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Multiple chances missed to tackle arena bomber, inquiry finds

Private security firms and British Transport Police missed crucial opportunities to identify the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, the public inquiry has found.

The suicide bomber who killed 22 people at Manchester Arena could have been stopped or his actions limited if security on the night had been better.

That’s the first major verdict of the official inquiry into how Salman Abedi was able to detonate a bomb at a major UK venue.

The first of three reports, which deals with the security arrangements on the night, has concluded he should have been identified as a threat on the night of the attack.

In the 196-page report, inquiry chairman Sir John Saunders concluded Abedi (SA) could have been challenged if security had been better. He would still have detonated his device but fewer people could have been killed.

His conclusions were set out in a forensic account of the hours leading up to the attack, backed with images of specific moments when failings occurred.

He said: “There were a number of opportunities which were missed leading to this failure. SA should have been identified on 22 May 2017 as a threat by those responsible for the security of the Arena and a disruptive intervention undertaken.

“Had that occurred, I consider it likely that SA would still have detonated his device, but the loss of life and injury is highly likely to have been less.”

On the night of the Arianna Grande concert, the threat level had been severe for a significant period and the inquiry warned that both police and security staff had become less alert as a result.

Security on the night was the responsibility of the venue’s operator, US-firm SMG, Showsec – which had been awarded the contract for security and British transport Police.

Sir John said: “SMG, Showsec and BTP are principally responsible for the missed opportunities. Across these organisations, there were also failings by individuals who played a part in causing the opportunities to be missed.”

His findings echo those of Greater Manchester Police who said SMG “did not devote the time and attention required to ensure that its protective security measures were properly and effectively applied”.

Had a wider perimeter been set, hostile reconnaissance by the bomber could have been detected.

And if BTP officers had been more alert to the possibility of hostile reconnaissance, the prospect of detecting it would have been increased.

Abedi had made three reconnaissance trips to the venue, adjoining Manchester Victoria railway station and had found a CCTV blind spot on the raised mezzanine level.

On the night, the bomber concealed himself there before walking into an exit area and detonating his device.

The bomber was “visibly weighed down by his backpack, which weighed in excess of 30kgs. He was over-dressed for the warm evening. He was wearing a hat. These facts in combination are likely to have struck an appropriately trained person as being of potential significance, if they noticed him,” the report said.

Had CCTV that covered the blind spot in the building been monitored more carefully, the bomber’s actions would have been seen earlier.

There was also a failure to respond to an alert by a member of the public that he was acting suspiciously.

BTP officers were criticised for ignoring an instruction which meant there was no presence at a key area of the building that the bomber walked through.

Five officers should have been in the area where the bomb was detonated but they were not in position.

“All BTP officers should have been vigilant. The concert was shortly to end. SA’s age meant that he did not fit the demographic of a parent waiting for a child…his presence at that stage of the evening was suspicious. This, added to his clothing, backpack and where he had chosen to position himself on the mezzanine, would have resulted in him being identified by a vigilant BTP officer, had such a person been present,” the report said.

And had a junior security operator been better trained, the bomber would have been spotted early and police teams alerted.

Just before the end of the event, a terrorism check by security staff could have also picked him up. A 15-minute window was lost.

But the biggest failure occurred shortly before the attack. A member of the public challenged SA and raised his suspicions with a security guard.

That critical information was not relayed for six minutes.

The inquiry delivered a heavily critical verdict of the private-public security arrangements.

"BTP should have liaised more closely with both SMG and Showsec. Each should have known what the other was doing, so that the protective measures each provided were complementary," it said.

Sir John added: "One of the recurring themes of this Inquiry has been the need for co-operation between different people and organisations in the interests of everybody’s safety. All employers are already under this duty by reason of the health and safety regime in relation to shared workspaces.

"While we enjoy the freedoms that we do, no police service or the Security Service can hope to eliminate all terrorist threats. It is up to everybody to carry out their part in trying to prevent terrorist attacks. Co-operation is required from everybody."

The inquiry was ordered in October 2019 by the Home Secretary. Two further reports will follow covering the emergency services response and the security services.

The recommendations

Sir John said: “I am satisfied that there were a number of missed opportunities to alter the course of what happened that night. More should have been done.”

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