Manchester Arena manager claims bomber 'blended in too well'

Manchester Arena manager knew it was a ‘prime target’ for terrorists but claims bomber ‘blended in too well’ as he hauled bulky rucksack through foyer full of young girls and their parents, inquiry hears

  • Salman Abedi, 22, detonated device at Manchester Arena in May 2017, killing 22
  • Arena general manager James Allen said the attacker ‘blended in too well’
  • He never considered shutting off the foyer where bomb was detonated
  • This was despite management knowing that it was a ‘prime target’ for an attack 

Suicide bomber Salman Abedi overcame security at Manchester Arena because he ‘blended in too well’, the venue’s boss told the public inquiry into the 2017 attack.

Abedi, 22, was in the arena and the adjoining Victoria railway station from 8.30pm on the night of the bombing which killed 22 people on May 22, 2017.

He was caught on CCTV as he walked around with a large and heavy rucksack on his back.

At one point he spent 10 minutes in a toilet cubicle after he had struggled to navigate the coin-operated entry turnstile.

He later hid from sight from CCTV cameras for nearly an hour in the raised mezzanine level of the City Room foyer before he descended the staircase and detonated his home-made device, packed with thousands of nuts and bolts, as members of the public left the Ariana Grande concert.

The management at the Manchester Arena, led by James Allen, never considered shutting off the foyer where Abedi detonated his device despite recognising that it was a ‘prime target’ for terrorists, the inquiry also head. 

Suicide bomber Salman Abedi overcame security at Manchester Arena because he ‘blended in too well’, the venue’s boss told the public inquiry into the 2017 attack

On Monday, counsel to the inquiry Paul Greaney QC asked James Allen, Arena general manager: ‘Salman Abedi was 22 years of age, he was a dropout from university, he was entirely undistinguished in life and he even struggled to work out how to get into the toilets in the station.

‘How was it that he managed to defeat the security arrangements at the Arena that night?’

Mr Allen replied: ‘Because I believe he blended in too well.’

The witness, who is employed by venue operator SMG, told the hearing at Manchester Magistrates’ Court it was his view that he and SMG had discharged their responsibility for the safety and security of the crowd of around 14,300 who attended the concert on May 22.

However, he also agreed that it appeared to be the case that the mezzanine level was not checked during the period that Abedi was hiding. 

A failure to do so during events was a ‘major failing on someone’s part’.

The management at the Manchester Arena never considered shutting off the foyer where Abedi detonated his device despite recognising that it was a ‘prime target’ for terrorists, the inquiry also head. Pictured: Arena general manager James Allen at Manchester Magistrates’ Court on Monday

During events SMG had staff from security provider Showsec assist in areas where the public were allowed to be, he said, and that Showsec were expected to be a ‘pair of eyes’, including making checks before a concert ended.

Mr Allen had worked at the Arena since 2003 but was unaware of a CCTV blackspot on the mezzanine level which Abedi may have identified on a previous reconnaissance visit.

Mr Greaney said to the witness: ‘If they (Showsec) didn’t walk onto that area, we have got a man intent upon serious harm on that mezzanine area for an hour with no physical check and him being in a blackspot for a significant period of time, do you have a reaction to that state of affairs?’

Mr Allen replied: ‘It was a missed opportunity, yes I agree.’

The inquiry heard the mezzanine level was less populated following the closure of a McDonald’s restaurant at the end of 2016.

Mr Greaney asked: ‘Is it reasonable for a person to suggest that someone at SMG ought to have reflected what that meant in terms of security in the City Room?’

‘Yes,’ said Mr Allen.

Mr Greaney said: ‘Would it be reasonable for that person to say this is an area where we need to think about in terms of, for example, whether a person who wishes harm might wait?’

A CCTV still – released by Greater Manchester Police – showing Abedi arriving at Manchester Arena before the attack 

‘Yes,’ said the witness.

Mr Greaney went on: ‘Did that ever happen as far as you know?’

Mr Allen said: ‘I don’t believe so.’

The public inquiry is looking at the background circumstances before and during the bombing and is expected to last into next spring.

The inquiry was also told it is ‘completely unacceptable’ that the operators of Manchester Arena did not consider taking measures to protect their entrances from terrorist attack, the inquiry has been told. 

Mr Allen was asked how a 22-year-old university drop out who had even struggled to work the turnstiles in the station toilets had managed to ‘defeat the security at the arena that night.’ 

Mr Allen, who works for a company called SMG, agreed that the threat was greatest at the entrances rather than in the arena itself but and that the City Room foyer was a ‘prime target.’

He had run exercises in which the City Room was targeted and attended a ‘table top’ exercise with the emergency services called Exercise Sherman ten months earlier, he said.

But the management never considered trying to close the foyer to the public or conducting checks further away from the arena doors.

Mr Agha denied he ‘fobbed off’ a member of the public, Christopher Wild, who came to him to report his suspicions about Abedi (pictured) at around 10.15pm

‘Literally thousands of people would flood through the City Room at the end of a concert,’ Mr Greaney said.

‘It was obvious to you in May 2017 that the arena and therefore the City Room, was or might be attractive to a terrorist who might wish to harm large numbers of members of the public?’

