As we await the conclusion of the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry, Richard Scorer of Slater Gordon Solicitors, who represent many of the victim’s families, writes for Policy Exchange. Richard captures issues of critical importance. These include the question of how the police and security services are monitoring individuals who hold extremist views – suicide bomber Salman Abedi was on the radar of MI5 for up to seven years before the bombing, but was unknown to the counter-extremism Prevent policy. Important proposals are made with regards to venue security and how the emergency services respond to terror attacks, and Scorer reminds us that the generally low understanding of Islamism, and reluctance to challenge it is a hindrance to the public debates we need to be having.
The public inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing concluded its hearings in mid March after 196 days of live evidence and 267 witnesses. Twenty two people were killed and hundreds more seriously injured when Salman Abedi, born and raised in south Manchester but with family roots in Libya, detonated his homemade device at the Ariana Grande concert. Tragically, the Manchester Arena atrocity was a catalogue of failings at every level. There were failings in security and medical provision at the Arena and failings in emergency services readiness and response on the night of the bombing. Long before that, there were failings by MI5 and counter terrorism police to prevent the attack and – I believe – a wider political and societal failure to confront the extremism which motivated Salman Abedi and too many others like him. At the end of the hearings families of those killed in the attack called for the inquiry to be “clear-sighted and brave” in its recommendations when it reports later this year. What changes do we need to see?
One change we need is better event security. There is currently no legislative requirement for organisations or venues to employ security measures at the vast majority of public events. Helpfully, the government has started to address this. The Queen’s Speech included a commitment to legislate, in this parliamentary session, for a new “Protect Duty” along the lines championed by the Martyn’s Law campaign (established by Figen Murray following the loss of her son Martyn in the Arena attack). The Duty will require those in control of public locations and venues to consider the risks posed by terrorist attacks, and take appropriate and proportionate measures to safeguard the public. In the government consultation around the Protect Duty, there was agreement that venue capacity should determine when the duty applies. Larger organisations should be taking proportionately greater action to ensure people are protected. Within any legislative framework there needs to be clear accountability, i.e. clear roles and responsibilities amongst event organisers and senior managers. I believe there will also need to be some inspectorate capacity to identify vulnerabilities and areas for improvement, and civil penalties to ensure compliance should be considered.
A second change relates to the “care gap” after a terrorist incident. In the Manchester Arena bombing there were serious and inexcusable failures in the emergency services response. These need to be addressed, and we can learn from international experience. France’s response to the Bataclan attack demonstrated better co-operation, communication and co-location of emergency responders and this meant quicker extraction of causalities. We also need to tap into Israeli expertise. But we have to acknowledge, also, that some delay in ambulance response to a terrorist attack is almost inevitable. There will always be a “care gap” whilst victims wait for the emergency services to arrive, and during this period the injured are effectively on their own. We can better prepare the public for that by including first aid within the National Curriculum, and by government working with the excellent charity Citizens’ Aid to raise public knowledge and understanding of simple actions which can save lives: obviously, both things have value well beyond dealing with terrorist incidents.
On the issue of preventability of the Arena bombing – could MI5 and counter terrorism police have detected Abedi at an earlier date and prevented the attack? – much of the evidence heard by the inquiry was heard in closed session. Nevertheless, we know enough to be clear that major red flags were ignored. I set some of them out here (link to Feminist Dissent Piece). Some Lessons from Manchester – Feminist Dissent
In brief summary, Abedi was on MI5’s radar for around 7 years in the run up to the bombing, and during that time was known to have committed a violent misogynistic attack on a fellow student, and was recorded in thousands of exchanges of messages with a known terrorist as expressing hatred of women and an interest in martyrdom. He went on, of course, to commit a self evidently misogynist terrorist atrocity in which 17 of the 22 victims were women (and some of the others were gay men). Staggeringly, at no stage was Abedi or any member of his family referred to Prevent. The Shawcross review would do well to ask why, and what lessons can be learned. The Abedi case highlights that misogynistic violence – taken in combination with other evidence of potential extremism – may be an important risk marker for involvement in terrorism, as Joan Smith has argued. And it raises serious questions about the use of restorative justice in cases involving such violence – especially where community pressure may lead to minimisation of the seriousness and implications of the offence, as it did in Abedi’s case.
Finally we need to address the reality of Islamist extremism, which remains an ever present threat. I fear that the quality of public debate (and public knowledge) about this issue is poor. It suits extremists (and the useful idiots who indulge them) to lump all Muslims together as a homogeneous group: in that way, any criticism of or warning about Islamist extremism can be characterised as an “Islamophobic” attack on Muslims as a whole, and progressive Muslim voices are marginalised. One issue which arose in the Arena inquiry was the role of Didsbury Mosque, the mosque attended by the bomber and several members of his family. There is no evidence to suggest that the mosque was directly involved in Abedi’s radicalisation, but we did highlight concerns about the mosque’s Islamist orientation, its alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, its alleged hosting of meetings of Islamist groups, its refusal to include an explicit condemnation of violence on its website, and the frustrations apparently experienced by counter terrorism police when they tried to engage with it to prevent travel to the Middle East for extremist purposes. Ed Husain in his book Among the Mosqueshighlights the striking contrast between Didsbury Mosque and other leading mosques in Manchester, the former being much more obviously political. We need to be able to have a frank and unfettered public debate about these differences, whilst emphasising that the vast majority of Muslims in this country are peace loving and abhor terrorism. Too often I find myself having to explain the distinction between Islam and Islamism. That distinction should be at the forefront of public debate and public awareness, so that we can confront the Islamist threat without it being deliberately conflated with Islam as a whole.
Richard Scorer is a Solicitor based in Manchester, where he works for Slater Gordon Solicitors.