Theresa May reveals how terror attacks hit her hard - and the moment she learned she was a target

Former Prime Minister Theresa May has spoken of the shocking moments in No.10 when she learned of a series of terror attacks during her premiership.

Speaking in-depth to Security Editor Rohit Kachroo on some of the darkest moments in Downing Street, Mrs May opens up about the debt Britain owes to the work of MI5.

She tells ITV News and ITV's Tonight Programme how she personally dealt with the aftermath of the bloody assaults on the British people – the very people that as prime minister she was ultimately responsible for trying to keep safe.

She reveals to ITV News:

  • how she was getting ready for bed only to be told of the Manchester Arena bombing atrocity

  • the “incredibly moving and incredibly heartening” fallout from the attack

  • her relationship with the security forces working to try to prevent further bloodshed

  • how she learned an IS fanatic wanted to kill her

  • what she would say to critics holding her responsible for deaths of Britons at the hands of terrorists

The ex-prime minister reveals the moment she was told of the Manchester Arena attack.

The horror of Manchester Arena

Mrs May took over in Downing Street in July 2016 – and the suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester happened in May the following year, during the general election campaign.

There had already been an terror incident a Westminster Bridge where four people, including a police officer, had died.

And by the end of 2017, there had been further attacks at London Bridge/Borough Market, Finsbury Park mosque, and on a tube train at Parsons Green.

But it was the Manchester attack that brought into such sharp focus just how fine the margins are in the fight against terrorism.

“As it happens, I was in No.10 Downing Street but I was upstairs in the flat, getting ready I think, getting ready to go to bed,” she says.

“There was something on the radio about something having happened in Manchester, but then I took a phone call from my private secretary who explained that this had been an attack, that I think at that stage they thought it was a suicide bomber… unable at that stage to say how many victims had been but knew that many of them were children."

Theresa May signed a book of condolence after the Manchester Arena attack. Credit: PA

She said the shock of the attack was absolute and her first thought was for the victims – before, as prime minister, she had to turn to taking stark practical steps.

The boss of MI5, Andrew Parker, briefed her on the fast-developing situation.

“Things are done very quickly and lots of people being brought in to brief the PM for the PM to question, and, as I said, to make sure that the resources are there for the investigation that’s necessary,” she says.

“But it’s always a very emotional moment because of what has happened but also a very, a moment that brings you up sharp because you are sitting there, you are listening at that stage to more details on exactly what's happened…

“I think what is reassuring is knowing that you have absolutely the most senior person taking personal interest in this and making sure that what needs to be done is being done. But knowing that you as PM are receiving the best as possible information and the best possible advice at that point.”

Andrew Parker, head of MI5, briefed Mrs May personally. Credit: ITV Tonight

Mrs May visited some of the survivors, their families and those who were treating them over the next day or so.

She was asked about the emotions she was feeling following those conversations: “That’s when it really comes home to you what this has meant and how many lives have been affected and lives who for those who survived will always remember that night.

“It’s incredibly moving, it's also incredibly heartening when you see the best of humanity in the emergency services, in the NHS but also when I talk to victims and their families, tremendous courage and people who really have been potentially scarred … for life.”

The Queen, pictured with Andrew Parker, has praised the work of MI5. Credit: PA

Who should hold responsibility for terror attacks?

By the end of 2017, there had been five terror attacks on British soil – so does Mrs May feel any responsibility for what happened?

“The only people who are responsible for terrorist attacks are the terrorists,” she states. “As PM, obviously, you always have a task to ensure that your agencies, that the police and others have the resources that they need; that questions are being asked of them and how they operate.

“But at every stage, you have to constantly be looking at the lessons we are learning, can we be doing this better? What can we be doing - working with others such as the internet companies, such as other governments - to ensure that we are able to have the tools available to our services so that they can do the job we want them to do?

“But, as I say, at the end of the day, the person responsible for the terrorist attack is the terrorist.”

There were several terror attacks during Theresa May's premiership. Credit: PA

In the crosshairs

In August, 2018, Islamic State terrorist Naa’imur Zakariyah Rahman was jailed for at least 30 years after being found guilty of a plot to kill Mrs May.

Rahman, then aged 20, planned to bomb the gates of 10 Downing Street, kill guards and then attack the then prime minister.

He was snared by a network of undercover counter-terrorism officers from the Metropolitan Police, the FBI and MI5.

“I was first told about it by the security service and … as anybody would feel when you are told that somebody is trying to do you harm, obviously it’s a matter of concern,” she tells ITV News.

“As PM, you have support, and as PM you have a protection team and so forth but it’s a natural human reaction to be concerned and be worried.”

She adds that it’s not just about the PM but other members of parliament – as so graphically emphasised by the murder of Jo Cox.

Islamic State terrorist Naa’imur Zakariyah Rahman targeted Mrs May - two years after a far right extremist killed MP Jo Cox. Credit: Met Police/PA

So, do such threats, such plots when they come to light, leave her questioning whether going into politics is a risk worth taking?

“No, this is a job and is an important job to do, being a member of parliament is an important job, being able to have the honour and privilege of being PM as such, it's about serving one's country,” she says.

“When being told something like that I think you just have to receive it and recognise it and be grateful to those who are working to ensure that you are kept safe. I mean that’s the first thing is being grateful to all those who are putting their effort into making sure that a threat of that sort doesn't materialise.”

Leading the fight

Mrs May had worked with Andrew Parker as head of MI5 while she was home secretary before she became prime minister.

He was on hand to brief her face-to-face after the Manchester Arena suicide bombing – and it’s clear she has huge respect for him and the people at the security service.

“I think first of all, (he's) absolutely committed to this country and to keeping this country safe. He’s very calm which is what you need in these circumstances as an individual and somebody who I think over time has led the issues that MI5 face, has changed, he has led them through some changes in a very capable and very good way.

“But also somebody who recognises that the importance of ensuring that staff are comfortable in what they are doing, comfortable in the decisions that they are taking, which is very important.”

Three serving spoke to us anonymously about the covert work they do for MI5. Credit: ITV Tonight

She goes on: “What is important is that we have in organisations like MI5, people who are willing to have quite a different life from others.

“By nature, if you are working for an organisation of secrecy like that, you have to be somebody of secrecy - but we are fortunate that we have absolute first class people who put themselves forward, to undertake that work and to commit it to keeping us safe.

“They are, in a very quiet way, a very impressive group of people.”

  • Watch more of our interview with Sir Andrew Parker plus current MI5 spies talking on camera for the first time about their secret work in Inside MI5: Keeping the UK Safe, broadcast on ITV on Thursday 27 February at 7.30pm