Suicide bomber Salman Abedi should have been identified as a ‘threat’ and challenged before he murdered 22 people in a terror attack at Manchester Arena in 2017, a damming report found today.
The chairman of the Manchester Arena Inquiry, publishing his first report into the atrocity which also highlights how transport police went for a kebab and a steward missed the chance to stop the bomber, said ‘disruptive intervention’ should have been taken against him – and lives could have been saved as a result.
Sir John Saunders said: “Had that occurred, I consider it likely that Salman Abedi would still have detonated his device, but the loss of life and injury is highly likely to have been less.”
The report was critical of SMG, the owners of the Arena, the stewarding company Showsec, and British Transport Police (BTP).
Sir John said the security arrangements for the Arena ‘should have prevented or minimised the devastating impact of the attack’.
“They failed to do so,” he said in the report.
The chairman found there were a number of missed opportunities to stop Abedi – or minimise the dreadful outcome of his murderous attack. The phrase, he said, meant ‘there was an opportunity to act that should have been taken’.
Abedi detonated a bomb in a rucksack as crowds left an Ariana Grande concert at the venue on May 22, 2017.
The attack claimed 22 lives – the youngest an eight-year-old girl. Sixty three people were seriously injured and 111 hospitalised.
The inquiry’s first published report, solely concerning the security arrangements in place at the Arena at the time of the bombing, ran to 204 pages. Evidence was heard at the inquiry between September last year and January.
SMG, the Arena’s owners, Showsec, and BTP were ‘principally responsible for the missed opportunities’, the report said.
Sir John also said he found there were ‘failings by individuals who played a part in causing opportunities to be missed’.
Abedi carried out hostile reconnaissance shortly after the Arena doors opened on the night.
He returned to the City Room foyer area, where he detonated the device, and hid for almost an hour in a CCTV blind spot on a mezzanine level between the entrance to JD Williams and the old McDonald’s.
The report found members of the public saw him and thought he looked suspicious. One raised his concerns with a member of Showsec staff – but ‘no effective action was taken in response’.
Sir John said that was a ‘striking missed opportunity’.
Abedi then walked down from his hiding place and detonated the bomb at 10.31pm.
Weighed down by the weight of his bomb-laden rucksack, Abedi walked past two BTP PCSOs and two members of Showsec staff beforehand.
Sir John said ‘these were further opportunities during which he might have been detected’ but said he did not believe it was fair ‘to criticise’ anyone at that stage.
The report was hugely critical of the existence of the CCTV blind spot – and CCTV procedures in general.
And the chairman, in summary, criticised the ‘inadequate attention’ paid to the national level of terrorist threat at the time by the organisations.
Sir John said had the Arena’s CCTV system been ‘properly monitored, there would have been heightened sensitivity to Abedi’s presence’.
Four BTP officers, the report said, ignored briefings to stagger their breaks during the concert and took ‘substantially longer’ than they should have done’. Two of them set off on a five-mile journey to get a kebab, the inquiry heard.
Sir John said there was a 36 minute-long period, as Abedi walked around, where there was no policing presence.
A fifth more senior officer, a sergeant, should have been there and Sir John said he found there was a ‘lack of clear leadership on the ground’ on the part of BTP.
“All five officers allocated to the Arena that night failed to follow clear instructions and do what was expected of them in important respects,” he said in the report.
He said they didn’t realise they ‘needed to be alert to the possibility of a terrorist attack’.
BTP, as an organisation, was ‘principally responsible for this defect in the officers’ attitudes, Sir John said.
There were no BTP officers in the City Room blast zone between 10pm and 10.31pm.
Sir John said there should have been at least one and said responsibility for that lay with the officers and BTP as an organisation.
“The mere presence of a BTP officer in the City Room may have deterred Salman Abedi from mounting any attack, although I consider this unlikely,” Sir John said.
“In any event, all BTP officers should have been vigilant.”
The report found BTP failed to give adequate consideration to the threat from terrorism when planning the deployment of officers to police the Arena – and failed to communicate or coordinate with SMG and Showsec ‘immediately before, during and after events’.
“Contrary to their briefing, no BTP officer was present in the City Room in the 30 minutes prior to the end of the concert,” the report found.
“Contrary to their briefing, the BTP officers who attended took breaks substantially and unjustifiably in excess of what they were permitted to. As a result, there were no BTP officers in the public areas of the Victoria Exchange Complex when Salman Abedi walked to the City Room for the final time.”
Abedi returned to the City Room at 9.33pm – just over an hour before he detonated the bomb.
A member of the public, Christoper Wild, raised concerns about him to a Showsec steward, Mohammed Agha, who was 19 at the time.
Mr Wild and his partner were picking up their 14-year-old daughter and her friend from the Ariana Grande concert.
Giving evidence, Mr Wild said of Abedi: “He was keeping out of view and that’s another reason why I thought it was strange. I started to think about things that have happened in the world and I just thought it could be very dangerous.”
Asked what he thought Abedi might do, Mr Wild replied: “Let a bomb off.”
Giving evidence, Agha denied’ fobbing off’ the man, but the report found it was a ‘missed opportunity’ to stop the murderer.
Sir John said Showsec failed to train Mr Agha adequately.
“Principal responsibility for this missed opportunity lies with Showsec, who failed adequately to train Mohammed Agha. Mohammed Agha also bears personal responsibility for this missed opportunity,” he said.
Sir John said in his report the ‘most striking missed opportunity’ was the conversation between Mr Agha and Mr Wild, which he said the steward should have reported.
