At 10.31pm on Monday 22 May 2017, Salman Ramadan Abedi, a British-born Islamist extremist blew himself up at the conclusion of an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena. I have murdered 22 people and injured more than 1,000, many seriously. Worlds Collide: The Manchester Bombing (ITV) is an attempt to understand why it happened, whether it could have been prevented, and whether it might happen again. Why, in other words, the world of fun-loving, apolitical, rather sweet Ariana Grande fans ended up colliding with the death-cult world of Abedi, who was brought up in Manchester and around the same age as them. They were obsessed with Ariana’s new album Dangerous Woman, fashion and friends; Abedi was obsessed with Islamic State, the Koran and just how many nuts and bolts he could pack into a homemade bomb in a large rucksack. (The answer is a lot: it is grimly comical to see Abedi on CCTV staggering around the Arena bent nearly double as he went about his evil mission, such was the sheer weight of his cargo of shrapnel.)
Despite the calm, conscious efforts of the documentary makers to explain what happened, and what might not have happened, they are only partly successful. The extensive CCTV footage, eyewitness accounts and footage from the public inquiry tell us much about what happened that night, and what led up to it – but, frustratingly, less about why.
The people we get to know most are the ones who speak freely and reflectively during the interviews – survivors and their families. Paul Price, for example, who stood just feet away from his partner Elaine, who tragically died in the explosion: “The next thing I know is that I’m coming round in intensive care after being in a coma for nearly two weeks… I don’t remember being told that Elaine had been killed, I don’t remember being told that Gabrielle [Paul’s daughter] was fine.”
It became apparent during the aftermath of the bombing and the many mass public events in Manchester to memorialize the victims that the people most affected – devastated – by Abedi’s work were people of ordinary demeanour and extraordinary spirit. The worst we hear any of them say comes from June Tron. She talks about finding the remains of her son de ella in a nearby hotel being used as an emergency facility. She says that when police showed her a picture of Abedi, she was shocked by his youth. She could not see how a “guttersnipe” like him, who didn’t “look old enough to shave”, could have destroyed so many lives. In all these testamonies, hatred is conspicuous by its absence.
We learn that during the school holidays, Abedi’s father, Ramadan, is believed to have taken his teenage son off to fight against Gaddafi’s forces in the Libyan civil war. In the parallel world of his future victims, they were enjoying weeks on the beach. The actual machinery of Islamist radicalization is only sketchily described, but his dad certainly seems to have a lot to answer for. However, neither he nor any other of Abedi’s friends and family (including his jailed co-conspirator brother, Hashem) are heard from in the programme.
Because the inquiry is still going on, we also get to hear little from the police, fire and ambulance services, nor the Prevent and MI5 operatives who monitored Abedi on and off for some years. From the partial picture, we do know that one member of the public could spot Abedi was up to no good, and alerted a steward, but that no action was taken for fear of being accused of racism; that the police seemed badly prepared for a terrorist attack; and there was a general air of complacency. It is quite possible that if Abedi had been challenged and detonated his bomb early, with almost everyone else in the auditorium, the death toll would have been far lower.
That said, as we know from the recent assassination of Sir David Amess, as well as the death of Jo Cox and many more attacks, that extremist terror is now a part of all our lives. The Prevent strategy, schools, faith organisations, families, police and the security services simply cannot keep tabs on the large number of extremists in all parts of the political and religious spectrum. Lessons will be learned, but worlds will collide again.