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Theresa May raises level for first time since 2007, signalling that further attack may be imminent
Soldiers are being sent on to Britain’s streets to help the police and a second terror attack may be imminent following the Manchester concert bombing, Theresa May has said.
The prime minister raised the threat level from severe to critical for the first time since July 2007, meaning “not only that an attack remains highly likely but a further attack may be imminent”.
May said she did not want to “unduly alarm” people but military personnel would be present at public events and key sites under police command.
She said it could not be ruled out that the attacker, named as Salman Ramadan Abedi, was working as part of a terrorist group.
Speaking from Downing Street after an emergency Cobra meeting, May said the investigations of the security services and police have “revealed it is a possibility we cannot ignore that there is a wider group of individuals linked to this incident”.
The prime minister said: “The police have asked for authorisation from the secretary of state for defence to deploy a number of military personnel in support of their armed officers.”
This means some armed police officers guarding events will be replaced by soldiers in an operation codenamed Temperer. It is the first time that the operation, which was first revealed in 2015, has been put into effect. The plan is believed to allow up to 5,000 troops to be deployed in support of the police, replacing armed officers at many sites to free them up for patrols in key areas.
Police and security services are urgently seeking to establish if the Manchester suicide bomber, who killed at least 22 people including several children, was acting on his own or was linked to a wider organisation.
The killer was named by Greater Manchester police as Salman Abedi, after his identity was first revealed to reporters by US security sources. Abedi, a 22-year old Mancunian of Libyan heritage, was known to the police and security services although was considered a peripheral figure. Media reports on Wednesday sad he had just returned from the north African country.
Greater Manchester police chief constable, Ian Hopkins, said: “The priority remains to establish whether he was acting alone or as part of a network.”
The investigation was understood to be focusing on whether Abedi was directly supported by other conspirators or built the bomb himself to instructions obtained over the internet. The device he used was described as homemade and crude although it was stable enough to be transported, and exploded with devastating effect. It was believed to have been constructed in Britain.
Abedi detonated the bomb in the foyer of the Manchester Arena on Monday night as thousands of children and their parents streamed out at the end of a concert by US pop star Ariana Grande, sending bolts and shrapnel flying into victims.
The death toll from the attack rose from 19 to 22 on Tuesday in what was the worst terrorist attack in Britain since the 7/7 attacks on London in 2005. Two girls aged eight and 18 and a 26-year-old man were the first to be named among the victims, and 59 people were hospitalised, several with life-threatening injuries including a number of teenagers. Two more victims, 15-year-old Olivia Campbell from Bury and Kelly Brewster, 32, were named in the early hours of Wednesday.
The youngest victim of Abedi’s attack was Saffie Rose Roussos, eight, from near Preston. She had been to the concert with her mother, Lisa, and sister Ashlee who were both hospitalised. Her school, Tarleton community primary, described her as “a beautiful little girl in every aspect of the word”.
May chaired a two-hour meeting of the cabinet security committee, Cobra, in the morning and attacked the “appalling sickening cowardice” of the bomber in a Downing Street address. “We struggle to comprehend the warped and twisted mind that sees a room packed with young children not as a scene to cherish but an opportunity for carnage,” May said. Campaigning in the general election was suspended.
One senior security source described Abedi’s attack involving the acquisition of bomb-making materials or the construction of a viable device as “a game-changer” that has “rocked us backwards”, because a successful bomb plot has not been seen in the UK since the 7/7 attacks in 2005.
Investigators have gathered CCTV footage showing Abedi approaching the foyer in in the MEN Arena, which conclusively shows the explosion was deliberate and caused by a suicide device. He was also carrying ID on him when he detonated the bomb.
In the aftermath, police raided Abedi’s house in the Fallowfield area of south Manchester and carried out a controlled explosion, apparently blasting open the front door. A 23-year old man was also arrested in nearby Whalley Range, where Abdei spent some of his childhood. Armed officers also searched a block of flats in the area.
