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The public inquiry into the 2017 Manchester bombing recently published its full and final report. In this episode, we take a deep dive into the Inquiry’s findings to find out what really happened. We look at a dubious expert witness, an even more dubious timeline of events, what in the Ariana Grande MI5 were up to, and why MI6’s covert operations in Libya became an invisible war.

First, I guess we should say what this Inquiry was, because while it bore some similarities to the 7/7 London bombings inquests, they’re supposed to be two different things. An inquest determines how someone died – or a bunch of people, if they all died in the same incident. Sometimes they look at whether the person or people could have survived if things had been done differently, either before or after the incident that killed them. Legally, you’re obliged to hold inquests in the UK whenever anyone dies in an unusual way or the cause of death is unknown.

Of course, this doesn’t actually happen – there was never an inquest into the death of David Kelly, they just pretended it was a suicide and moved on. There wasn’t an inquest into the deaths of the four alleged London bombers, the inquests into the other 52 deaths simply concluded it was obvious how the four accused had died. More recently there’s Dawn Sturgess, the supposed novichok victim in Amesbury. An inquest is supposed to be held within 6 months of the coroner becoming aware of the death, but here we are, five years later, and despite immense pressure from her family, the inquest has so far opened, been suspended until 2024 and no one has said anything else about it.

The British government likes to play fast and loose with inquests and inquiries. There were calls for an inquest into David Kelly’s death – we got an inquiry instead, one ordered before it was even certain that Kelly was the dead body found in the woods. With the 7/7 bombings there were calls for an inquiry, Blair called that a ‘ludicrous diversion’, and they held inquests instead (several years later). The inquests were initially going to ignore the role of MI5, foreknowledge, preventability and so on but the bereaved families kicked off, and we actually got more information than we likely would have got through an inquiry. A pack of lies, to be sure, but more information.

As to the Salisbury and Amesbury poisonings, obviously Yulia and Sergei Skripal are still alive (as far as we know, since no one has heard from them since the summer of 2018). The only person who died was Dawn Sturgess, whose symptoms don’t match novichok poisoning and the whole story about the perfume bottle is obviously not true. But the British government need her to have been novichoked, that way her death can stand in place of the Skripals and we can keep hating Russians. So they started an inquest, but then announced a public inquiry, so the inquest has been suspended until the inquiry takes place, and it isn’t clear if we’re going to get an inquiry instead of an inquest, or what the hell is going on.

When it came to the Manchester bombing – i.e. the bombing of the Manchester Arena during an Ariana Grande concert in the run-up to the 2017 election – they again opened inquests, adjourned them, and then held them in secret (it seems), before appointing the same coroner to head up a public inquiry. It’s a messy situation, as inquiries don’t require people to tell the truth or back up their claims like they might have to do in court, the standards of evidence are less than that in a trial or inquest.

Naturally, I have an interest in the Manchester bombing because I live in that part of the country, it was the biggest terrorist attack since the London bombings in 2005 (which I devoted several years to investigating, as many of you will be aware). Also, it tied in with a group of Libyans who link up to all kinds of dodgy MI5 and MI6 activities, so the possibility of blowback or some kind of state-sponsorship was always hanging around this attack.

My initial impression was that the official story makes no sense – why would a young Libyan man use a suicide bombing to attack such a soft target? When you look at the long history of suicide bombings, from the Dutch army to the Russian anarchists, through the Vietcong and the Iraq insurgency, they are typically used to attack high-level, hard targets. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II was carried out through a suicide bombing, because it was otherwise very difficult to get close enough – the Tsarist Imperial police and the secret police, the Okhrana, were in the way. The Vietcong used suicide bombings to blow up US military bunkers, as depicted in Platoon. While the Iraq insurgency did go a bit nuts, suicide bombings were primarily used against US military targets. Same with the USS Cole bombing.

So, it’s out of place for someone to go that far simply to blow up a bus, a train, a pop concert. Why not just use a satchel explosive on a timer? It’s just as easy to build, just as easy to carry out. Sure, it means you might get caught afterwards but if you’re willing to kill a couple of dozen people then you’re likely psychopathic anyway, and either want to get caught or don’t care. I’m not saying this tactic hasn’t been used against soft targets, but that’s very much in the minority when you look at the history of these attacks.

