Inquiries differ on why the 2017 Manchester bombing wasn’t prevented – here’s why

The Conversation

How can you hold the intelligence and security services accountable, when what they do is secret? The third and final report from the public inquiry into the 2017 Manchester arena bombing is a useful guide.

Sir John Saunders, the retired judge in charge of the inquiry, has given a damning verdict on how government agencies handled the case of Salman Abedi, the man who set off a bomb at an Ariana Grande concert. His conclusions differed significantly from earlier reviews and the reasons why are important.

Abedi had been known to the authorities for years before he went on to kill 22 people and injure over 800 more. So the question must be why he was not prevented from carrying out the atrocity. Saunders highlighted individual failings that other reviews appear to have missed.

Past reports

There have been multiple investigations into the Manchester attack. The security service (MI5) and counter-terrorism police reviewed their own work soon after the atrocity. Further investigations were carried out by David Anderson, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, and parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.

These reports noted that officials could have made different decisions and recommended various actions to change future practice. The Intelligence and Security Committee argued that Abedi should have been referred to Prevent, the government’s deradicalisation programme.

Anderson suggested the decision to end his designation as a “subject of interest” – which would have involved more intense investigation – was wrong but ultimately concluded the mistake was understandable. The failure to thwart the attack was portrayed as a matter of bad luck. Anderson concluded: “MI5 and CT [counter-terrorism] Policing got a great deal right … they could have succeeded had the cards fallen differently.”

Such conclusions are typical of many reviews of the intelligence and security agencies. Too often, failures are portrayed as largely down to chance, the difficulties of intelligence gathering are emphasised, and individual mistakes are glossed over.

Saunders gives a very different version of events and it’s important to understand how that came about. A key difference lies in the evidence Saunders gathered. Previous reviews relied upon accounts from senior figures, summarising the position of their organisations from a high level. By contrast, the Saunders inquiry interviewed junior officers, the people actually making decisions on the ground. Their perspective differed significantly.

Who gives evidence?

In his 2017 review, Anderson had accepted MI5’s narrative that intelligence related to Abedi was mistakenly “interpreted … as to do probably with drugs or organised crime and not something to do with terrorism or national security”. After interviewing the relevant officers, Saunders disagreed, saying: “I do not consider that these statements present an accurate picture.”

He found that officers had identified two pieces of intelligence about Abedi which were of concern on national security grounds. The first was not shared with counter-terrorism police. The second was not dealt with promptly.

As Saunders puts it, the officer reviewing the intelligence “should have discussed it with other Security Service officers straight away. Moreover, s/he should have written the report on the same day, but in fact did not do so.” Furthermore, the report the officer produced on the second piece of intelligence was said to lack sufficient context.

Meanwhile, Abedi had collected material for the bomb and stored it in a car, where it sat for over a month while he travelled to Libya (presumably for training on preparing the device). Although there is no certainty about what difference these errors made, Saunders argues that had security services followed Abedi to the car, the bombing might have been prevented.

As such, individual as well as systemic failings were in play. What this underscores is the need to speak to officials at all levels of these agencies.

Identifying failures is not scapegoating

Senior officials can give a useful sense of the overall environment in which decisions are made. One witness for the inquiry notes that at the time they were running around 500 investigations into Islamist terrorism, about 3,000 people were designated subjects of interest and 40,000 were closed subjects. This context should be borne in mind but we now know that errors of judgement were made by individuals and addressing these is important.

Organisations can learn from individual mistakes. Was the officer who failed to share vital information underperforming across the board and it wasn’t picked up? Did they wrongly interpret guidance? Were there personal or interpersonal issues affecting their decisions? Were they overstretched? How did the individual and their managers respond when errors came to light? The answers to these questions could have vital implications for recruitment, training, operational decision making and management.

For too long apportioning blame has been associated with scapegoating. In reality, people doing immensely challenging jobs will make errors. GPs, surgeons, social workers, police officers, regularly have to make decisions with potentially life-changing consequences. Intelligence and security agencies are no different.

The Saunders inquiry underscores the need for oversight bodies like the Intelligence and Security Committee, as well as ad-hoc reviews, to be able to speak freely with all those involved, including frontline officers, so as to gain a full picture of what happened and how they can learn for the future.

Jamie Gaskarth received funding from the British Academy Small Research Grants scheme which resulted in his book, Secrets and Spies: UK Intelligence Accountability after Iraq and Snowdon (Chatham House, 2020).