‘Yes,’ Mr Allen said.

‘Why were the measures now in place not in place at that time?’ Mr Greaney asked.

‘One possibility is that SMG did not give the slightest thought to measures that are now in place, another is that they did give it thought but considered it too difficult, or that they did consider it but it was too expensive.

‘Was consideration ever given before the attack to moving the perimeter away from the doors to the arena?’

‘No, I don’t believe it was,’ Mr Allen said. ‘No further consideration was given than what was already in place.’

‘We know that things have been done since, has there been a cost to achieve the situation that is now in place, has it been substantial?’ Mr Greaney asked.

‘Yes,’ Mr Allen replied.

‘Is that the reason or part of the reason why changes were not made before May 22 2017?’ the counsel to the inquest asked.

Mr Allen said ‘no’, and Mr Greaney asked: ‘Are you sure about that?’

The 22 victims of the terror attack during the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in May 2017

‘Yes,’ he replied.

After three suicide bombers were thwarted by security at the Stade de France in November 2016, the arena sought further advice.

‘You did not need to be an expert to realise that terrorists might target a crowded place,’ Mr Greaney said. 

‘You didn’t need to be an expert to realise good security at the perimeter might prevent a terrorist getting in and killing people.’

‘You accepted that the kind of measures that are in place now were not even considered before May 22. 

Can I invite you to consider that was not an acceptable state of affairs?’

‘We would have liked to have done more if we were able to do so,’ Mr Allen said.

‘I’m afraid that doesn’t begin to answer my question because as we have agreed SMG knew of the risk within that room, it knew what needed to be done and it has done it now.

‘That it wasn’t done before, someone looking in from outside would think that is completely unacceptable.

‘Do you agree that someone looking in from the outside would regard it as entirely unacceptable that SMG did not even try to take the steps to achieve what has been achieved since?’

‘Yes,’ Mr Allen said. ‘I accept we should have put forward more options.’

Mr Allen was shown footage of Salman Abedi as he made his last approach to the City Room foyer where he killed 22 men, women and children at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in May 2017.

Last week, the inquiry heard how security guard Kyle Lawler, then aged just 18, had a ‘bad feeling’ about Abedi but did not approach him for fear of being branded a racist

Mr Greaney said: ‘That man that we have just seen, with the arrangements that are now in place, is not getting into the City Room is he?’

‘No he is not,’ Mr Allen said.

Mr Allen said that further measures were ‘never on the table’ for the City Room, because there were so many other people that ‘expect to have access to that area.’

The area was also access to an NCP car park, a go-kart track underneath the car park and a Serco call centre for the JD Williams clothing brand.

Northern Rail and Network Rail also expected the foyer to be kept open so passengers could walk through, Mr Allen said.

‘If someone had come to us and said there is a risk to the City Room and you need to deal with the issue, we would have dealt with the issue,’ he added.

‘Is there any other body that should have told an organisation that specialised in events for decades about the risk?’ Mr Greaney asked.

‘I would say British Transport Police had overall jurisdiction in that area,’ Mr Allen said, because the arena was part of the Victoria Station complex.

The area at the back of the mezzanine level where Abedi hid for an hour was a CCTV ‘black spot’ but Mr Allen said he did not know that and had not asked for extra checks to be done by Showsec security staff.

‘Bearing in mind the mezzanine was the area in which Salman Abedi hid before he launched his attack, would it be fair to say this all feels quite serious now?’ Mr Greaney asked.

‘Is it possible that a person ought to have thought this is an area we need to think about in terms of this is where a person that wants to do harm might wait? Did that ever happen?’

‘I don’t believe so,’ Mr Allen said.

‘We’ve got a man intent on serious harm in the mezzanine area for an hour with no physical checks and in black spot for sig period of time, how do you react to that state of affairs?’

‘It was a missed opportunity, I agree,’ Mr Allen said.

‘Whoever’s fault it was, was it in your view wholly unacceptable that that area went unchecked while Salman Abedi was readying himself there waiting to detonate his device?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

The hearing continues. 

Last week, the inquiry heard how a security guard aged just 18 had a ‘bad feeling’ about Abedi but did not approach him for fear of being branded a racist, a public inquiry has heard.

Kyle Lawler was on duty when a colleague, Mohammed Agha, told him a member of the public had raised concerns about Abedi, who was hanging around outside the Arena at an Ariana Grande concert. 

Mr Lawler said he was stood 10 or 15ft away from Abedi, who had been reported to security by a member of the public who thought he looked ‘dodgy’.

The Showsec security guard, aged 18 at the time of the terror attack, told police in a statement read to the inquiry sitting in Manchester: ‘I felt unsure about what to do.

‘It’s very difficult to define a terrorist. For all I knew he might well be an innocent Asian male.

‘I did not want people to think I am stereotyping him because of his race. 

‘I was scared of being wrong and being branded a racist if I got it wrong and would have got into trouble.

‘It made me hesitant.

‘I wanted to get it right and not mess it up by over-reacting or judging someone by their race.’ 

Lawyer Mr Greaney said: ‘If you were to approach him and he was some innocent kid, people might think you were racist?’

Mr Lawler replied: ‘Yes’ 

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