By Dominic Green
In the week following Salman Abedi’s suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester on May 22, a great deal was revealed about the perpetrator, most of it deeply unsettling.
By Tuesday, May 30, 14 suspects were in police custody, one of them a recent immigrant from Libya who had just obtained a pilot’s license. Eighteen different sites were undergoing forensic investigation. Three European states—Belgium, France, and Britain—now have soldiers on their streets. Two foreign intelligence agencies have supplied details of Abedi’s career as an Islamist. The number of Abedi’s accomplices is not known.
In response to Abedi’s attack, the Home Office began issuing “temporary exclusion orders” to prevent British Islamists now outside the country from returning home. Yet when asked on May 28, Home Secretary Amber Rudd was unable to say how many citizens who have fought or received training in Syria have already returned to Britain. Rudd also admitted that members of Abedi’s network were “potentially” still at large.
Salman Abedi on a security camera the night of the bombing, May 27 Photo credit: NEWSCOM
Abedi was not a “lone wolf” who had “self-radicalized” on the Internet or been “inspired” by ISIS. Within hours of the attack, NBC and CBS carried a leak from an unnamed American source identifying the 22-year-old Abedi as an Islamist of interest. France’s interior minister, Gérard Collomb, announced that Abedi had “proven” links to ISIS, and that British and French intelligence services had information that he had been in Syria in 2015. Even before the British police confirmed Abedi’s identity, they admitted that he was “known to the authorities.”
Just after the bombing, one of Abedi’s friends told the Times of London that Abedi had left for Libya “three weeks ago” and returned “recently, like, three days ago.” On May 18, four days before the bombing, Abedi flew back to Manchester from Istanbul via Dusseldorf. It is not known how Abedi traveled to Istanbul from Libya. He was free to make his return journey because he was not on an international list of terrorist suspects. Should he have been free to make the outward journey from Britain?
Abedi’s was among the approximately 20,000 names on the list of Britain’s Islamist suspects, but he was not one of the 3,000 under “active investigation.” A senior U.S. security source has claimed that the U.S. warned MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency, in early 2017 that Abedi belonged to a “terror gang” of North African supporters of the Islamic State. MI5 investigated him and his friends but concluded that he was not about to “go kinetic.” If, as seems probable, Abedi acted with the support of a terrorist cell, this represents a serious security failure.
Abedi also eluded Britain’s wider counterterrorism program. As many as five people, including a Muslim community worker, neighbors, and possibly a family member, had denounced Abedi, some of them using the government’s anti-terrorist hotline. Two of them had warned as long as five years ago that Abedi had said “being a suicide bomber was OK.” Others had warned that Manchester’s Libyan community was breeding fanatics and terrorists. When an imam at the local mosque denounced ISIS, Abedi had insulted him with a command of local vernacular that suggests he was not wholly alienated from English society: “You’re talking bollocks.”
Yet on May 30, Ian Hopkins, chief constable of Greater Manchester, said that Abedi was “not known to the Prevent program.” Prevent is the first element of a four-part Home Office anti-terror approach—the other elements are Pursue, Protect, and Prepare. Prevent might equally be called Preempt, for it aims to counter Islamist ideology, identify potential terrorists, and deradicalize penitents. Britain’s security services, primed by the long war against Irish Republicanism, are perhaps Europe’s best. So it is surprising that Abedi did not command more attention.
In the aftermath of the bombing, the security services launched some preemption of their own. An unnamed “Whitehall source” informed the public that five Islamist plots had been thwarted since this March, when Khalid Masood attacked pedestrians and policemen at the Houses of Parliament. And MI5 has already announced two inquiries into its handling of Abedi.