Missed opportunities: Manchester Arena Inquiry volume 3
Nick Aldworth of Risk2Resolution on volume 3 of the Manchester Arena Inquiry
As I review the implications of Sir John Saunders’ third and final part of his inquiry into what happened on that awful night, I first want to pay tribute to all those affected by it. I’ve met several, and a few have become friends. Each has reacted to in their own way. Some have become ‘public property’ and others have grieved quietly in anonymity. There is no right or wrong way to deal with the events of that night, only the way that is right for them. All of them, are the best of us and we should hold them close to our hearts forever.
As always, I refuse to give this terrorist a name. He lived his life as a nobody and deserves to be treated as such in death, along with his perverted beliefs.
The first duty of every state is to protect its citizens from harm. On 2 March 2023, Sir Ken McCallum, the director general of MI5, made a public apology, acknowledging that his organisation had failed to do that. It was a good apology and while I’ve never met him, it felt honest and genuine. I think people needed to hear that. Conversely, the press statement from counter-terrorism policing felt uncomfortably self-serving. 2 March was about upfront apologies, not about describing how righteous you were by visiting the glade of light before receiving His Honour’s report.
Understandably people’s focus will be on the headlines and, I dare say, disproportionately focussed on ‘the secret stuff’, such is the way of things. But the genesis for this terrorist’s attack was seeded a decade or more before 2017. The first failing was owned by many organisations.
In 2010, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, an office within MI5, produced a regional report that highlighted that young men of Libyan heritage in the north-west were at risk of being radicalised by older men. Many of these older men had been fighting for extreme Islamist beliefs in Libya, and one such person was the father of the Arena terrorist, although the report did not name individuals.
I have seen many of these JTAC reports and while they are commonly marked as Secret (which automatically reduces their distribution), they are commonly so vanilla as to be less helpful than something you might see in a good Sunday paper centre-spread or a Panorama exposé. Such reports become wallpaper, and nobody chooses to own them. The inquiry failed to find evidence of any action being taken. That doesn’t surprise me, I can’t even imagine that it was even seen by the right people, who might have had the vision to create actions from it. Counter-radicalisation starts in the community, it starts in education, and it starts in social society. However, in 2010, the Arab Spring had started, and the world was glad to see the back of despots and dictators.
I suspect that few in authority felt that the terrorist’s father, who had been fighting Gaddafi, was on the wrong side, after all the West had been seeking Gaddafi’s demise for decades. Perhaps that tainted people’s thinking about the threats that the terrorist’s family posed.
His father subsequently moved to Libya and the inquiry saw extensive evidence of familial association with fellow extremists, as well as public expressions of support for such aberrations as suicide bombings.
There is a good deal in the report about the terrorist’s route to radicalisation that time and space does not allow for, but the conclusion is that he was almost certainly radicalised, in great part, by his family.
From 2010 onwards, the inquiry found that the terrorist had multiple direct and indirect contacts with subjects of interest. It’s fair to say that of themselves none of these contacts seemed to be of significance. Witness J, a senior MI5 manager, presented evidence that said they didn’t consider the accumulation of such contacts, presented any likely increase in threat from the Arena terrorist. That might be true, but what seems to have been lacking is a coherent inquisitiveness across the agencies.
After the first contact, there was an imprint of the terrorist in MI5’s records, and I still fail to understand why at every subsequent contact, someone didn’t look backwards and question why this name kept coming up. Witness J was questioned repeatedly about whether MI5 had sufficient resources for the task that it had across these years, and their repeated answer to that question was, yes.
One of the principal contacts that the terrorist had, was with a friend who had been convicted of facilitating travel to Syria. He was known to have visited this person in prison but, what was not identified until after the attack, was the extent of contacts that had occurred between the two on a contraband phone held by the prisoner in prison. A failure by CT Policing to properly interrogate phone data, that might have identified the was extraordinary, in my opinion.
In 2015, the Arena terrorist briefly became a subject of interest in relation to a terrorist investigation, not focussed on him, as the principal. The investigation only lasted a matter of weeks before being closed. At this point, there was more than enough information on the terrorist to justify them being referred to the Prevent Scheme. However, Witness J reported that at this time, referrals were at the discretion of the investigation officer, in collaboration with the police. There is no record of whether such consideration was ever given, but the terrorist was certainly not referred.