An Isis-related website claimed the attacker was “a caliphate soldier” who had killed “crusaders”, although it remains unclear what links if any Abedi had to the terror group.
A second dead victim was Georgina Callender, 18, an Ariana Grande “superfan” who met the singer in 2015. She was on the second year of a health and social care course at Runshaw College in Leyland, Lancashire. Her former school, Bishop Rawstorne Church of England academy, described her as a “lovely, popular” student.
Friends of a third victim who was killed, John Atkinson, 26 and from Bury, paid tribute to “an amazing young man so kind and thoughtful”. At least 15 people were also reported missing on social media by families who were plunged into what May, described as “unimaginable worry”.
The Queen expressed her “deepest sympathy” to all those affected and said “the whole nation has been shocked by the death and injury”. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn warned against allowing “communities to be divided by this kind of appalling, atrocious act of violence”.
Condolences flowed in from world leaders including Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, who described the attacker as “a loser”.
On Tuesday evening, thousands of people filled Albert Square in front of Manchester town hall for a vigil. The home secretary, Amber Rudd, joined Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s recently elected mayor, and Corbyn on stage where the lord mayor of Manchester, Eddy Newman, said the vigil was a chance to “express solidarity” with the victims.
Witnesses spoke of a deafening bang when the bomb exploded on the arena concourse at around 10.30pm on Monday night. Inside the auditorium, where 21,000 had watched a sell-out show, people panicked as they fled the blast, which one parent said threw them several metres across the foyer.
“You saw this flash of light and there was shrapnel everywhere,” said Emma Johnson who was waiting at the top of the foyer stairs for her two teenage daughters. “The glass exploded and people were screaming.”
Gary Walker, from Leeds, was waiting to pick up his two daughters when he said the bomb detonated just a few metres from him beside a merchandise stall. “We heard the last song, and quite a few people were flooding out and then suddenly there was a massive flash and then a bang, smoke,” he said. “I felt a bit of pain in my foot and my leg. My wife said, ‘I need to lie down’. She’d got a stomach wound and possibly a broken leg.”
His daughters Abigail and Sophie were still inside the auditorium and Abigail described it as “absolutely terrifying”. She added: “Everyone was running and crying.”
Chris Parker, a rough sleeper, was knocked over but recovered to tend to a woman with serious leg and head injuries. “She passed away in my arms,” he said. “She was in her 60s and she had been with her family. I haven’t stopped crying.”
The emergency response involved 400 police officers and 60 ambulances which took casualties to eight different Manchester hospitals. Burnham condemned an “evil act” and praised emergency staff who rushed to the site of the blast for working through “the most difficult circumstances imaginable”.
Greater Manchester deputy chief constable Ian Pilling said early on Wednesdaythat lifting the threat level to critical would “support our ongoing operation” and asked the people of the city to remain “vigilant” against possible further attacks.
In London, police announced a security review at all upcoming events amid fears cultural and sporting were being purposefully targeted by terrorists. On Saturday, extra armed police will patrol the FA Cup final at Wembley and at Twickenham, where the Premiership rugby final will take place.
“Specialist officers … are now reviewing in detail all the plans for upcoming events in the capital,” Scotland Yard said in a statement. “This includes smaller events which may not have had a police presence seeing a greater focus and an increase of armed and unarmed officers on highly visible reassurance patrols around key locations.”
Several concert-goers in Manchester said bag searches going into the event were cursory in some cases, although it was not clear such checks would have stopped the attacker who struck at the end of the event and on the concourse rather than in the arena.
Manchester was widely praised for its response to the attacks after several organisations opened their doors to those in need, including a Sikh temple near the concert venue.
Members of the Sikh Sri Guru Harkrishan Sahib temple offered food, hot drinks and lifts to those who had been caught up in the incident and said they were on hand to comfort people who “didn’t know where to turn”.
Taxi drivers offered free lifts for bewildered concert-goers leaving the venue and householders offered strangers bed and board for the night over Twitter.