Thus, I never bought into the idea of Salman Abedi being a suicide bomber. It seems his body was found at the scene and he did carry the bomb there, though even that’s a little dubious. Some early reports said that pictures of the electronics from the bomb, which somehow survived largely intact, showed it had remote detonation capability. Whether this guy knew he was carrying a bomb is likely, but not certain, and whether he detonated it himself is not known at all. Witness reports from people who say they were there and saw him blow himself up don’t match the CCTV – they have Salman in a different coloured jacket, for example – or don’t match the supposed explosive used, TATP. They describe a flash, fireballs, other things that TATP explosions do not produce.

On the final day of the inquiry, in February last year, a ‘gist’ was read into evidence which summarised the in camera, i.e. secret testimony of various MI5 and counter-terror police officers. Reading through this gist, and some of the supporting documents, I came to the conclusion that Salman Abedi was likely working for MI5 as some kind of asset or informer, potentially right up until the moment he walked into the Manchester Arena. The intelligence ‘failures’ seemed to be the same pattern we saw with Mohammed Sidique Khan, the alleged ringleader of the London bombings. In both cases, it makes far more sense if these men were not targets of MI5 investigations, but spies working for British intelligence. As such these weren’t failures, they were the deliberate stovepiping of information – not sharing, not following up, not classifying people correctly – to cover for these men and their secret status.

The Manchester Bombing Inquiry Report

The first two volumes of the Inquiry’s report had already been published, and are largely about the emergency services’ response and the security at the Manchester arena, timelines of events and so forth. Then we got the third volume, which covers pre-attack intelligence, Abedi’s apparent radicalisation, and the question of preventability.

This section of the inquiry, and the report, is the most astounding. We were promised that the inquiry would get to the bottom of these matters and hold everyone to account and the usual teriyaki load of bullshit. They literally couldn’t have done a worse job if they were trying. Which they probably were.

We will start with motivation – Abedi’s motivation both to kill others and to kill himself. The report leaves a lot to be desired, because it admits that Abedi left no evidence whatsoever of suicidal intent – no suicide note, no martyrdom video, no internet manifesto, nothing.

In order to produce a narrative that Abedi was some kind of Islamic extremist and that’s why he did what he did, the inquiry turned to an exceptionally dubious source – an academic. Dr Matthew Wilkinson is a supposed expert on Islamic theology, ideology, extremism. In reality he’s one of the government’s primary bullshitters, having appeared as an expert witness in over 30 terrorism and hate crime trials. He helped defend the BBC, for example, when they were sued for defamation after they characterised Shakeel Begg, the Chief Imam at Lewisham Islamic Centre, as an extremist.

Wilkinson is the guy they turn to when the prosecution’s case is weak, when they don’t actually have evidence of intent or conspiracy or extreme beliefs. He comes in with a bunch of patchwork psychobiography explaining how the accused became the long-bearded extremist that you good men and women of the jury see before you today. Put simply, he’s a gun for hire.

However, he’s a total doofus. Wilkinson goes round saying he’s a convert to Islam, when in mainstream Islam there’s no such thing – you revert to Islam, not convert to it. Everyone is born Muslim, but some people are unfortunate enough to be brought up in other traditions and cultures and faiths. So when one becomes a Muslim part way through life, one is not changing, but rediscovering one’s essence. The fact this supposed expert on Islamic theology doesn’t know this speaks volumes. To be fair, he has met with some criticism for his testimony in some of these trials, including from Rizwaan Sabir, an academic who you may remember from the episode on the Manchester Manual. He was the guy who, while a student, downloaded the manual from the State Department’s website. He got a friend who worked at his university to print it off for him as part of his research, and promptly got reported by the uni and both men got arrested and accused of being terrorists. So, he knows a thing or two about the British academic and justice systems’ willingness to make false accusations against Muslim men.

Essentially, Wilkinson’s views are entirely in keeping with government policy. He claims that mainstream Islam is entirely compatible with liberal, democratic society and that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are entirely tolerant of others who are different from them. This isn’t true, just as it isn’t true of any other group of people. Most people are tribalistic, reactionary, sometimes bigoted. Muslims are certainly no exception to this.

