / PA via AP
– Manchester Arena Explosions
Armed police gather at Manchester Arena after reports of an explosion at the venue during an Ariana Grande gig in Manchester, England, May 22. Police say there are “a number of fatalities” after reports of an explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in northern England

The report also notes that despite Abedi’s status as a closed SOI, “an opportunity was missed by MI5 to place Salman Abedi on ports action following his travel to Libya in April 2017. This would have triggered an alert when he returned shortly before the attack, which could have enabled him to be questioned and searched at the airport by CT Policing under Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000.”

The reviewers emphasize, however, that “there is a high degree of inherent uncertainty in speculating as to what might or might not have been discovered if an investigation had been opened on the basis of the new intelligence; but that on the clear balance of professional opinion, a successful pre-emption of the gathering plot would have been unlikely.”

Manchester City Council recently pointed out that it felt let down by the UK government, describing its financial aid in the May 22 aftermath as insufficient. Theresa May subsequently pledged that Manchester would receive the financial support it needed, which could be up to £28 million, according to the city’s mayor Andy Burnham.