I didn’t find Witness J to be a particularly believable witness. As Sir John subsequently highlighted, what you get from a corporate witness is sometimes different to what you get when you speak to front-line operatives. I’ll hazard a guess that if you submitted a FOIA request about how many closed SOI were referred to Prevent between 2010 and 2017, the answer will be few, if any. My experience of investigators is that it’s not in their culture to think about disruptions. They are too often focussed on preserving intelligence sources or pursuing best evidence by letting the case develop.
Again, Sir John was clear that the terrorist may not have engaged with Prevent, his brother didn’t, but research does show that terrorists are deterred when they believe they are being observed; more of that later.
In the open hearing, Witness J, referred to two pieces of intelligence that he wasn’t prepared to discuss. He stated that at the time of their receipt, they were not seen to be relevant, but after the May 2017 attack, it was obvious that they were highly relevant. These two pieces of information became the centre of the closed hearings considerations.
Sir John reported back on these two pieces of information and referred to them as Piece of Intelligence 1 and Piece of Intelligence 2.
The advantage of the closed hearing is that it allowed Sir John to hear evidence from more junior staff to Witness J. They presented a different perspective to the senior manager, with both having been considered as relevant at the point of receipt. Piece of intelligence 1 was not passed to the police, and Sir John offered criticism of this, but felt that it was unlikely to have affected the outcome.
Piece of intelligence 2, similarly was not passed to the police, even though the receiving officer believed it was of pressing national-security concern. Nor was the information progressed inside MI5 as swiftly, and with the right amount of context that it should have accompanied it.
Other officers did seek to progress the information, but by then it was too late.
Sir John concludes that had Piece of Intelligence 2 been processed in a timely and effective way, it might have led investigative actions being taken. These could have been surveilling the terrorist to a car in which explosive were contained, of undertaking a stop and search of them at the airport, when they returned from Libya only four days before the attack. The significance of this latter action is that it is more probable than not, that the terrorist had the bomb’s initiator switch on them when they came through the airport, having acquired it during their visit to Libya.
It was these omissions that Sir Ken apologised for.
Like so much of this inquiry, Part 3 is full of ifs, buts, and maybes, but without any certainty that any of them would have stopped the murder of 22 people on 22 May 2017. It is of course completely understandable that those who were so brutally affected by this attack, will see more certainty than perhaps the reports project. Similarly, there is little in this inquiry that says those missed opportunities wouldn’t have stopped the attack; history is written as it is, not how it could have been, and we must accept the reality of what happened and be brave enough to recognise it could happen again.
Like Andrew Roussos, the father of the attack’s youngest victim Saffie-Rose, I dislike the hackneyed phrase ‘lessons will be learned’. When a corporate leader downplays the significance of intelligence at a public inquiry, only to be corrected by their junior staff, you’re not left with confidence that the need for learning has even been recognised.
Sir John has been fearless in his pursuit of the truth, I worry about whether the intelligence services and the police will be as fearless in their pursuit of sustainable and enterprise-wide improvement. The scale of failure identified in Part 2 of the inquiry is such that I genuinely struggle to have confidence that the improvement that is needed, will reach every corner of policing in the UK. I do trust Sir John’s pursuit of improvement, and I hope that this retired judge’s reach, and involvement stays with us for a long time to come.
My critique of this part of the inquiry has been less detailed than other article I’ve written, the inner workings of MI5 are not my specialist subject, but there is also something about failure fatigue getting the better of me. If you’ve lived and breathed the last, almost, 6 years, as I have, you are probably as tired and as frustrated at having our collective failings laid bare, seemingly without any light at the end of the tunnel.
I don’t feel hope for the future as far as policing is concerned. It is so riddled with issues now, that it’s hard to see it being able to focus on much more than its existential existence. I suspect the same is true for some elements of the other emergency services. I don’t know about MI5 but, as I say above, senior leaders who deny problems, don’t generate confidence.
But there is a glimmer of hope in the private sector. The hope that Martyn’s Law will bring meaningful and sustainable reform to a sector that needs it. Martyn’s Law won’t stop terrorist attacks, but it is going to reduce their likelihood of success. That must be something to celebrate out of all this darkness.
Georgina Bethany Callander
Martyn Hakan Hett
Megan Joanne Hurley
Olivia Paige Campbell-Hardy