Salman Abedi: The Unlikely Bomber Hellbent on Massacring Kids

Quiet son of south Manchester turns against his own community—killing 22 and injuring 59 at an Ariana Grande show.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

LONDON—He was the quiet one.

His older brother was the more outspoken of the boys—all of whom were born in south Manchester to a family of Libyan immigrants. His little sister was the one with the glamorous social media presence.

Yet Salman Abedi, 22, will be the name that goes down in infamy: a vicious criminal that slaughtered 22 innocents who were gathered to sing and dance on a Monday night. The event he handpicked as a target was filled with teenage girls and their moms who’d taken them out for a one-off school night treat to see their favorite pop star.

It was an act of barbarity that seemed even to shock the hardened operatives at MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, who described the devastating detonation of an improvised explosive device as “disgusting.”

Even at Didsbury mosque where Abedi was a regular, it was the rest of his family who shone. His father was a well-known figure who was reportedly responsible for the call to prayer. His sister Jomana, who was a careers ambassador at school, said she had worked at the mosque from 2013 on Facebook, where she professed her admiration for Keeping Up With the Kardashians while posting images that made her look like a long-lost member of the family.

A member of the Libyan community in south Manchester told the Guardian they were stunned to hear about Abedi’s crime. “Salman? I’m astonished by this,” they said. “He was such a quiet boy, always very respectful towards me. His brother Ismael is outgoing, but Salman was very quiet. He is such an unlikely person to have done this.”

The calm on the quiet street where they lived was shattered on Tuesday morning when police officers used explosives to break into the family home in a raid on Elsmore road, less than four miles from the site of Britain’s worst terror attack since 2005.

Twenty-one thousand concertgoers—many of them teenagers—had crowded into the Manchester Arena to see Ariana Grande.

Minutes after the former child star—now 23—finished her encore and fans began to make their way outside, the lone attacker detonated an improvised explosive device at the entrance of the venue in Manchester, England.  

At least 22 people were killed and 59 injured, Chief Constable Ian Hopkins of the Greater Manchester Police said. “I can confirm there are children among the deceased,” he said.

The first victims to be identified were Saffie-Rose Roussos, who was just 8, and Georgina Callandar, 18, who was described by her former school as “a lovely young student.”

Callender, an Ariana Grande superfan, met her hero on a previous tour of the U.K. before posting a picture of them hugging on Instagram.

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British authorities confirmed that the suspect was named Salman Abedi several hours after his name was reported by the U.S. media. He died at the scene.

Whether he acted alone or is connected to a network is the focus of the investigation now. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack through official and semi-official channels on Tuesday morning.

A senior U.S. counterterorrism official says the have "no reason to doubt the claims" of responsibility for the attack, but offered no clarity on whether ISIS directed it or simply inspired the attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the still evolving investigation.

Security officials say they believe around 350 jihadis have returned to Britain from the conflict in Syria. The possibility that the bomb maker is still at large is a particular concern; this is the first time terrorists have successfully used explosives for an attack on Britain since July 7, 2005, when four suicide bombers blew themselves up on London public transport, killing 52 people.

Manchester police said they had arrested a man, 23, on in connection with the attack.

“All acts of terrorism are cowardly attacks on innocent people, but this attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice—deliberately targeting innocent defenseless children and young people,” said Prime Minister Theresa May.

U.S. President Donald Trump expressed his condolences and launched into a vehement denunciation. “I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term,” he said. “I will call them from now on ‘losers.’”

A senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told The Daily Beast that U.S. officials were working off the understanding that Abedi had tried to get into the concert area and that he was stopped by a security guard.

The crowd—many of whom were children and teenagers—scrambled to escape the arena after the attack, falling over each other and sustaining injuries in the panic as more than 20 bodies lay prone, dead, or injured in the foyer.

One father, who was there to pick up his wife and daughter, described being blown off his feet by the force of the blast.

“We got thrown forward through the door toward the arena—the explosion was behind us forcing us forward,” Andy Holey told the BBC. “Everyone that was 10-15 feet behind us; every one of them got injured. There was about 20-30 people fatally injured.”

The attack comes shortly before Britain’s upcoming general election, which will be held in just over two weeks. Prime Minister May has suspended her campaign as security agencies hunt down the attacker.

“It is now beyond doubt that the people of Manchester and of this country have fallen victim to a callous terrorist attack, an attack that targeted some of the youngest people in our society with cold calculation,” she said.

