LONDON: MI5 missed “obvious” intelligence ahead of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing after “jumping to the wrong conclusions,” a British judge has said.
In an interview for “When Worlds Collide,” a two-part ITV documentary on the bombing, Lord Anderson of Ipswich QC said “mistakes were made” by the security service when it was assessing information before the attack, which killed 22 people as they left an Ariana Grande concert.
MI5 has refused to release the secret intelligence it received, but Anderson said it was important and linked the bomber Salman Abedi to terrorism months before the attack.
"MI5 interpreted that intelligence as relating to ordinary crime,” he said. “With hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that that intelligence related to a developing terrorist plot. Now, we all make mistakes, we all misunderstand things that we are told, we all jump to conclusions and that’s what happened in this case.”
Anderson, a former reviewer of terrorism legislation in Britain, assessed the intelligence processed by MI5, which he published seven months after the blast.
Abedi was investigated in 2014 when he was 19, three years before the attack, but his case was shut down and he was never reassessed despite being identified in eight more investigations.
Anderson said MI5 monitored former targets by setting up “tripwires” to assess future investigations.
Abedi was picked up by these tripwires, which showed that he was “somebody who looked as though he might deserve a priority investigation.”
Anderson said: “The tripwire is automatic, it takes you a certain way, but it is not a substitute for human beings meeting in a room to pull together the evidence they have.
“As a consequence of that, the meeting was fixed for May 31. The plot ran faster than the process and on May 22 he detonated his backpack.”
MI5 has accepted that it was wrong to have not stopped and questioned Abedi when he returned from Libya four days before he blew himself up at Manchester Arena.
“The powers of the police at the airport are very strong indeed. They can compel people to answer questions, there is no right of silence,” Anderson said.
He added that Abedi, who was on two separate occasions listed as a person of interest, “was known to have certain quite radical views and he had a travel history that was enough to justify pulling him over and asking him some questions.
“MI5 themselves accepted to me that this is what should have happened. At the end of the day, mistakes were made. Whether they would have made a difference is another matter.
“MI5 say it’s not very likely that we could have prevented the attacks anyway. I prefer to emphasise that we simply can’t know.”
Anderson said intelligence received twice before the attack was not used properly because its “significance was not fully appreciated at the time.”
Sir John Saunders, chairman of the Manchester Arena inquiry, will publish his conclusions later this year.
MI5’s director general of counterterrorism told the inquiry: “In our view it was a reasonable judgment to make that he (Abedi) was not associated with terrorism and reasonable not to reopen the investigation on that basis.”