This week the Manchester Arena inquiry heard that the bomber was seen “praying” before his attack which claimed 22 innocent lives. Reporting of this detail caused a stir on social media, and some headlines were changed as a result.
The concern was that reporting on Abedi praying would lead to ordinary Muslim prayer being seen as a “predictor” or “indicator” of terrorism, and therefore increased suspicion and profiling of Muslims.
So is it relevant that Salman Abedi was praying? The obvious answer is — as someone about to kill themselves and others in exchange for eternal reward — yes, because every action Abedi took in the lead-up to his attack is relevant.
Prayer alone, of course, would predict no such thing and be no reason for suspicion. But security professionals are trained to be alert to behavioural patterns that are outside the norms of a given situation. A young male loitering unaccompanied by a busy music venue for over an hour with an oversized backpack amid a heightened jihadist terror threat would have been well outside typical crowd behaviour at the time, even without praying. That he was approached by passersby on at least one occasion before the explosion was indicative of his atypical behaviour.
The danger in trying to cover up or minimalise the fact that Abedi was praying is that it has a chilling effect on the public. Even if there is genuine cause for concern, people will be less inclined to report on certain actions for fear of stigmatising, and may even positively discriminate irregular behaviour as a rebuff to their own prejudice. This is at odds with government and police messaging to report any doubts or suspicions: “See it, say it, sorted.”
Ignoring such warning signs has had disastrous consequences before — as the San Bernardino, California, attackers’ neighbours can attest to. Neighbours noticed the shooters acting suspiciously when they were working late at night in their garage and receiving numerous packages to their home, but did not report them for “fear of racial profiling“.
In the wrong context, any human behaviour or action can be relevant and outside baseline norms. When everyone is running, is one walking? When everyone is screaming for their favourite singer, is one silent? These are signs that a top security professional are trained to be alert to.
Determining why Abedi’s erratic behaviour — including but not limited to praying — did not raise any red flags is an important question. These crucial moments could be the difference between a minor and major attack or even no attack at all. The public should not be encouraged to second-guess their instincts, and to report suspicious behaviour without fear of stigmatisation.