“This was among the worst terrorist incidents we have ever experienced in the United Kingdom. And although it is not the first time Manchester has suffered in this way, it is the worst attack the city has experienced and the worst-ever to hit the north of England.”

Manchester’s city center was attacked by the Provisional IRA in 1996 with the biggest bomb to be detonated in Britain since the Second World War. The Arndale shopping mall was destroyed and 212 people were injured although there were no fatalities. It took a decade for Britain’s second city—which is one of the cultural hearts of the nation—to be rebuilt.

While ISIS supporters celebrated the bloodshed on social media, unconfirmed reports on social media include claims of a now-suspended Twitter account that posted about the attack shortly before it occurred, and a video threatening Manchester posted to Telegram. The Daily Beast was unable to independently verify those reports.

In the latest issue of the ISIS magazine Rumiyah, however, the terrorist group listed concert halls—along with nightclubs, movie theaters, shopping centers, and swimming pools—as possible targets.

“Generally any busy enclosed area, as such an environment allows for one to take control of the situation by rounding up the kuffar [unbelievers] present inside and allows one to massacre them while using the building as a natural defense against any responding force attempting to enter and bring the operation to a quick halt,” the magazine noted. It also advised targeting dark areas to further hamper first responders.

ISIS wrought havoc with similar tactics less than two years ago on the Bataclan concert hall, where 130 people were killed during an Eagles of Death Metal show in Paris. A statement in the aftermath from ISIS hailed the attack, describing the scene at the Bataclan as a venue where “hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party.”

Years earlier, in 2003, a pair of female suicide bombers attacked a concert outside Moscow, killing 14 people.

Mia Bloom, a Georgia State University professor and author of several books on terrorism, told The Daily Beast that jihadis have convinced themselves that teenagers out partying should be considered legitimate targets.

“There’s a reason rock concerts are so appealing: You get young people, you get people in a crowded space... And generally, you’re not going to get what they [jihadis] consider a to be a good, religious, Muslim girl. There’s a selection effect,” Bloom said, while noting that no terrorist group has claimed credit for the attack.

“Plus, concerts are symbolic of the licentiousness and degradation of the West. There’s a reason why the first time [extremists] move into an area, they ban music and dancing. It’s like that Footloose thing,” Bloom added.

Boston rapper BIA, one of the opening acts at the Manchester Arena, tweeted and then deleted a message that read “GUYS WE ARE OKAY!!” It was replaced with with words of mourning: “My heart is broken.”

Ariana Grande, who has since reportedly canceled two scheduled shows in the U.K. later this week, was not injured in the blast. In a statement released on Twitter, Grande said she felt “broken.”

Scooter Braun, Grande’s manager, issued a statement on social media echoing the singer’s sentiments.

“Tonight, our hearts are broken,” Braun said. “Words cannot express our sorry for the victims and families harmed in this senseless attack. We mourn the lives of children and loved ones taken by this cowardly act. We are thankful for the selfless service tonight of Manchester’s first responders who rushed towards danger to help save lives. We ask all of you to hold the victims, their families, and all those affected in your hearts and prayers.”

Concertgoer Hannah Dane told The Guardian there was “quite a loud explosion heard from inside the Manchester arena and it shook, then everyone screamed and tried to get out.”

Another witness, 26-year-old Suzy Mitchell, said a huge bang rocked the neighborhood, where she lives. Mitchell told the Press Association: “[I] just heard a huge bang from my bed, came out to the front of my apartments (we’re on the top floor so have perfect view) and everyone was running away in big crowds.”

“The bang was so big I heard it from my room which is at the back of the apartment blocks.”

Robert Gates, retired secretary of defense and former CIA chief, said the attack bore the hallmarks of ISIS.

"The speed with which ISIS took credit... lends credibility to them being responsible for it," he said. "Whether they planned it, whether they encouraged some radicalized person or group to do it is kind of immaterial as long as they were the spark."

Gates warned that as coalition forces drive ISIS out of Raqqah and Mosul, that the fleeing fighters will return to their west, still determined to kill. Speaking at a gathering of Washington, D.C., think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Gates predicted that ISIS would metastasize, just as Al Qaeda had after the killing of Osama bin Laden.  

"Sadly, Manchester may be a harbinger," he said.

— with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman and Christopher Dickey