But this has to be the case for the government’s Prevent strategy to work. Prevent is part of the overall counter-terrorism strategy, and essentially involves regular British Muslims and any government or institutional official snitching on any Muslim who might be going a bit extremist, a bit proper halal. So we have the government-approved version of Islam, which is entirely compatible with British democracy, and anyone who deviates can be treated with suspicion.

Naturally, like most government policies, it’s completely counter-productive. All it does it make Muslims suspicious of each other, blames random Muslims for anyone in their community who commits a crime designated as terrorist, and shuts down any notion of Islam being pluralistic or varied. Which doesn’t seem very liberal or democratic to me, but what do I know?

Therefore, Wilkinson is basically a walking Prevent poster. He even talks in the same terms that MI5 do, about the transition from ‘non-violent Islamist extremism’ through ‘theoretical violent Islamist extremism’ to ‘operational violent Islamist extremism’. Where he’s picked up this way of thinking, I leave for you to figure out for yourselves. I’m confident that you’ll get the right answer.

Likewise, Wilkinson’s model of how people’s worldviews shift, how they evolve into an extremist mindset, is utter horsecrap. It begins with a shattering of inherited worldviews, i.e. the one people absorbed while growing up. This then leads to a curiousness about other views and ideas, and eventually a new worldview replaces that. In Abedi’s case he cites ‘noxious absences’ such as his parents, who spent most of the decade prior to the bombing in Libya, away from Salman. Also we get ‘malign presences’, such as ‘ the ongoing conflict in Libya and engagement with a radicalising peer group.’

But this model isn’t applicable to Salman Abedi, because he never had a mainstream, liberal, run of the mill worldview. He grew up in a household of extremists, his father Ramadan Abedi was a member of Al Muqatila, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Ramadan was friends with Abu Anas Al Liby, who was involved in the embassy bombings in East Africa, and the assassination attempt against Colonel Gaddafi that was supported by MI6. Al Liby, of course, knew Ali Mohamed, but that’s a whole different angle.

My point being that Abedi never experienced a shattering of an initial worldview – he was surrounded by people who expressed support for violence and some kind of religious fundamentalism. Which maybe is actually a run of the mill worldview, but that’s not what Wilkinson means. This supposed expert even admitted this, that Abedi’s household was basically nuts, but never modified his model or acknowledged this problem with it.

According to Wilkinson, it was not growing up in a jihadi household that was of particular relevance to Abedi’s future life choices, but his parents’ absence due to their numerous trips to Libya. Wilkinson merely noted that Ramadan had made his support for suicide bombings clear in Facebook posts, but doesn’t attribute this much significance. By contrast the report details, based on Wilkinson’s analysis, how ‘The absence of their parents coincided with a notable change in the behaviour and attitude of [Salman] and [Hashem] from around 2015. A friend of the brothers described how they became “very devout, very religious” upon their return from undertaking the Hajj in 2015.’ It seems that in the minds of Wilkinson and the Inquiry, his own father publicly declaring support for suicide bombings was somehow less relevant to why Salman chose to become a suicide bomber than the absence of that man and a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Then we got something really weird. The Dr claimed that ‘Islamist extremists often… view the act of suicide bombing as an end in itself’ and that ‘the 21st-century cult of suicide martyrdom… is indicative of a nihilistic violent ideology’, suggesting Abedi blew up himself and the Manchester Arena for… no reason?

The report also notes Facebook posts by Salman’s mother Samia Tabbal about ‘militant Islamist scholar Suliman al-Alwan, who has justified suicide bombings’. Al-Alwan has excused suicide bombings in only two contexts: the Palestinian fight against the Israeli state and the Iraqi insurgency against the US-led NATO occupation. Far from being a nihilist who sees suicide bombings as an end in themselves, he only justified them in specific contexts to strike against military targets in the Middle East. How this explains why a British-born Libyan blew up an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester is anyone’s guess.

Posthumous Hearsay and Secret Confessions

Having completely failed to provide any rationale for why Salman would kill himself, we move on to the motivation for the bombing. Obviously, Salman’s dead so he’s not talking, he didn’t leave any explanation, so we’re left with one source. But that’s a source that we cannot see, and which contradicts itself.

