Could the Manchester Bombing have been Prevented?

Manchester Arena bombing, May 2017

Long answer: probably, with an ‘if’. Short answer: yes, with a ‘but’.

A recently-published report into the terrorism in Britain in the run-up to this year’s general election has found that the Manchester bombing might have been prevented. The review says that MI5 had planned to discuss the potential threat posed by the reported bomber Salman Abedi only a few days after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 23 people.

Where in the world is the Intelligence and Security Committee?

But let’s go back for a moment — this assessment was not conducted by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) but by David Anderson QC, a former reviewer of counter-terrorism laws who was tasked by the Home Office to review MI5 and Special Branch’s own internal reviews. Why didn’t the ISC do this, as they did with previous attacks such as the 7/7 London bombings and the murder of Lee Rigby? After all, it is their job, and not a private QC’s, to assess the effectiveness of the security services. Anderson’s own website admits that his role ‘appears to be without precedent, at least in the UK’.

Incredibly reassuring ISC logo

The main reason is that the ISC has only just been reformed after a more than 6-month gap. The Committee hadn’t actually met since April, despite the Manchester bombing in May and several other terrorist attacks. Three positions on the committee were vacant and it took this long for ‘the right people’ to be offered the job. This issue has barely been reported by the major media — most of whom seem unaware that the ISC even exists, let alone what it does (or at least, is supposed to do).

One of the supposed reasons for the delay was that Labour considered nominating backbencher Kelvin Hopkins for one of their seats on the committee. As reported by the Huffington Post:

Labour whips are understood to have advised the leadership that the security agencies, which vet all nominees, would be highly unlikely to approve the Luton MP because of his “leftwing” past.

As such the ISC, who are supposed to oversee the security services, are themselves overseen and vetted by the security services. It is perhaps no coincidence that in the midst of all this, Hopkins has been suspended by the Labour party while an investigation is carried out into alleged sexual misconduct. Particularly given that all he did was send a few notes and text messages over a period of many years that, while unprofessional and potentially sleazy or creepy, were not remotely explicit.

QCs running amok

David Anderson QC

With the ISC out of action, the responsibility for reviewing MI5’s and Special Branch’s own reviews fell on Anderson’s shoulders. Supposedly independent, he is an elite, establishment lawyer who spent several years (2011–2017) working for these Conservative governments reviewing terrorism legislation. As his employer, Brick Court Chambers, proudly announces on their website:

From 2011 to February 2017, David served on a part-time basis as the Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. His conclusions were influential in Parliament and cited repeatedly by the higher courts. The reports A Question of Trust (2015) and Bulk Powers Review (2016) have been described as blueprints for the Investigatory Powers Act 2016.

In other words, rather than being an independent expert who pushed back against the ever-rising tide of legal excuses for the security state, Anderson helped bring about the Snoopers’ Charter.

After this was achieved and Anderson stepped down in February, he was replaced by Max Hill, another QC who has prosecuted some of the most high-profile terrorism cases since 9/11. Among Hill’s greatest hits are the ‘Ricin Plot’ where one homeless illegal immigrant named Kamel Bourgass who didn’t have any ricin was supposedly the progenitor of a massive terrorist conspiracy. This case was even cited by Colin Powell in his notorious UN address about Iraq’s WMD, tying Bourgass to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. None of this was true, but Bourgass was convicted and sentenced to 17 years for conspiracy.

Hill’s other great claim to fame was prosecuting the 21/7 ‘bombing’ plot, where four men ‘attacked’ the London public transport system by setting off homemade detonators in tupperware boxes filled with a non-explosive mixture of peroxide and chapati flour. A fifth abandoned his rucksack, complete with its box of chapati flour, in a park.

At the trial, four of the men said in their defence that these weren’t bombs and the whole thing was an elaborate (albeit idiotic and horribly insensitive) prank or protest. The fifth changed his mind part way through the trial and pleaded guilty, resulting in all the men being convicted of conspiracy to murder. It probably didn’t help that in the middle of their trial two men set themselves on fire and crashed a Jeep outside Glasgow Airport in an apparent terrorist attack.

Glasgow Airport Attack, June 2007

The Review of Reviews

Anderson’s report is supposed to be an independent assessment of several internal reviews conducted by MI5 and the Counter-Terrorism Police. It is subtitled, ‘INDEPENDENT ASSESSMENT OF MI5 AND POLICE INTERNAL REVIEWS’. Despite this, in the foreword Anderson admits it was not an independent review:

I commend the leadership of both MI5 and CT Policing for their willingness to question the way things have been done in the past. To guard against any faltering of their resolve, I embedded myself for part of every week in Thames House and New Scotland Yard, where I attended internal meetings, reviewed drafts, teased out detail, challenged assumptions, called out complacency, drew attention to omissions, arbitrated differences and occasionally counselled greater boldness.
To act as a gadfly on the hide of the beast is not the same as to direct a fully independent review.

