The troubling question we had to answer for Manchester

At the Regional Press Awards this year, an award for ‘impact journalist of the year’ was included for the first time to honour long-form and in-depth news coverage. The winner was Chris Osuh from the Manchester Evening News, for his 9,000-word piece looking into the circumstances which turned Salman Abedi into a terrorist who committed the Manchester bombing last May. Here, Chris tells the story behind one of the most powerful articles of the year:

Chris Osuh with journalist Nick Ferrari, who hosted the Regional Press Awards. Credit; Society of Editors

In the hours and days after the Manchester bomb, a number of readers told us they did not want to hear about Salman Abedi. The eyes of the world were on the city — journalists from all over — and it felt like the majority were most interested in the perpetrator.

At the Manchester Evening News we reported about Abedi, we had to, but we understood that in the shock and trauma of the immediate aftermath, our readers wanted our focus to be on the victims, about the way the city was responding to the incident, on hope and heroism in the midst of Manchester’s tragedy.

But we knew, that when the dust settled, there was a strong public interest in a proper examination of the troubling, central question: what made a young man, Manchester born and bred, kill 22 innocents in his own city?

The germ of my researches into the social, political and religious environment that produced Abedi came from personal knowledge of the Libyan community in Manchester, as someone who grew up in the city.

I knew that many Libyans in the city, of Salman Abedi’s father’s age, were anti-Gaddafi dissidents, that many had returned to fight against Gaddafi in the Arab Spring, lived in the south of the city, and attended Didsbury Mosque. It was clear Salman Abedi must have been part of this community and it was a community we had reported about at the time of the Arab Spring.

So, on May 24, I wrote an initial background piece about the Libyan dissident community, one that raised the question as to whether the fight against Gaddafi figured in the hinterland of the atrocity.

The day after that, I had a good look at Ramadan Abedi’s [Salman’s father’s] Facebook page. I recognised a picture on there as that of an al-Qaeda operative and prominent Libyan dissident who had been a close aide to Bin Laden.

I ran the comment beneath through Google translate and learnt that the comment praised this man — Anas Al Libi, one of the FBI’s Most Wanted and Bin Laden’s body double — as a ‘lion’, and coincided with his capture by US authorities.

I knew a Syrian lawyer, a native Arabic speaker, and I asked her to translate the page. I spoke to a series of security experts, from think-tanks and universities, about everything from Libyan militia factions, to Arab naming traditions as I sought to verify that it was indeed Ramadan Abedi’s Facebook page, that the translations were accurate and that comments that seemed significant were significant.

With identifiable pictures — including selfies — from Rusholme in Manchester to Tripoli in Libya, family pictures, and friends from across Greater Manchester, it could be verified it was genuinely Ramadan Abedi’s Facebook page, not least since postings dated back to 2011, long before the bomb. From examining this page, an early picture of Ramadan Abedi’s religious and political sympathies emerged, and in train, a picture of Salman Abedi’s earliest influences.

Simultaneously, Rob Irvine, then editor-in-chief, was asking for ideas on how the city might respond, and how we might ultimately go about examining Abedi’s motives.

The 9,000-word long-read produced by Chris appeared in print in September, and covered five pages

Different reporters fleshed out ideas pertinent to their knowledge — mine was most relevant to Abedi himself. I have friends and neighbours from diverse Manchester communities, understood second generation communities, and knew something of the Libyan dissident movement.

Sarah Lester, then executive editor digital was keen for me develop these ideas into a long read, and as I was based at court at the time, I was used to writing backgrounders and joining the dots.

So, I was given time off-diary to use those skills to bring together a definitive piece. All the raw materials for the piece could be found — once you knew what you were looking for, but they existed piecemeal, because there had never been a traumatic event on this scale that united all these different elements.

These elements were the history of the Libyan dissident community in Manchester and the UK, its historic opposition to Gaddafi, the widely reported link between one of these groups and al-Qaeda, the development of ISIS, US and UK government reports, Libyan journalism and the history of al-Qaeda’s presence in the city, plus biographical information about the streets Abedi grew up on, his schooling, and reports of others from the same streets who had been implicated in terror.

Colleagues from the MEN, who spoke to everyone from counter-terror officers to friends of the Abedis in the days after the bomb, provided me with bits and pieces that proved invaluable in completing the picture.

A contact with a background in citizen journalism and an interest in Middle East security would flag up old stories, long-buried on the internet, that were sometimes pertinent, sometimes tangential, but always in some way helpful.

I followed link after link, drew strand after strand together, and was able to map how close other key figures in Libyan dissident movements, and al-Qaeda, lived to the Abedi family, and the nature of their connections with them.

I spoke to Libyans from the Manchester community who knew the Abedis, former extremists, deradicalisation experts and drew all these researches together with what we knew of Abedi’s movements and how the police investigation was unfolding.

The piece was written over three months between other work — like quicker, everyday turnarounds, and an accompanying piece which looked specifically at the issue of radicalisation in jails and on the streets, plus pieces for our post-bomb unity campaign, ‘We Stand Together’, which campaigned for peace studies and conflict resolution to be taught in schools.

The piece on Salman Abedi’s background, after that period of research, writing and revision, was published in September. By then events were little less raw and we had spent weeks focusing on the stories of the victims, and what positives might emerge from the atrocity, so readers understood where we were coming from.

The headline, social sell and timing of publication was carefully worked on by our digital team to ensure it got read online, before it was serialised in print.

Only an inquest, trial or inquiry can lay claim to being an official version of the facts and even then these public hearings can produce only an approximation, with contradictions and unanswered questions, as investigators attempt to apply order, after the fact, to a chaotic jumble of facts.

At the Manchester Evening News, what we sought to do was paint a picture of what was known about the social, geo-political, religious and personal climates that had produced Abedi, and how these things converged in one night in a Manchester concert hall.

We sought only to set the context, ask the questions, and leave the reader a little better informed. The response from peers and local politicians was highly positive — and while some of our readership welcomed it, others didn’t want his motives put under the microscope.

But as the newspaper which reports and records Manchester’s story, it was something we had a duty to do. Figures-wise, the finished piece exceeded expectations, although it hadn’t been about that, or winning awards, which it was humbling and an honour to get! But it did show there is an appetite among local newspaper readers for in-depth journalism, using the freedom the internet gives for pieces of greater length.

It goes without saying that regional newspapers do not have the the resources of national newspapers. But where we do have the edge, if we are doing our jobs properly, is in our accumulated knowledge and understanding of the communities we serve, and our ability to write about them with feeling and honesty, without agenda or condescension.

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