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U.K. spy chief 'profoundly sorry' for failing to stop 2017 Manchester concert bombing

22 people — the youngest age 8 — died and more than 200 others were injured when a man detonated a homemade bomb at the end of an Ariana Grande concert.
A woman lights candles set up in front of floral tributes in Albert Square in Manchester, England on May 23, 2017, the day after an attack at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena.
A woman lights candles in front of floral tributes in Manchester, England, on May 23, 2017, the day after an attack at an Ariana Grande concert.Ben Stansall / AFP via Getty Images file
/ Source: Reuters

The head of Britain’s security services said on Thursday he was profoundly sorry his spies had missed a “significant” opportunity to prevent a deadly 2017 suicide bombing at the end of an Ariana Grande pop concert in Manchester.

Twenty-two people — the youngest aged eight — died and more than 200 were injured when a man detonated a homemade bomb at Manchester Arena in northern England as parents arrived to collect children following the American singer’s show.

John Saunders, the chairman of a public inquiry into the tragedy, said he could not say for certain the bombing could have been stopped, but “there was a realistic possibility that actionable intelligence could have been obtained, which might have led to action preventing the attack”.

He said the domestic MI5 spy agency, whose officers he questioned during private hearings, had failed to act swiftly enough. Saunders spoke after publication of his third and final report into the bombing, the deadliest in Britain since the 2005 London transport suicide attacks.

Ken McCallum, MI5’s Director General, said he was “profoundly sorry” that his service had not prevented the attack.

“Gathering covert intelligence is difficult but had we managed to seize the slim chance we had, those impacted might not have experienced such appalling loss and trauma,” he said in a statement.

Saunders told a media conference there had been a “significant missed opportunity to take action that might have prevented the attack.” He said he was unable to give details because of national security concerns, admitting this might leave victims’ families wanting to know more.

Richard Scorer, a lawyer for 11 bereaved families, said Saunders’ report had exposed “unacceptable” failures.

“At the very least, a real possibility of preventing this attack was lost. This is a devastating conclusion for us,” he said.

Suicide bomber Salman Abedi walking inside the Manchester Arena on May 21, 2017.
Suicide bomber Salman Abedi in the Manchester Arena on May 21, 2017.Manchester Arena Inquiry via AFP - Getty Images

The bomber, Salman Abedi, 22, had been known to the security agency since 2014, had visited an influential jailed militant in prison, and should have been referred to a de-radicalisation programme, Saunders said.

Abedi’s younger brother Hashem was jailed for 55 years in 2020 for encouraging and helping him while a third, older brother, Ismail, was in July convicted in his absence of failing to attend the inquiry to give evidence, having fled Britain.

The brothers were born to Libyan parents who emigrated to Britain during the rule of Moammar Gadhafi.

Interior minister Suella Braverman said she would work with the agency and police to “do everything possible to prevent a repeat of this horrifying attack.”

Saunders’ previous two reports had also highlighted other shortcomings and mistakes made both in the security at the venue and in the response by the emergency services, saying one victim would probably have survived had it not been so flawed.

Some victims’ relatives said they could never forgive those who had let their loved ones down.

“From top to bottom — MI5 to the associates of the attacker — we will always believe that you all played a part in the murder of our children,” Caroline Curry, the mother of a teenage boy who died alongside his 17-year-old girlfriend.

“So many people being paid that night to protect our kids, and yet so many failed in their duties.”