Duncan Gardham

A haunting revelation from the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry

A haunting revelation from the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry
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The path to the Manchester Arena bombing inquiry, which opened in September, has been a long one. It had to wait for the extradition from Libya and trial of the bomber's brother, Hashem Abedi, and then for the first wave of coronavirus. Once underway, it has been a rollercoaster of emotion for the victims' families, many of whom have sat through every day of the hearings.

It began with two weeks of truly heart-breaking stories of the 22 lives cut short. The kind of person who attends an Ariana Grande concert is likely to be young and in love with life; that made their stories feel that much more tragic.

Subsequent weeks have driven home what it means to kiss your eight-year-old child, or your 14-year-old teenager, or your 29-year-old son goodbye. To watch them go off on one of the most exciting nights of their young lives, only for them never to return. Alongside the sadness felt by families, there is anger. Relatives of the victims have been asking: why weren't my children safe? Why weren't their parents – who made up half the victims – safe?

That was the job of those responsible for security at venues like the Manchester Arena. It is a job that, until the pandemic, was repeated at venues across the country, from concert halls to football grounds. Many of these stadiums have used stewards from Showsec who 'employ' 4,000 casual staff to marshal the crowds at everywhere from Manchester City's Etihad Stadium to Twickenham, music festivals to fun runs. They have smart matching uniforms with their logo on and their role on the back. They look as though they know what they are doing. You might think your child is in good hands. But is that really the case? 

The reality is that such casual workers are often poorly-paid and not always well trained. The inquiry heard that some stewarding staff skipped through the 'e-learning' on their phones in a matter of minutes, and no one had bothered to check.

But the problems went beyond that. At every event at Manchester Arena, stewards signed a form which said they had checked the area where, on the night of 22 May 2017, the bomber waited with his rucksack. At one point that evening, two stewards took a look in the direction of Abedi himself after a worried parent asked if they had checked him out. But that is all they did.

As for the police? The reaction of officers in the aftermath of the bombing was undoubtedly heroic. But in the lead-up to the bombing, British Transport Police did no better than stewarding staff in spotting Abedi; two officers even clocked off for a two-hour meal break involving a five-mile round trip for a kebab, when the concert started.

What was in no one's head, it seems, was the idea that there could be a terrorist attack in Manchester or, it seems, that suicide bombing was still a threat. That is a shame, because the National Counter-Terrorism and Security Office had been trying to drum home the risk to venues across the country for years. But the lesson had been absorbed only in the mechanical way that large corporations often do.

The day-to-day concern at SMG – who operate, but don't own the arena – appeared to be in getting their audiences in and out safely, avoiding fires, crushes and violent outbreaks, while keeping an eye out for pickpockets and illegal merchandisers. This was understandable, until the moment disaster struck – and that critical hour in which Salman Abedi sat there waiting.

Part of the problem is that no one really took responsibility for the 'grey' area where Abedi was waiting. Many people are still under the impression that he set his bomb off inside Manchester Arena. Footage of panicking crowds inside the arena have reinforced that idea. In fact, Abedi was outside the main entrance, in a foyer area where the box office is. Originally designed as a multi-use entertainment space, it had a cinema and a McDonalds, both of which had shut down in past years to be replaced with a call centre. 

US-owned SMG, now called ASM, had responsibility for the security of the foyer and they subcontracted that to Showsec. Security staff were stationed at key spots and a control room was used to monitor goings-on, with CCTV cameras trained on every spot, except the one where Abedi had chosen to sit. What's more, with people passing through the area on their way to the call centre, the NCP car park, or simply waiting for their loved ones to emerge from the concert, there were no checks on who was there.

Worryingly, it is a situation which is almost certainly replicated at sports and entertainment venues across the country which back onto shopping centres, car parks, and, in this case, a major railway station, Manchester Victoria. In these busy areas, people come and go: but who is keeping a close eye on what is going on? 

At the inquiry, respective executives for SMG and Showsec have passed the buck about who was responsible for patrolling the area where Abedi lurked. As for Greater Manchester Police, a counter-terrorism security adviser for GMP conceded that they had given over-optimistic scores for the arena's security and that suicide bombing was not 'as high up on everybody’s radar as other attack methodologies'.

Since the bombing, some lessons have been learned. But for the families of the 22 victims these are lessons that are too late. As a cautionary tale, you could do worse than watch some of the performances in the witness box at the inquiry, rabbiting garbled management-speak in incomprehensible sentences as they struggle to explain why they had not done what everyone thought they should have.

This is not the last word from the inquiry. To come are some painful truths about the risks the ambulance and fire brigade are not prepared to take in the event of an attack, and the 18 occasions on which MI5 came across the bomber in the years before the attack.

But next time you are in a crowd and looking at the stewards in their smart jackets, think of how they are responsible for getting you and your family and friends in and out safely and for spotting the threats before they materialise. It's then that you might be wise to reflect that your life – and the lives of those you are with – are in their hands.