Summary: with the final volume of the report on the Manchester Arena bomber now released, many questions were raised and some answers delivered but the big question wasn’t asked.
On the 22nd of May 2017, Salman Abedi, a young man born and raised in Manchester, detonated a homemade explosive device as people were leaving the Manchester Arena following a concert by American pop singer Ariana Grande. He was intent on murdering as many people as he could. Twenty two died in the attack, including many children. More than 1000 were injured.
Following what Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Barraclough, senior investigating officer of Operation Manteline, described as a “colossal” investigation involving more than one thousand police and National Crime Agency officers, on March 2 the third and final report into the attack, The Manchester Arena Inquiry Volume 3: Radicalisation and Preventability, was published. The report, which is effectively the last word in the inquiry, focuses on the radicalisation of the bomber, the planning and preparation, and how it might have been prevented.
Its findings highlight just how difficult the task the security services are being asked to undertake when so many Muslims live in the West and there is still no way to distinguish a Jihadi terrorist from a peaceful devout believer.
Inquiry Chair Sir John Saunders said significant opportunities had been missed and there was “a realistic possibility that actionable intelligence could have been obtained which might have led to actions preventing the attack.”
Unlike many suicide bombers Salman Abedi left behind no message and he scrubbed and disposed of most of his electronic devices before he died; it has never been completely clear what his motive was for doing it.
So in order to “learn about how to prevent others being drawn into a similarly warped mindset of violent extremism” the inquiry set out to build a picture of Abedi’s motive and how he moved from the fringes of non-violent Islamist extremism, to theoretical violent Islamist extremism and then, in the last phases, to what Dr Matthew Wilkinson, an expert in Islamic theology, Islamist ideology and Islamist extremism called “operational violent Islamist extremism, so that’s doing operational acts.”
The report delved deep in five different areas of Abedi’s life in search of clues: his family; his friends and associates; his use of the internet and social media; his education; and the mosques that he and his family attended.
No clear answers emerged, but some insights were gleaned about his mindset and the influences upon him. Dr Wilkinson testified that Abedi’s whole upbringing was one in which “his entire experience or expression of Islam was within this Islamist extremist worldview”. His father’s experiences and views, as well as those of his father’s friends and associates, existed in the violent extremist space, and this worldview “had obviously percolated down a generation into the sons”.
Abedi’s radicalisation was driven by what Dr Wilkinson called noxious absences and malign presences: noxious absences like his prolonged disengagement from mainstream English education and the absence of responsible parenting, and malign presences including the ongoing conflict in Libya and engagement with a radicalising peer group. “I have never seen such a complete picture of the Petri dish absolutely brimming with germs” Dr Wilkinson said.
Another significant factor in Abedi’s journey to radicalisation was found to be the influence of Islamic State propaganda and other extremist content posted online, which Dr Wilkinson described as a “huge problem.” Though Salman Abedi left no note, his brother Hashem Abedi who is now in prison told members of the inquiry legal team that he and his brother were motivated by adherence to Islamic State, a position exposed starkly by this question and answer:
Question: What actions have you taken to support Islamic State?
Answer: The Manchester attack.
In his 19 minute confession video, which the inquiry chair Sir John Saunders refused to play any part of saying it represents pro−Islamic State propaganda, Hashem Abedi told the inquiry legal team that he was a supporter of violent jihad and that he considered violence justified to bring about change in society.
But beyond establishing that Islamic State jihadi ideology and an “Islamist extremist worldview” played a key role in radicalising the Abedis, the report stopped short of asking the follow-up question: what can we in the UK do to make sure the wells of hatred from which both brothers drank so deeply are permanently eradicated?
Unfortunately this meant that beyond some bureaucratic recommendations about better information sharing, as well as some more significant changes to the UK security service, counter-terrorism policing and prison system, the inquiry was not able to come up with any viable long-term solutions to prevent such attacks happening again in future.
The answer to the question the inquiry did not ask is that the Jihadi movement has its roots in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and a long struggle for freedom, justice and self-determination. The antidote to the poisonous ideology of Islamic State and Al Qaeda is Arab democracy, freedom and justice and when these are delivered the wells that water the Jihadi phenomenon will dry up and disappear.
What would have had considerably more impact than the inquiry recommending security reforms in the UK would have been for Sir John Saunders to recommend the immediate release of the more than 60,000 political prisoners currently languishing in Sisi’s dungeons as well as unknown thousands more in Saudi Arabia, where the jihadi phenomenon was born and raised and where its pernicious ideology has been sidelined by the equally pernicious rule of Mohammed bin Salman. Repatriation of British citizens and their children currently held in detention camps in Syria would also serve to drain the jihadist swamp.
Although western countries continue to pay lip service to the idea they are spreading democracy in the region, Western complicity in the undoing of democratic victories by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza means the West has never looked more hypocritical. Lack of concern at the Kais Saied coup being played out in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring’s struggle for democracy began, underscores the hypocrisy. Support for Israel includes supporting the apartheid regime in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Backing dictatorships while paying lip service to democratic values betrays the lives of millions of Arabs on a daily basis.
The response of the UK and EU is to say: we are mitigating the jihad threat through work being done with the regimes on improving conditions in prisons.
In 2021 EU Ambassador and Head of Delegation Christian Berger told Arab Digest work is being done on de-radicalisation in Egyptian prisons and that the EU Special Representative on Human Rights and the European Parliament have raised these issues. Nearly two years on conditions in the prisons have only gotten worse (for more on the situation read the just-released DAWN report on Badr Prison).
Following a freedom of information request by Arab Digest last year the FCDO Gulf Strategy Fund for Saudi Arabia programme said in the year 2020-21 they had a budget for £1,859,576 which included “cooperation on security and justice to mitigate risks from extremist voices and promote engagement on human rights and the rule of law.” Among other grotesque decisions by the Saudi courts was the sentencing in August 2022 of a University of Leeds student, Salma al-Shehab, to 34 years for tweets calling for democracy.
Surveying the dashed hopes for freedom and justice across the battlefields and prisons of the Arab world today, Western efforts to eradicate jihadist extremism look completely meaningless and out of touch and so the Global War on Terror is destined to grind on.