Manchester Arena Attack: Bomber was part of serious crime gang says senior MI5 officer

ITV Granada Reports' Andrew Fletcher has the latest.

The bomber responsible for the Manchester Arena Attack had links to a serious crime gang in the city, it has been revealed.

Speaking from behind a screen at the inquiry, a senior MI5 officer detailed intelligence received by the security service about Salman Adedi in the years before the attack.

Referred to only as 'Witness J', he explained how MI5 came close to re-opening their investigation into Abedi, with a meeting due to take place nine days after the attack.

He also spoke about assessments made since the attack, which saw 22 people die and hundreds more suffer injuries in a bombing at the venue on 22 May 2017.

He gave evidence behind a screen to a court room, to maintain his anonymity, at Manchester Magistrates Court packed with members of the victims' families and lawyers.

Witness J told the inquiry: "We assess that Salman Abedi was part of a group of individuals in South Manchester who had links to a serious crime gang."

Salman Abedi at Victoria Station making his way to the Manchester Arena. Credit: PA / GMP

He added: "The challenge for us is when individuals are involved in terrorism and crime, some of their behaviour and activity can look the same.

"It can be difficult to distinguish, for example drug dealing and fraud from national security activity."

The officer described how a report by the Joint Analysis and Terrorism Centre (JTAC), a part of MI5, in 2010 highlighted the "close proximity between violent extremism and criminal gangs in Manchester.

It also highlighted that individuals with a Libyan background could have been exposed to Libya-linked individuals with extremist tendencies form their parents' generation, including members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) which has been linked to al-Qaeda.

"Salman Abedi was assessed as likely his extreme views were informed by his father, Ramadan Abedi," Witness J said.

Asked by Paul Greaney QC, for the inquiry if it was assessed that Raamadan Abedi was involved with the LIFG, he said, "I'm afraid I am not able to go into that in open [hearings]."

The 22 victims of the Manchester Arena Attack.

Salman Abedi had first been on the MI5 radar in 2010, seven years before the attack, he was made a "subject of interest" in 2014, and was mentioned on several occasions in reporting to MI5 from mid-2015 onwards, including information about his support for ISIS. 

On two separate occasions in the months before the attack, MI5 received intelligence that Abedi was involved in terrorism but dismissed it as criminal activity. 

The intelligence is said to have been "highly relevant" to the planned attack but the significance was not "fully appreciated" at the time.

A meeting was due to be held about him, nine days after the attack.

Sir John Saunders, the inquiry chairman, has ruled that there is "centrally important material" relevant to the question of whether MI5 could have prevented the attacks that cannot be revealed to the public.

Sir John Saunders, chairman of Manchester Arena Inquiry.

As a result, for the first time in an inquest or inquiry since 9/11, some of the hearings will take place behind closed doors.

The inquiry is examining whether Salman Abedi should have been re-opened as a subject of interest in 2016, in light of what was known by MI5 and police at that time.

A second issue will be whether Abedi should have been re-opened as a subject of interest in the first few months of 2017 in response to information received on two occasions.

The last issue is whether Abedi should have been put on a "ports action" list in 2017 which would have alerted police to his return from Libya, four days before the attack

The inquiry continues.