Hashem Abedi, Salman’s younger brother by two years, is the only person who has ever been convicted in connection with the Manchester bombing. As we’ll look at in another section, a few weeks prior to the attack Hashem buggered off to Libya, where he remained for several years. Eventually he was extradited to the UK, and was put on trial for conspiring to blow up the Manchester arena.

Hashem then went full Ramzi Yousef – he sacked his defence team and was essentially absent during the trial, not even turning up in the courtroom. He had refused to answer the police’s questions, and simply gave a statement denying involvement in or support of the Islamic State, and denied any knowledge of or involvement in the bombing.

Inevitably, he was convicted and given a sentence of 55 years. Hashem now seems to have changed his tune entirely. He was interviewed at HMP Belmarsh by the Inquiry’s legal team, and confessed to ‘a full and knowing part in the planning and preparation for the Attack.’ Hashem apparently ‘admitted that he was a supporter of violent jihad in that he supported the institution of Sharia law through violent means’ and that ‘he was a supporter of Islamic State.’ Whether Hashem provided any corroborating evidence for his confession or evidence of Salman’s suicidal intent is unknown, because he ‘set out his motivations’ in a statement, but in the Inquiry’s view, ‘The statement is Islamic State propaganda. For this reason, I will not rehearse any of its content. Nor should it ever see the light of day.’

Thus, all we’re being given is the assertion that Hashem has now confessed, but we cannot hear from him, cannot see his statement, maybe can never see it, but it apparently answers all outstanding questions. This is not an inquiry, it’s a hatchet job.

Which brings us to the only evidence of Salman Abedi’s murderous intent. This time, it is contradictory and comes from a second-hand source, years after the fact. A prison officer at Belmarsh gave evidence to the inquiry in December 2021, relating a conversation he had apparently had with Abdalraouf Abdallah, a prisoner who was friends with Abedi. Abdallah, at least according to the prison officer, ‘said that [Salman] had talked to him over a period of years about causing harm to others’ and even talked about ‘killing people in a public space’. The officer then contradicted this incriminating impression, adding that ‘Abdallah stated that he was very shocked when he discovered that “one of his boys” had carried out the Attack.’

During his evidence to the inquiry, Abdallah himself never mentioned anything about conversations with the prison officer regarding what Abedi had said. Predictably, the Inquiry took the officer’s statements as the truth, concluding, ‘I accept the prison officer’s evidence. I find that Abdalraouf Abdallah did say these things to him. Bearing in mind the circumstance in which they were said, they are likely to represent the truth of what Abdalraouf Abdallah was told by [Abedi] and the truth of what he thought about it.’

Again, this makes no sense. If Abedi admitted to Abdallah his intent to kill, why didn’t Abdallah say anything about it? He was in prison, he could have got a reduced sentence for providing such useful information. But apparently he waited until after the bombing, was shocked to find out that Abedi did it, but then told the prison officer that Abedi had been talking about it for years beforehand? What part of this doesn’t sound like a prison officer looking for a promotion?

The Elephants in the Manchester Bombing Arena

Naturally, the Inquiry avoided the most important factor in this entire story – the relationship between MI6 and the Libyan wing of the international jihad movement. While the Inquiry’s report does mention the relevance of the ‘ongoing conflict in Libya’, it does so in an evasive and misleading way. At every turn, vital context which might genuinely explain what led to the Manchester bombing is as conspicuously absent as the Abedis’ parents.

For starters, the reason why the Abedi family were living in Manchester was due to a covert relationship between the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (a militant anti-Gaddafi gang) and the British government. Numerous members of the group, including Ramadan Abedi and his wife, were granted asylum in the UK in the 1990s. The group set up in Manchester and London, even publishing their radical newsletter from an office in the British capital. It was this newsletter that published the Bin Laden fatwas and the communique from Zawahiri after the embassy bombings.

