The Guardian | Tuesday 5 December 2017
Report by David Anderson QC says intelligence about suicide bomber Salman Abedi before he struck was misinterpreted
Tributes left to victims of the Manchester Arena attack in May. Photograph: Jon Super/AFP/Getty Images
By Vikram Dodd and Alan Travis
The terror attack on Manchester that killed 22 people might have been prevented if different decisions had been made by MI5, an official report has found.
The security agency had intelligence about the suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, “whose true significance was not appreciated at the time”, a report by the barrister David Anderson QC said. He said in retrospect different decisions might have been taken, but it was unknowable whether Abedi would then have been stopped.
Reviews of the four UK terrorist attacks between March and June this year were overseen by Anderson to provide assurance to the government that the internal reviews by the police and MI5 were thorough enough.
He said they were, and decisions made by counter-terrorism officials were mostly justifiable, but his report contains questions for MI5 and police as they battle a rising terrorist threat.
Briefing reporters, Anderson said MI5 had made judgments about Abedi that were understandable, but with hindsight were wrong.
Salman Abedi. Photograph: Greater Manchester police/PA
The intelligence coming in about Abedi was thought to be to do with criminality, possibly gang activity, not terrorism, said Anderson.
When Abedi returned to the UK from Libya he should have been stopped at the airport but was not. Anderson said: “With the benefit of hindsight, intelligence was misinterpreted in 2017.”
The report was published shortly after the cabinet was briefed by Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, who said nine terrorist attacks had been prevented in the past year.
The report covered the attacks in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, which together left 36 people dead.
Three of the six attackers were on MI5’s radar, the report revealed. Khalid Masood, who attacked Westminster, and Abedi were former subjects of interest – no longer under active investigation.
Only Khuram Butt was under active MI5 investigation when he and two others attacked London Bridge in June.
In a Commons statement, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, said blame for the attacks lay squarely with those “whose cowardly acts killed 36 innocent people this year and those who encouraged them”.
She acknowledged that Abedi was “a closed subject of interest at the time of the attack” and so not under active investigation.
“In early 2017, MI5 nonetheless received intelligence on him, which was assessed as not being related to terrorism. In retrospect the intelligence can be seen to be highly relevant. Had an investigation been reopened at the time, it cannot be known whether Abedi’s plans could have been stopped. MI5 assesses that it would have been unlikely,” Rudd said.
The home secretary revealed that MI5 and counter-terrorism police were running “well over 500 live operations – a third up since the beginning of the year – involving roughly 3,000 subjects of interest. In addition, there are over 20,000 further individuals – or closed subjects of interest – who have been previously investigated, and may again pose a threat.”
Rudd indicated a shift in the government’s approach to counter-terrorism, promised she would ensure counter-terrorism policing had the funding it needed, and confirmed her intention to bring in new counter-terrorism laws next year.
The new emphasis includes much greater sharing of intelligence data between the security services and local authorities, with the first multi-agency panel to be piloted in Manchester. She said there would also be a new approach to managing domestic extremism, particularly extreme rightwing groups, where their activity met the definition of terrorism.
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said it was a matter of concern that Abedi had not been under active investigation. She also highlighted Anderson’s confirmation that counter-terrorism policing faced a 7% cut over the next three years and said resources were vital not just for counter-terrorism but also for the community policing that produced vital intelligence.
Anderson said the purpose of his report was not to “cast or apportion blame. But though investigative actions were for the most part sound, many learning points have emerged.”
But he said it was only the Manchester attack that, with hindsight, might have been preventable: “It is conceivable that the Manchester attacks in particular might have been averted had the cards fallen differently.”
Abedi struck on 22 May, and at the time was ranked by MI5 as a former subject of interest, investigated previously but now downgraded. An MI5 meeting to discuss the cases of Abedi and others was scheduled, but not until nine days after the devastating Manchester Arena attack.
A data assessment tool had flagged Abedi as possibly emerging as a bigger threat than had previously been thought. Anderson said: “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.”
In the weeks before the Manchester attack, an exercise to examine which of 20,000 former terror suspects were worth further inquiry identified Abedi as “one of a small number of individuals, out of a total of more than 20,000 closed SOIs [subjects of interest], who merited further examination”. But the meeting to discuss this was not scheduled until 31 May.
Abedi was first investigated in January 2014 and his case downgraded in July 2014. Anderson wrote: “Although he remained a closed SOI on 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 not to be [related 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.”
Dan Hett, whose brother Martyn died in the Manchester attack, said security services were constantly having to make complex decisions based on the facts they had. “Applying 20/20 hindsight to a difficult and stressful scenario is tempting but needs to be framed within the wider context of what they’re dealing with daily,” he said.
Butt was under active MI5 investigation when he struck with the two other London Bridge attackers, and was suspected of potential involvement in attack planning.
He first came to MI5 attention in 2015, when he was the main suspect feared to be planning an attack that triggered an investigation called Operation Hawthorn. Months after that operation started, Butt was downgraded from high to medium risk and assessed to have “strong intent but weak capability”.
Anderson wrote: “Coverage of various kinds was put in place over a period of almost two years … it did not reveal the plans of Khuram Butt and his two co-conspirators.”
Butt was an acolyte of the extremist preacher Anjem Choudary, himself jailed for urging support of Islamic State. But MI5 thought he was moving away from attack planning in the UK to wanting to travel to Syria to join Isis.
In 2016 Operation Hawthorn was suspended for several months to shift resources elsewhere, in the wake of the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
Butt was described as increasing his operational security and by 2017 worked at the Ummah fitness centre in east London, where he met his fellow attacker Rachid Redouane. He taught Qur’an classes to youngsters alongside his other co-conspirator, Youssef Zaghba.
Investigations by MI5 into Butt were suspended on 21 March because resources were needed for higher-priority investigations and suspects. Butt was downgraded from a threat likely to endanger national security to one who might pose a threat.
MI5, in the weeks before Butt and the two others struck at London Bridge, was still trying to gauge what danger he posed.
The reviews concluded that Masood, the Westminster attacker, and Darren Osborne, the Finsbury Park attacker, who was motivated by an extreme rightwing ideology, could not have been stopped, even with hindsight.
Anderson reviewed nine internal reports by MI5 and police, running to 1,150 pages. They had 126 recommendations, including better exploitation and assessment of bulk electronic data.
Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, said: “We need to make rapid progress in implementing the recommendations, many of which require new technology, better infrastructures and resources at a time when the threat from terrorism poses significant challenges for police and security services.”
The flurry of terrorist attacks this year came nearly four yearsafter the last atrocity to claim a life on British soil, in 2013, when Fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered in London. Since then, MI5 and police have stopped about 21 terrorist plots.