by Ross Harvey

Case Study: Ariana Grande, Manchester Arena Attack

On the evening of Monday 22nd of May 2017, more than 14,000 people, from across the UK, were attending an Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena. A little after 22.30 hrs that evening a male adversary of ethnic origin, attempted to gain access to the arena. He was in possession of an improvised explosive device which he would then detonate in the foyer of the Arena. The device was heavily packed with shrapnel amounting to nearly 2000 nuts. The device was created to maximise damage and loss of life as its intended use. The detonation of this device by Salman Abedi was the direct cause of death for twenty-two individuals including children and injured hundreds more. It was a devastating attack that would identify both successes and many learning opportunities for the agencies involved.

During the inquest, held earlier this year. The guardian reported that MI5 had enough prior intelligence of Salman Abedi to formally open an investigation into the individual but due excessive demand on the service they were unable to start any investigation or to place Mr Abedi under surveillance. This was the first failure and allowed Mr Abedi to carry out the attack unimpeded. Another area for future learning at this point was the failure of communications of a threat to counter terrorism police, who may have had more resources to allocate to this credible threat. Wolf- Robinson, M. & Dodd, V. (2022). MI5 had intelligence Manchester Arena bomber posed threat, inquiry told [online] Available at: theguardian.com [Accessed 07/10/22]. The inquest went on to detail that MI5 had also known about Mr Abedi from when he was around 16 as a supporter of Islamic state but due to an exponential increase in supporters, he was not deemed to be a credible threat at this point. He would later be the subject of a closed ‘subject of interest’ case after being red flagged by security services twice in 2014 and 2015. The history of this individual should have prompted the security services to assign appropriate resources to investigate him further. Failure on the security services part was catastrophic and could have saved many lives if appropriate action had been taken.

Another failure was on the part of the British Transport Police (BTP). On the evening of the bombing, multiple officers were to be assigned to the City Room entrance or foyer, where Mr Abedi detonated his device. The BBC reported that the 2021 inquiry found that many lives could have been saved if systematic failures did not occur within the BTP. The officers on that evening ignored direct orders to stagger breaks to ensure officers had a constant presence on site, they took an excessive break which was outside stated break allocation and in addition to these failures disregarded a direct order. The order was to ensure that all officers were to be in position within the City Room entrance, 30 mins before the end of the concert. This order was not complied with, and this was a major failure raised during the inquiry that could led directly to the death and injuries suffered. If an officer was in position, they would have been better placed to potentially deter the bomber or detect the bomber before getting as close as he did to the venue and the people within. De Simone, D. (2021). Manchester Arena bomb: Three PCs on duty face internal investigations [online] Available at: bbc.co.uk [Accessed 07/10/22].

The emergency response was initiated by civilian calls to 999 and was positively delivered for the most part except for a few elements which I will go into more detail in the paragraphs below. The Greater Manchester Police were first on site, followed by paramedics and started to try and establish what had happened. Officers and paramedics proceeded to enter the ‘hot zone’, where Mr Abedi had detonated his IED. The devastation was apparent to all, and the Kerslake Arena Review commended not only the actions of some response staff but also members of the public who, in the face of personal risk to themselves, ran towards the casualties and assisted emergency response staff in care and transportation of the injured.

Within the first few hours of the event, several issues arose which affected the level of service roll out such as, no central command between all services were established, the Home Office telephony provider (Vodafone) failed at delivery of a ‘hot line’ service, Greater Manchester Fire Service did not establish communications with Police Gold Command and were only deployed two hours after the initial incident. Amongst some of these failures in delivery of a well-informed crisis response, there were many more identified failures throughout that evening and the days that followed. That evening, the GMP would declare Operation Plato, which is a tactical response to a terrorist attack with firearms. This should have closed the scene but due to the nature of the incident, the area was not contained as this would have significantly hampered the casualty and forensic recovery operation, already underway. Operation Plato procedures were altered as no communication was given across the command chain to all services and some services were completely unaware as to what was going on, during this period.

The Kerslake report commends everyone’s involvement on that tragic evening, it identifies so many shortcomings in service delivery which all, comprehensively, led to a far from perfect delivery of their crisis management plans. Albeit The Greater Manchester Services carried out a mock terrorist attack only a few months before in the Trafford Centre. The systematic failures of that evening is what the Kerslake report would identify and advisories drafted.

It is my belief that this unfortunate event could have been prevented, not only on one occasion but several. This is my first critique. The failures of MI5 on at least three occasions could have led this threat down a different pathway. It would not have de-radicalised this young man, but he would have been appropriately monitored, which could have stopped any attack being carried out. The systemic failures of the BTP that evening was again an opener to this event occurring. If officers had followed protocol and their specific instructions on the evening this could have potentially prevented this particular attack from occurring. The officers would not have only provided a sense of ownership of the site but deployed correctly and being vigilant, they could have also identified Mr Adebi before he was able to enter a highly populated area where he caused significant damage and major loss to life.

Failures in multiagency communications was one of the major issues of the evening which led to further secondary issues for the services involved. The significant failures of the evening and lessons to be learnt from what I have surmised, comes down to two elements. Communications and procedural awareness. If both elements and their subsequent failures are addressed then this would allow for a more informed, strategic crisis plan delivery of future events. It is crucial to learn from incidents and take both the good and bad from each incident to better prepare response capabilities to future incidents.