In the mid-90s LIFG members, including Abu Anas al-Liby, a good friend of Ramadan, were allegedly paid £100,000 by MI6 to try to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi. The hit went wrong, and many LIFG members fled to the UK and received asylum from the British government, al-Liby among them. He lived in Manchester for years, and while he was interrogated following the 1998 US embassy bombings, he was released due to a lack of evidence. He then evaded a police raid in 2000, having apparently been tipped off, though a copy of the Al Qaeda training manual was found in his Manchester flat.

Al Liby apparently went to Afghanistan, and was there during the NATO invasion. He then crossed the border into Iran, spent several years either in prison or under house arrest in Iran (due to his Al Qaeda affiliation), before eventually being released. He went back to Libya around 2010, was there throughout the war against Gaddafi, before then being scooped up by US special forces, with the help of the FBI and CIA. He was flown to the US to stand trial for his role in the embassy bombings, but died in prison shortly before that trial was due to start. How convenient.

Getting back to the Libyans in the UK around the turn of the century, the book Forbidden Truth recounted, ‘The irony in this game of bluff came in the end of September 2001, when the head of Libya’s intelligence agency, Musa Kusa, went to London to share important information that demanded a return favour: He handed over a list of a dozen names of al Muqatila members living in London, whom his authorities would very much like to get their hands on.’ This led to LIFG being proscribed in 2005 and its representatives made subject to ‘control orders’ – effective house arrest – and their passports confiscated, to prevent them waging jihad abroad.

The policy changed again in 2011, when the Libyan civil war began. Middle East Eye has exposed how many LIFG representatives not only had their control orders rescinded and their passports returned, but were given an ‘open door’ to travel to Tripoli and violently overthrow the government. One nameless fighter testified that he was actively encouraged by an MI5 officer to join the battle, and they got him out of trouble with counter-terror police on one of these trips.

While LIFG officially dissolved in 2010, many of the same people from the gang’s 1990s anti-Gaddafi adventures travelled to Libya to resume the fight. This included members of the Abedi and al-Liby families, with the Inquiry’s report referencing photographs of ‘Ismail Abedi, [Salman] and [Hashem] in the company of Abu Anas al-Libi’s sons carrying large guns, and in military uniforms with weapons.’ Other photos showed them in front of the flag of the 17th February Martyr’s Brigade, an East Libyan militia. Amusingly, the Inquiry ignored how 17th Feb were hired as mercenaries by the US government to guard their diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, a move which failed spectacularly.

The Abedi family’s various trips to Libya in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 are logged in the report, but the Inquiry laments a near-total lack of information on what Salman, Ramadan and the rest were actually doing there. This is blamed on the lack of co-operation from family members and, of course, the chaos on the ground in Libya. The cause of that chaos – NATO’s intervention, including MI6’s creative relationship with Libyan jihadis – is completely overlooked.

This reeks of a cover-up to me. We’re told almost nothing about what the Abedis actually did in Libya throughout the 2010s, whether this had any influence on Hashem and Salman’s mindset. The relationship between LIFG and 17th Feb and various military and intelligence agencies isn’t even considered as a factor, if only to deny it. Why not?

Counter-Surveillance vs Building a Bomb on Amazon

Leaving aside the question of why, the Inquiry gives a detailed timeline apparently explaining how Salman and Hashem Abedi executed their terrible crime. The problem is that it reads a lot like a draft script for Four Lions, rather than an account of how a mass murder was carried out.

The Inquiry repeatedly refers to the brothers having had counter-surveillance training, as well as bomb-building training, to help account for how poorly-educated young men with no apparent knowledge of chemistry, electrical engineering or covert operations could have done this. But it is not clear where or when this training happened, with the report stating ‘I also find that it is probable they obtained some form of training or assistance in how to build a bomb in Libya, as well as counter-surveillance training. The evidence is not sufficiently clear for me to say on which visit or visits to Libya in the period between 2011 and 2017 this took place.’

So, it happened, but when, where, by whom – we have nothing. Zip. Zilch. Squat. Diddly. Bubkus.

But it happened. Because otherwise we have no explanation of how these two bozos pulled this off. Which would imply that they didn’t.

