Always, when a terrorist atrocity takes place, the questions are the same: how could this have happened? Could it have been prevented? The fact that we rarely get satisfactory answers does not stop us wondering.
Footage from the inquiry into the attack outside an Ariana Grande concert in 2017, which heard its final submissions in March, provides many of the most arresting moments in Worlds Collide: The Manchester Bombing (ITV), a new two-part investigation. The actual inquiry spent 18 months sifting evidence; now, we at home have a couple of hours to come to our own personal ruling on whether the police and security services ought to have stopped Salman Abedi detonating a shrapnel bomb that killed him and 22 others. Whether or not this is a worthwhile pursuit is debatable, because even a well-made and intentioned documentary like this ends up feeling like a confusing spray of partial information.
The opening episode’s effort to enlighten begins with the Abedi family’s arrival in Manchester in the late 1990s, as Libyan refugees. We are told how Salman was uninterested in school and then drawn, as too many disaffected British youths are, to gang crime, leaving his “little Tripoli” neighbourhood in Fallowfield behind to hang out on the streets of Moss Side. This criminal bent melded with Abedi’s religious beliefs to create a truly dangerous young man, we are told by a contributor – perhaps with not enough emphasis on how rare this behaviour is, and how starkly contradictory to the teachings of mainstream Islam.
The turning point in the Abedi story is the Libyan civil war of 2011, which prompted many British Libyans to travel to Libya to join Islamist militias fighting against the Gaddafi dictatorship. Such groups were assisted by a Nato bombing campaign that Britain joined, a policy later criticised by the foreign affairs select committee as having led to “the growth of [Islamic State] in North Africa”. To what extent Abedi was one of our guys who turned on us is covered by the programme, but a single line from an interviewee about the dangers of British citizens going abroad, enlisting with extremist groups, then coming home again – the security services saw this risk but, well, that was the side we were on in the war – doesn’t feel like an adequate analysis of what is surely a key issue.
There is a stronger examination of what came next, as British intelligence’s relationship with Abedi becomes what in hindsight is an agonising string of missed opportunities. Files were opened, then closed; interactions with possible terrorists were noted, but not acted on; intelligence that came in before the attack can now be seen as pointing to it, but was not identified as serious at the time. On the last point, Worlds Collide runs into a common problem for civilians trying to critique anti-terror measures: the content of that intelligence remains classified. But we are told that a meeting was scheduled for 31 May 2017 to discuss Abedi. He detonated his bomb on the concourse outside Manchester Arena on 22 May.
Abedi committed his crime in an age of close surveillance, giving Worlds Collide a startlingly complete picture of his movements. It is deeply eerie to see CCTV film of him struggling into his block of flats with a heavy suitcase full of explosives, or conducting a reconnaissance trip at the site of the attack a few hours before the Grande gig. If the programme perhaps hunts for some painful ironies that aren’t there – of course nobody noticed a young man walking normally around a public space in the afternoon – it does identify people who must now live with what they didn’t do on that evening, when they saw Abedi on his return, weighed down by a heavy rucksack. They range from the apparently blameless, such as the suspicious event security worker who perhaps lacked enough relevant training, to the more culpable British Transport Police officers who were absent from their patrol for more than two hours because they had popped out to get a kebab.
At times, Worlds Collide feels as if it trades on the frisson generated by near misses, tempted as it is by techniques that intensify our emotions. An on-screen clock ticks ominously towards zero, and the camera lingers on interviewees for two seconds after they’ve finished speaking, so we can see them reflect on the gravity of what they have said, or, in the case of grieving relatives offering a happy memory of the dead, wait for their smiles to fade.
The gently sketched portraits of some of those who were murdered, their loved ones celebrating short lives so ordinary and so precious, do however constitute the best moments of Worlds Collide. They remind us of what was so shockingly lost, why we can’t help seeking a full explanation and why the programme should probably be forgiven for failing to provide one.
• This article was amended on 14 April 2022. An earlier version said that the inquiry “spent more than six months sifting evidence”. It sat over a period of 18 months, hearing 194 days of oral evidence. This has been clarified.