The report was also critical of SMG’s ‘inadequate’ CCTV system.
“Had the blind spot been eliminated either by increased CCTV or by patrols, Salman Abedi’s activity would have been identified,” said the chairman.
The report found it was ‘likely’ SMG breached the Security Industry Authority’s licensing regime in relation to CCTV operators.
And it said the blind spot – in place ‘for some years’ – should have been apparent’ to SMG prior to May 2017.
“While it is not possible to determine exactly what would have happened had the blind spot been addressed, if it had been, it is likely that the attack would have been disrupted, deterred or, at the least, fewer people would have killed and injured,” said Sir John.
“SMG’s general approach to the use of CCTV was inadequate.”
Showsec was criticised for the ‘absence of an adequate security patrol’ between 10pm and 10.30pm pre-egress, before crowds were leaving.
The mezzanine level where Abedi was hiding was ‘not considered to be a very important part of the check’, the report said.
“An adequate security patrol of the whole City Room would have included a counter-terrorism element on the mezzanine,” Sir John said.
“The pre-egress checks was not an adequate security patrol. It should have been.”
The report found Arena’s owners SMG and Showsec both ‘failed to take steps to improve security at the Arena that they should have taken’.
“That does not mean that they deliberately risked the safety of event-goers,” it read.
“Further, not taking those steps did save the companies money, but again that does not mean that they knowingly risked the safety of event-goers to increase their profits.”
SMG’s general written risk assessment, the report found, was inadequate, as was its specific risk assessment for the concert.
“SMG’s approach to risk assessment as it related to terrorism was inadequate,” Sir John said.
“SMG and Showsec should each have taken into account the steps being taken by the other when conducting risk assessments. The necessary level of communication, coordination and co-operation was not achieved.”
The report, on the part of SMG and Showsec, criticised an ‘insufficiently robust system for ensuring that information about suspicious behaviour was always passed on and acted upon’.
In summary on the missed opportunities, Sir John said: “It is difficult to reach a safe conclusion on what the consequences of the missed opportunities were, if any.
“No one knows what Salman Abedi would have done had he been confronted before 10.31pm.”
The report said that had a police officer been in the City Room, Mr Wild would probably have approached that officer instead of steward Mr Agha.
But Sir John said: “An approach by a police officer may have caused Salman Abedi to leave the City Room, or he may have detonated his device. In either case, it is likely that fewer people would have been killed.”
The report found had stewards reported the suspicions raised about Abedi, the Arena’s exit doors could have been closed immediately and those inside the Arena bowl wouldn’t have been able to access the City Room.
Sir John said: “I am satisfied that there were a number of missed opportunities to later the course of what happened that night. More should have been done.
“The most striking missed opportunity, and the one that is likely to have made a significant difference, is the attempt by Christopher Wild to bring his concerns about Salman Abedi, whom he had already challenged, to the attention of Mohammed Agha.”
He said ‘no effective steps were taken as a result of the efforts made by Christoper Wild’.
The report identified a series of recommendations for the future – including nine the chairman said he would ‘monitor’ on improvements to systems and practices on the part of Showsec, SMG, British Transport Police and the Home Office.
The general recommendations concerned ‘guarding against complacency’ and being alert to possible terror attacks.
Sir John said ‘any and all’ suspicious behaviour by event-goers should be noted, reported and action taken immediately.
And there were detailed recommendations to the government over its planned new ‘Protect Duty’ legislation – which builds on the proposals for Martyn’s Law, spearheaded by Figen Murray whose son died in the Arena attack.
Private and public owners of venues and sites currently have no obligation to act on free advice given to them from specialist counter-terrorism advisers about threats of a terrorist attack and how to mitigate the risk.
The legislation would be ‘primary legislation to impose a duty upon those who ought to be responsible for the safety of the public when they are in a publicly accessible location’.
Sir John said his ‘overarching impression’ was that ‘inadequate attention was paid to the national level of the terrorist threat by those directly concerned with security at the Arena’
“The threat was severe,” he said in the report.
“That meant that a terrorist attack was highly likely.
“None of those directly concerned with security at the Arena on May 22, 2017 considered it a realistic possibility that a terrorist attack would happen there.
“If SMG had paid greater attention to the threat level, it would have taken more steps to mitigate the danger of a terrorist attack in the City Room.”
The same, he said, could be said for Showsec.
The chairman, in overview, said Abedi ‘chose a place where members of the audience were meeting up with parents and others who had come to collect them’.
“It was a wicked act,” he said. “Inspired by the distorted ideology of the so-called Islamic State. It was designed to attack our way of life and freedoms we enjoy. We cannot allow fear of further terrorist attacks to achieve that.”
Sir John acknowledged acts of bravery ‘by those who came to the assistance of the dying’.
“Many of those rescuers bear the scars of what they experienced,” he said in his preface.
“None of those affected will forget that night and nor must we. Those events are the reason for this inquiry and have remained central to it.
“The audience was principally made up of young people. Salman Abedi killed himself in the explosion, but he intended that as many people as possible would die with him.”
The inquiry’s next two reports – to be published at later dates yet to be agreed – will consider the response of the emergency services to the attack, radicalisation and whether the attack could have been prevented.
Sir John stressed the ‘responsibility’ for the attack lay with Salman Abedi and his brother Hashem.
But he said more needed to be done to provide greater protection for members of the public from terror attacks.
“There remains a risk of further attacks which requires changes to be made without delay,” he said.