This alleged counter-surveillance training is cited as a reason for the Abedi brothers evading detection in the run-up to the bombing, but their behaviour in the months before May 2017 was far from sophisticated. Beginning in January and going on until April, the pair asked eight different people to buy them hydrogen peroxide or sulphuric acid on Amazon. According to witnesses from Hashem’s trial, among the lame excuses the pair gave was that they needed the chemicals ‘for a generator in Libya’. Indeed, they apparently acquired so much acid and peroxide that they left behind whole bottles of the substances when they left the ‘bomb factory’ several weeks before the bombing.

This is really strange. The police couldn’t determine where they got the acetone – a key ingredient in triacetone triperoxide. Kinda doesn’t work without it. So they did that so covertly that they left no trace, but spent months acquiring sulphuric acid and hydrogen peroxide. In particular, you can buy the peroxide from supermarkets, pay cash, leave no trace. So why were they leaving such an obvious trail, and why were they asking so many people over such a long period? Indeed, they were allegedly still trying to get someone to buy more just a couple of days before they packed up the bomb factory and moved out. This is obviously not the behaviour of people with surveillance training, and I’d wager it isn’t the behaviour of serious bombers. It’s the behaviour of provocateurs.

So, they spent months asking everyone they knew to buy them bomb making equipment, but then suddenly got really scared about surveillance. Having allegedly produced a large amount of TATP – an unstable explosive – they then took an elaborate route across Manchester to transport it to another location. The accounts of this journey are laughable – Salman got a taxi to pick him up in North-West Manchester, packed up the car with boxes and bags apparently full of explosive, told the taxi driver to take him to Rusholme, where the curry mile is. Bear in mind this is in the middle of the night, though some curry places are open 24/7, so it’s not that unusual. The taxi driver then drives to Rusholme – Abedi doesn’t say stop. He continues south, to Fallowfield, one of the main student areas. Abedi doesn’t say stop. They continue south to Withington, a couple of miles further than Abedi first said. They hang around there for a while, Salman gets a phonecall from Hashem, the taxi turns around and heads North again.

They go back up through Withington, through Fallowfield, through Rusholme and almost back to the centre of the city, stopping near Whitworth Park, my favourite of the parks in Manchester. A couple of minutes later Hashem turns up in a Nissan Micra – the exact same car used by the supposed 7/7 bombers – they transfer the bags and boxes over, Salman pays the cabbie and that’s that.

Why did they go to such lengths? The Inquiry says this absurd, circuitous journey was about avoiding surveillance – but if they were so concerned about that, why ask everyone and his mother to buy them sulphuric acid? Why leave a bunch of bottles of chemicals in the flat after moving out? Why take two cars down to the Whitworth Park area? That doubles the chances of being caught. Why take a taxi all the way down to South Manchester, after telling them to take you somewhere else, only to turn around and go back North further than you initially said? Isn’t that going to arouse suspicion rather than evade it?

Honestly, if they’d convicted Hashem for general stupidity I would have understood it, but sophisticated, well trained terrorists these boys were not.

Later that same day, Hashem and Salman departed the country on another family trip to Libya.  But what of the dismantled bomb factory and the TATP? For the following month the explosive and other items for the bomb supposedly sat in the Nissan Micra outside a block of flats in Manchester, near Whitworth Park, while the Abedi boys were out of the country. I’m not sure which part of the Al Qaeda counter-surveillance manual recommends leaving your bomb factory in a hatchback outside someone else’s home while you fuck off to North Africa, but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere. Just ask Wilkinson.

When he came back to the UK in May, Salman spent several days going to Screwfix time and again to buy large quantities of screws and bolts, before walking the area around the Manchester Arena every evening.

Is this the behaviour of two people taking great care to assemble their bomb in secret and evade capture? Absurdly, regarding this period the report states, ‘They took a number of carefully considered steps to avoid detection.’ But these ‘considered steps’ didn’t involve using shops without CCTV; paying in cash; acquiring the chemicals via market stalls or other anonymous methods; avoiding visiting the apparent target every day for no obvious reason; or postponing a month-long vacation to a civil war zone while leaving a carload of highly incriminating evidence in an easily-accessible car park.

