The Manchester Arena Inquiry: why the media was not wrong to highlight Salman Abedi’s prayers before attack

On May 22, 2017, Salman Abedi carried out a suicide bombing at Manchester Arena that killed 22 and injured over 100 others. He was assisted by his younger brother, Hashem Abedi, who was jailed for 55 years for his involvement. The sentencing judge in that trial described the motivation behind the attack as “ to advance the ideological cause of Islamism”.

This week, a public inquiry began investigating those deaths. The purpose of the inquiry is to determine what happened and to learn where mistakes were made to prevent it from happening again. As the chairman of the inquiry Sir John Saunders declared, “This is an exercise in establishing the truth”.

That appears not to be the priority for some. The inquiry has already been hampered by a dispute over how the media chooses to cover a religious aspect of the attack.

On its first day, the inquiry heard details of Abedi’s movements that evening, including that a member of the public had seen him praying an hour before the bombing. Another said that she had informed a British Transport Police (BTP) officer that she had seen Abedi praying about thirty minutes beforehand (something that the BTP officer could not remember being told).

The BBC’s headline reflected this: “Arena bomber ‘seen praying before the blast’”. And that is when the trouble started.

“This headline on the front page of the @BBCNews website is unacceptable”, proclaimed Miqdaad Versi, Executive Director of the Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM), an organisation set up by the Muslim Council of Britain to “promot[e] fair and responsible reporting of Muslims and Islam”. Versi went on, “We at @cfmmuk are raising a complaint as to why the (claim of the) Manchester bomber praying was deemed as important enough to be the headline on the front page of the BBC.”

Making this kind of pedantic complaint is standard behaviour for Versi. According to an October 2018 article in The Guardian, he spends his spare time creating spreadsheets which categorise tens of thousands of media articles on Islam and Muslims. If he does not enjoy reading them very much, he then writes a complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Following Versi’s tweet, the BBC quickly changed the headline to “Arena bomber drew suspicion ahead of blast”. Versi described this as an “important correction…[t]o put an unverified, misleading, and frankly irrelevant claim as the headline on the front page of the news website, was wrong. Prayer is not an indicator of terrorism, nor relevant to terrorist activity.”

There are three issues here.

Firstly, this is an of the free press being cowed by activist groups taking offence at perceived religious slights. That the BBC caved so quickly – either because they thought they were being religiously insensitive or because they did not have the time or patience for a dispute with Miqdaad Versi – suggests they do not have much stomach for this kind of fight.

Secondly, while the BBC changing a headline because of an activist’s complaint may not seem a big issue, it starts to become one if members of the public feel worried about reporting suspicious or unusual behaviour in the future because they fear they would be accused of racial profiling.

That would certainly be the effect if they were to follow the advice of various counter-extremism professionals, who dismissed the idea that the act of praying in public could have any relevance to a terrorism threat and seemed to agree with Versi that the BBC had committed some grave error.

For example, Dina Hussein – Counter Terrorism Policy Manager at Facebook – fretted that “the headline appears to imply that the act of muslim prayer should be used to indicate malicious intent. Unfortunate as we know the marginalisation these implicit indicators cause to the muslim community.”

The former Canadian intelligence officer Jess Marin Davis proclaimed that “the framing of ‘prayer’ as a missed opportunity to prevent the attack is flawed.”

Simon Purdue, a doctoral fellow of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, decided that a media headline highlighting that “‘he was praying’ just feeds into the narrative that practicing Muslims are inherently dangerous, which is toxic and needlessly divisive”.

The message was clear: rather than ‘See It. Say It. Sorted’, the public should turn a blind eye in case they ended up marginalising communities.

Thirdly, the substance of Versi’s complaint is extraordinarily weak. As he says, prayer in of itself is obviously not an “indicator of terrorism”. But since, according to two witnesses, Abedi prayed shortly before blowing up a room full of people, it was at the very least relevant to him and his terrorist activity.

Public prayer is not suspicious behaviour in and of itself. Likewise carrying a large rucksack is not suspicious behaviour. Hanging around  in the foyer of a music venue for an hour is odd, if not necessarily suspicious behaviour. But taken together at a time of a heightened terror threat – and if we accept that an Ariana Grande concert was an unlikely setting for both prayer and backpacking –they become relevant.

The context here is vital, as there were plenty of reasons to be on edge on May 22, 2017. ISIS’s external operations emir, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, had already called on the group’s Western supporters to carry out attacks against “disbelievers” using any method possible. The threat level in the UK was assessed by security services to be ‘severe’ (meaning “an attack is highly likely”). Two months earlier, Khalid Masood had carried out a ramming and knife attack in Westminster.

The picture across Europe was equally bleak. Three separate Islamist attacks took place in France against security forces in the spring of that year. There was a truck attack in Stockholm carried out by ISIS in April. A few days before the Manchester attack, police and soldiers were stabbed by an ISIS-sympathiser in Milan.

All this occurred against a backdrop of devastating attacks in 2016 in Nice, Brussels and Berlin. Then there was the Paris attacks of November 2015, when ISIS slaughtered civilians specifically at a live music venue.

The public instinctively understand this. That is why one person seemingly went to speak to a BTP officer about Abedi; is it why one witness at the arena that day told the inquiry that he thought Abedi “looked out of place” and subsequently asked him “what have you got in your rucksack?…it doesn’t look very good you know, what you see with bombs and such, you with a rucksack like this in a place like this. What are you doing?” (He subsequently reported Abedi to a security guard, who was apparently dismissive of this witness’s concerns).

That member of the public was right: Abedi was a threat and his behaviour was suspicious. And now 22 people are dead and hundreds more have had their lives ruined. So rather than being sneered at, the public should feel empowered to report genuinely suspicious or unusual behaviour. And journalists should not be cowed from reporting the truth.