Sidenote: ‘The hide of the beast’ is extremely appropriate.

The line that has been quoted in every media article about this report states: ‘It is conceivable that the Manchester attack in particular might have been averted had the cards fallen differently.’ In typical lawyerly fashion, at the most critical point in the sentence Anderson falls back on a hackneyed metaphor — ‘had the cards fallen differently’. This is our first indication that Anderson’s work was not a serious review, but a piece of PR. It makes it simply sound unfortunate that 23 people got blown up.

Anderson’s report

At the start of Chapter 2 on ‘Pre-Attack Intelligence’ the report states, ‘It is not the function of this report to detail the intelligence that was available to MI5 and the police prior to the attacks’. In other words he’s offering a conclusion — that had the ‘cards fallen differently’ MI5 could have interdicted Abedi prior to the Manchester bombing — without first finding it in evidence. He wouldn’t be allowed to do this in court, but this is just a review of internal audits of the people responsible for stopping terrorist attacks, let’s not hold it to the same standard we would when someone is prosecuted for petty vandalism.

Anderson’s timeline for Salman Abedi and the information the security services had on him is as follows:

Salman Abedi was born in Manchester in 1994, to parents who had been granted asylum after fleeing the Gaddafi regime in Libya.
Salman Abedi was first actively investigated in January 2014, when it was thought that he might have been an individual who had been seen acting suspiciously with an SOI. Although he knew the SOI in question, he turned out not to have been the individual seen with him, and his record was closed in July 2014. He was classed as a closed SOI of low residual risk, given his limited engagement with persons of national security concern.
Salman Abedi was again opened as an SOI in October 2015, on the basis of his supposed contact with a Daesh figure in Libya, but he was closed as an SOI on the same day when it transpired that any contact was not direct.
Although he remained a closed SOI until the day of the attack, Salman Abedi continued to be referenced from time to time in intelligence gathered for other purposes. On two separate occasions in the months prior to the attack, intelligence was received by MI5 whose significance was not fully appreciated at the time. It was assessed at the time to relate not to terrorism but to possible non-nefarious activity or to criminality on the part of Salman Abedi. In retrospect, the intelligence can be seen to have been highly relevant to the planned attack.
Another tool promised well, but did not produce results in time. A process devised by MI5 to identify activity of renewed intelligence interest conducted by closed SOIs, using targeted data exploitation and other automated techniques, identified Salman Abedi as one of a small number of individuals, out of a total of more than 20,000 closed SOIs, who merited further examination. A meeting (arranged before the attack) was due to take place on 31 May 2017: Salman Abedi’s case would have been considered, together with the others identified. The attack intervened on 22 May.

Let’s take this brief synopsis one blow at a time.

Salman Abedi was born in Manchester in 1994, to parents who had been granted asylum after fleeing the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

Naturally, there is no mention that Abedi’s family were part of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who came to the UK after an MI6-sponsored assassination plot using the LIFG went wrong.

Salman Abedi was first actively investigated in January 2014, when it was thought that he might have been an individual who had been seen acting suspiciously with an SOI. Although he knew the SOI in question, he turned out not to have been the individual seen with him, and his record was closed in July 2014. He was classed as a closed SOI of low residual risk, given his limited engagement with persons of national security concern.

SOI stands for ‘subject of interest’, though there are different classes of SOIs. So, in plain English: MI5 have the resources to spend 6 months investigating someone simply because they’d apparently been seen ‘acting suspiciously’ with someone else they were interested in. Though in this case it turns out Abedi wasn’t the person seen with the SOI. But they made Abedi an SOI anyway. Keep this in mind for later.

Another issue is that this information must have come from an informant. If MI5/Special Branch surveillance on the SOI had seen him with someone else who was acting suspiciously then the task would have been to identify the second man. It’s only if an informant told them he saw the SOI acting suspiciously with Abedi (albeit mistaking someone else for Abedi) that this story makes any sense at all.

Salman Abedi was again opened as an SOI in October 2015, on the basis of his supposed contact with a Daesh figure in Libya, but he was closed as an SOI on the same day when it transpired that any contact was not direct.

So far that’s two instances of MI5 being interested in Abedi, but not for any particular reason. In the first case he wasn’t the person they thought he was (though it apparently took them 6 months to figure this out) and in the second it’s because if he did have any contact with this ‘Daesh figure in Libya’ it wasn’t direct. And for some reason this only took one day to figure out?

Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. The only way that’s possible is if MI5 had an informant or first-hand on-the-ground surveillance who could verify that for them. Electronic surveillance would only be able to tell MI5 if Abedi did have direct contact with the Daesh guy— it wouldn’t be able to prove the negative that he didn’t have direct contact with him. Only an informant or on-the-ground surveillance could do that. If MI5 had informants or close surveillance on the Daesh figure in Libya then there should have been no confusion about whether or not Abedi had direct contact with him. So this whole scenario doesn’t make much sense. Unless Abedi was the informant, but that doesn’t seem especially likely.

Obvious surveillance video of Abedi putting the bins out
Although he remained a closed SOI until the day of the attack, Salman Abedi continued to be referenced from time to time in intelligence gathered for other purposes. On two separate occasions in the months prior to the attack, intelligence was received by MI5 whose significance was not fully appreciated at the time. It was assessed at the time to relate not to terrorism but to possible non-nefarious activity or to criminality on the part of Salman Abedi. In retrospect, the intelligence can be seen to have been highly relevant to the planned attack.

This is extremely problematic, because one of these ‘two separate occasions’ has to be the widely-reported FBI warning to MI5 in January. Every report about this warning says that the FBI told MI5 that Abedi was planning an attack. If this is true then there is no way MI5 could have mistakenly believed that the information related to ‘non-nefarious activity or to criminality’. So either that widespread reporting on the FBI warning is wrong, or Anderson is participating in an MI5 cover-up.

Another tool promised well, but did not produce results in time. A process devised by MI5 to identify activity of renewed intelligence interest conducted by closed SOIs, using targeted data exploitation and other automated techniques, identified Salman Abedi as one of a small number of individuals, out of a total of more than 20,000 closed SOIs, who merited further examination. A meeting (arranged before the attack) was due to take place on 31 May 2017: Salman Abedi’s case would have been considered, together with the others identified. The attack intervened on 22 May.

Anderson’s report refers to this as a ‘data-washing exercise’ — a term I have never heard before and can find no definition for. Perhaps he means ‘data-mining’, like with Able Danger, a pre-9/11 DIA operation which identified Mohammed Atta and several other hijackers but which was shut down in mysterious circumstances.

Regardless, why was Abedi one of a ‘small number’ out of 20,000 closed SOIs to be flagged for further examination? All they knew is that he wasn’t the man seen acting suspiciously with the SOI in January 2014, and hadn’t had direct contact with the Daesh guy in October 2015.

Of course, MI5 should have had (and almost certainly did have) more information on Abedi, including about his frequent trips to Libya and that French intelligence believe he went on from Libya to Syria. Similarly, Anderson’s report does not mention any of the numerous warnings from Abedi’s family, mosque and community in Manchester.

Salman Abedi

In Conclusion, there are no conclusions

Anderson’s report provides few answers on what MI5 were actually doing in relation to Abedi, what they knew and when. But MI5 are sure they couldn’t have stopped the Manchester bombing. The question of whether they should have opened an investigation into Abedi in early 2017 was dismissed by the security service:

MI5 nonetheless came by intelligence in the months before the attack which, had its true significance been properly understood, would have caused an investigation into him to be opened. It is unknowable whether such an investigation would have allowed Abedi’s plans to be pre-empted and thwarted: MI5 assesses that it would not.

MI5 seem to believe that no matter what investigation they opened into Abedi, the Manchester bombing was inevitable. Without teasing out the ugly implications of that, from a certain point of view they may be right.

So we’re left with a contradictory view of MI5 — on the one hand they are apparently overworked, with Director-General Andrew Parker saying in October (before Anderson’s report was released) ‘We’ve seen a dramatic upshift in the threat this year. It’s at the highest tempo I’ve seen in my 34 year career. Today there is more terrorist activity, coming at us more quickly’.

On the other they don’t seem to lack for resources as they have the ability to spend six months investigating the wrong person and to run expensive ‘data-washing’ operations looking at people they’ve already assessed aren’t a threat. And they seem to think that counter-terrorism investigations are pointless because they wouldn’t have stopped the Manchester bombing. Even though that’s supposed to be MI5’s whole reason for being.

In short, it’s not easy to figure out what Anderson’s report is saying, except that MI5’s and the police’s internal audits were apparently very good and he got along with everyone jolly well and isn’t it nice. It seems that in the absence of the ISC the government turned to a man they knew they could trust, and he responded in kind. Not that the ISC would have necessarily fared any better — after all, they are vetted by MI5. Which begs the obvious question: how did Anderson get picked in the first place?