The Manchester Bombing Intelligence ‘Failures’

On the final day of the Inquiry hearings a gist was read into evidence, summarising secret testimony on what was known about Salman prior to the bombing. Though public testimony had flagged up information from as early as December 2010, the document read out in court said that British intelligence first became aware of Abedi in March 2014. At that time he was in contact with a “subject of interest” – SOI – to MI5, believed to be helping young British Muslim men travel to Syria.

The Inquiry’s final report included a more complete timeline, showing that on March 18th 2014 Salman himself was designated an SOI. On July 8th, in the midst of MI5’s investigation, the Abedi family left the UK and travelled to Libya. Two weeks later, on July 21st, Salman was closed out as an SOI by MI5 and on August 4th he and Hashem were rescued from Libya by the Royal Navy, on board the HMS Enterprise.

In between these last two events, on August 1st a friend of Salman’s – Adbalraouf Abdallah – had his home searched and several electronic devices were seized by counter-terror police. In November that year Salman and Abdallah exchanged over 1,000 text messages, which came to an end on November 28th, when Abdallah was arrested. In a handful of these texts Abedi expressed a desire to become a ‘shaheed’, which can mean a martyr or suicide bomber, but the messages were not shared with MI5 by the police until after the bombing, two and a half years later.

Aside from the Abedis’ evident involvement in the Libyan war and the apparent hands off approach when it came to British-Libyan jihadis in this period, what accounts for British intelligence’s ambiguous approach to categorising Salman? Why did they rescue him from Libya just two weeks after they were investigating him as a terror suspect? Why weren’t they provided with his text messages from the phone of an accused terrorist?

One interconnected possibility is that British intelligence was trying to recruit Abedi and/or his brother Hashem as agents or informants. Their obvious proximity to people MI5 were spying on, and their family background, certainly suggests they could’ve been candidates for an approach by a polite gentleman working for the government.

One omen came in May 2015, when MI5 considered ‘opening a lead into Salman Abedi and another individual,’ but ‘no such lead was in fact opened.’ However, from June 2015 until August 2016 during an MI5 investigation into another target, Abedi was apparently treated as a ‘tier two SOI’ in contact with the target, ‘whilst not formally being a subject of interest himself.’

Multiple MI5 witnesses testified that designating someone a ‘tier two SOI’ was not normal practice, with one investigator saying, ‘they did not recognise the concept and that as far as they were concerned, a person was either an open or closed SOI.’ Witness J, a senior MI5 officer, said ‘the concept of a de facto Tier 2 subject of interest was imperfect because although there were some advantages in terms of practical intelligence gathering, it meant that the formal closure process and assessment of risk presented by the person would not take place.’

So, it provides advantages in terms of intelligence gathering, but means the person is not subject to a risk assessment. Does this not sound like an informant?

Individuals informally categorised as Tier 2 would be of interest to British spying agencies, both for surveillance and recruitment – after all, who better to gather intelligence on a target than their own friend and trusted confidante? That the designation’s limits do not permit risk assessments to be conducted on the individual in question means that whether Abedi was a spying target or a spy himself, his incendiary activities officially passed under the radar. The Inquiry concluded, ‘By consciously allowing [Salman]’s categorisation to fall into this uncharted grey area, the investigative team deprived itself of the rigours and precautionary processes that were in place for other open Subjects of Interest so as to ensure that national security was best protected.’

Adding to British intelligence’s bizarre handling of Salman, in October 2015 he was re-categorised as a formal SOI but this was retracted later the same day. Witness J explained that they thought Abedi was a ‘first level contact’ of ‘a senior Islamic State figure in Libya.’ However, when they realised Abedi was only a second level, i.e. indirect, contact of this senior individual, they shut him down as an SOI.

Abedi visited Abdallah in prison in February 2016, and in May Abdallah was convicted of trying to help an RAF veteran travel to fight in Syria. Two weeks after the verdict, Abedi flew to Istanbul and MI5 knew that he then went on to Libya, but didn’t tell the counter-terrorism police even though a police officer had flagged the trip to Turkey as suspicious. Abedi spent several months in Libya, returning to the UK in October and visiting Abdallah in prison again the following January. None of this seems to have raised any alarms at MI5 – or if it did, they didn’t tell anyone.

