Manchester bomber Salman Abedi was flagged by MI5 18 times

The public inquiry was told that Salman Abedi, 22, had been identified associating with six MI5 subjects of interest

The Manchester bomber came to MI5’s attention at least 18 times, including for his attempts to travel to Syria and his links to Islamic State fundraisers, it emerged yesterday.

The public inquiry into the suicide attack at a pop concert in May 2017 was told that Salman Abedi, 22, had been identified associating with six MI5 “subjects of interest” [SOI], including a man previously linked to al-Qaeda who was under investigation for helping extremists to travel to Syria.

A year before Abedi killed 22 people at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena he had travelled to Istanbul, a well-known gateway for extremists heading to Isis territory.

While the security service had twice been told that Abedi wanted to travel to Syria and that he held pro-Isis views, the information was discounted when he did not go there.

Intelligence officers were also aware that a contact of Abedi’s had links to a senior figure in Isis

Lawyers representing the Home Office outlined yesterday the fullest details yet of MI5’s knowledge about Abedi as they said that decisions made in the case were largely reasonable and understandable.

The development comes after families of the victims questioned why police and the security service had failed to put together pieces of the mosaic that might have helped to prevent the attack.

Cathryn McGahey, QC, for the Home Office, described how Abedi came to MI5’s attention in 2010 and was made an SOI in 2014 because of links to an Isis recruiter. The case was closed in March that year because there was no intelligence indicating that he posed a threat to national security.

The security service admitted that information had come to its attention in mid-2016 that led it to consider reopening the case, but a meeting was not scheduled to consider doing so until May 31, 2017, nine days after the attack.

In the meantime Abedi came on the radar on multiple occasions, including for his link to suspects who were helping to facilitate travel to Syria and another affiliated to Isis in Libya.

Abedi had travelled regularly to the country although there was nothing inherently suspicious about these trips as he had family there. Another SOI with links to Abedi was under investigation for providing financial support to a member of Isis in Syria.

In February 2015 and January 2017 Abedi made separate visits to jails in Britain to Abdalraouf Abdallah, a convicted terrorist. Twice in the months before the attack intelligence was received by MI5 about Abedi which was assessed at the time to relate to possibly innocent activity or to non-terrorist criminality. In retrospect this intelligence was highly relevant to the planned attack, but the significance of it was not fully appreciated, the inquiry was told. The nature of the intelligence was not disclosed yesterday.

Abedi’s name also came up during a separate exercise as falling within a small number of former SOIs who merited further consideration.

Evidence concerning the two further pieces of information about Abedi will be heard behind closed doors, the first time an inquiry into a terrorist attack on mainland Britain has been held partly in secret. Ms McGahey said that the nature of the agency’s work was secretive but pledged “there is no question of secrecy being used to conceal failure”.

Ms McGahey said that even if MI5 had taken different decisions in the months before the attack it may not have stopped Abedi. She said there were enormous challenges in assessing intelligence, trying to work out what the risk is, who poses the greatest risk and seeking to predict what individuals are intending to do next.

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