MI5 has conceded that it was an error not to ask police to question the Manchester Arena bomber when he returned from Libya four days before the terror attack, an inquest has heard.
A senior MI5 officer, known only as Witness J, told the public inquiry into the attack that terrorist Salman Abedi was assessed in the months before the May 2017 bombing, but that “no intelligence” was found which indicated a threat to national security.
The officer, whose evidence was the first given to the inquiry by MI5, conceded that Abedi should have been stopped and questioned by police upon his return to the UK. But because he was not placed on “ports action” by the security services, Abedi was able to walk straight through security at Manchester Airport.
Asked by Paul Greaney QC, counsel to the inquiry, if it had been a missed opportunity, Witness J said stopping Abedi “would have been the better course of action”.
“We were relying on officers to make judgments on ports actions. We have no standardised approach and that would have been a stronger process,” the officer added.
Much of Witness J’s evidence is being given behind closed doors.
Sir John Saunders, the inquiry chairman, has ruled that there is “centrally important material” relevant to the question of whether MI5 could have prevented the attack which cannot be revealed to the public.
The inquiry was also told that Abedi’s extreme views were likely to have been influenced by his father.
Witness J said Ramadan Abedi, the father of Salman, was probably a source of his 22-year-old son’s radicalisation after the family claimed asylum in the UK from Libya in the early Nineties. Ramadan left for Libya five weeks before the bombing and has not returned.
The inquiry also heard that Abedi, who killed 22 people when he detonated a homemade bomb, was linked to serious crime gangs in south Manchester.
Witness J said that the security services faced a “challenge” when distinguishing individuals involved in crime from those involved in terrorism, as “some of their behaviour and activity can look the same”.
“It can be difficult to distinguish, for example, drug dealing and fraud from national security activity,” they added.
The officer described how a 2010 report by the Joint Analysis and Terrorism Centre, part of MI5, highlighted the “close proximity between violent extremism and criminal gangs” in Manchester.
It also highlighted that individuals with a Libyan background could have been exposed to people with extremist tendencies from their parents’ generation – including members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has been linked to al-Qaeda.
Asked by Mr Greaney if it was assessed that Ramadan Abedi was involved with the group, Witness J said: “I’m afraid I am not able to go into that in open [hearings].”
Attacker came onto MI5’s radar multiple times, inquiry told
The inquiry has previously heard how Abedi came on MI5’s radar multiple times from 2010, due to his contact with other suspects, right up to the months before the attack, when the intelligence agency was passed information deemed to be “non-nefarious activity”.
Mr Greaney said that “in retrospect this intelligence was highly relevant to the planned attack, but the significance of it was not fully appreciated at the time”.
However, Witness J told the inquiry that it was “reasonable” not to re-open an investigation into Salman Abedi prior to the attack.
The witness told the inquiry: “These were fragments of the picture held at the time. In our post-attack work, looking back, we can see it was highly relevant to the planned attack.
“In our view, it was a reasonable judgment to make that he was not associated with terrorism and reasonable not to reopen the investigation on that basis.”
On May 1, three weeks before the attack, MI5 looked at Abedi’s case and decided it met the criteria to be re-opened, but he was correctly believed to be overseas.
His case was due to be considered by an MI5 team on May 31, nine days after the attack, but the meeting was “tragically overtaken by events”, Mr Greaney told the inquiry.
The inquiry is examining a series of decisions taken by the security services. They include when the bomber was opened and closed as a subject of interest, and whether he should have been put on “ports action” in 2017, which would have alerted police to his return from Libya, four days before the attack.
The inquiry continues.
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