Putting the timeline together, this period when Salman was apparently a Tier 2 unofficial SOI encompasses him being made an SOI then closed out on the same day, his first visit to Abdallah in prison, and the trip to Libya that MI5 deliberately didn’t tell anyone about. It was a couple of months after Abedi landed in Libya that he was no longer considered a Tier 2 SOI. There is obviously more to this story, but MI5 are keeping very quiet about why they took as unusual an approach with Salman as Salman likes to do on his taxi journeys.

Missed Opportunities to stop the Manchester Bombing?

Also in January 2017, MI5 received the first of two unspecified ‘piece[s] of intelligence’ on Salman that, according to the Inquiry report, represented the ‘principal missed opportunity’. An earlier review conducted by Lord Anderson concluded that this intel ‘was assessed to relate not to terrorism but to possible non-nefarious activity or to non-terrorist criminality’ and hence wasn’t followed up by MI5. The Inquiry begs to differ, saying Anderson’s account did not ‘present an accurate picture’.

This is unsurprising – with the London bombings we got three distinct versions of events from MI5 – the first Intelligence and Security Committee report, the second report by that same Committee, and their testimony at the Inquests. We also got a fourth version, from MI5’s own source documents, which contradict not only the two committee reports, but also the MI5 witness’s testimony.

With the Manchester bombing, in the new version of events Witness C saw the first piece of intelligence and ‘had wondered, at the time, whether it might have some national security significance that merited further investigation, and decided it needed to be reported on.’ Two further officers then looked at the same information, but took no investigative action. It wasn’t shared with the regional counter-terrorism police covering Manchester.

The second ‘missed opportunity’ intel came in April, around the time the Abedis made yet another trip to Libya, and again Witness C was the first to take a look. They delayed reporting the information up the chain, and according to the inquiry, ‘Witness C’s report on Piece of Intelligence 2 did not contain sufficient context.’ The Inquiry continued, ‘The delay in providing the report led to the missing of an opportunity to take a potentially important investigative action’, and once more the intel was not shared with the regional counter-terror police.

The Inquiry states, somewhat cryptically, ‘It is not possible to say with any degree of certainty what would have happened had the investigative action been taken. All I am able to say is that it could have given rise to information which meant that [Salman]’s return to the UK on 18th May 2017 would have been treated extremely seriously by the Security Service… This could have led to [Salman] being followed to the Nissan Micra which contained the explosive.’

In the midst of this, on March 3rd Salman ‘hit a priority indicator’ in MI5’s Operation Clematis. This was an operation that reviewed all existing intelligence on various people to see if any of them warranted further investigation or action. Exactly why Abedi was flagged up by this is not clear – was it to do with the new intelligence that arrived in January? Was it because he’d spent a few weeks asking everyone to buy sulphuric acid? Was it because he was linked to Abdallah, who had a secret mobile phone while in prison that he used to talk to people on the outside, including Abedi? That phone was discovered in mid-February, so it could be the cause of this ‘priority indicator’ in March.

However, it wasn’t much of a priority – it wasn’t until two months later, on May 1st, that this hit was examined and they decided to book a meeting to discuss whether to do anything about Salman Abedi. The meeting was scheduled for the end of the month – May 31st. The bombing took place on May 22nd.

Naturally, this gruesome farce poses far more questions than it answers, and I have to wonder if anyone involved in these events has a shred of intellect. But someone bombed the Manchester arena, whether using Salman as a prop or otherwise. The rest of the Abedi family is back in Libya, and don’t seem interested in talking. The Inquiry was a futile melodrama that did nothing but add information that contradicts everything they said previously. MI5 seem to have got away with it, whatever ‘it’ is.

One final point – the Inquiry’s conclusions include a line saying ‘ None of those working for the Security Service or Counter Terrorism Policing… intended to assist [Salman] in slipping through the net’. Aside from ringing as hollow as a recently evacuated music arena, why did they say this? To my knowledge the only person who has suggested that they deliberately failed to manage the intelligence on Salman Abedi is me. The mainstream media is obsessed with recounting the intelligence failures like some grim countdown in an episode of 24. The alternative media have ignored this almost entirely. So, have I managed to provoke a response out of this inquiry, and if this line wasn’t aimed at me, then at whom was it aimed?