Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abedi gave a ‘hateful look’ to an Imam after he gave a mosque sermon denouncing extremism, an inquiry has heard.
Salman Abedi, 22, detonated a suicide bomb during an Ariana Grande concert at the venue on May 22, 2017, killing 22 people and injuring hundreds more.
The Manchester-born attacker arrived back in the UK from a five-week trip to Libya just four days prior to the incident.
Mohammed El-Saeiti, a former Imam at the Manchester Islamic Centre, known as the Didsbury mosque, gave evidence at an inquiry into the terror attack on Wednesday.
He recalled receiving online death threats following his speech at the mosque on the day ISIS claimed it was responsible for the murder of Manchester taxi driver Alan Henning in October 2014.
Mr El-Saeiti also told the hearing how Abedi’s father referred to Ansar al-Sharia – a banned terror group in the United States – as ‘good people’.
Handout file photo issued by Greater Manchester Police of the CCTV image of Salman Abedi at Victoria Station making his way to the Manchester Arena, on May 22, 2017
Salman Abedi was seen ‘adjusting wiring’ underneath his clothes in the moments leading up to the devastating terror attack which left 22 people dead on May 22, 2017
Police near the scene of the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017
An ‘inciteful’ Facebook message by Abedi’s father, Ramadan, was also posted in which he urged worshippers to ‘isolate’ the Imam to avoid the mosque being closed by the UK Government.
The public inquiry into the terror attack heard the sermon denouncing terrorism also resulted in a petition calling for Mr El-Saeiti’s, with signatories including Abedi’s brothers Hashem and Ismail.
Mr El-Saeiti said mosque trustees admonished him for talking about politics and warned him threats had been made to harm him if he returned to the pulpit.
He told the inquiry: ‘I was speaking about the sanctity of human life. So I didn’t mention political groups. I’m not affiliated with any political party, I was just basically combatting terrorism and extremism.’
He said he made reference to Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Libyan-based Islamist militia groups Ansar al-Sharia and the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, who he called ‘dogs of hellfire’.
At the end of the sermon. though, a man snatched the microphone and accused him of expressing political views, he said.
Mr El-Saeiti continued: ‘This man was a cardiologist. I told him he should feel ashamed to defend Isis. I did tell him in front of the congregation.’
Weeks later Salman and Hashem Abedi were sat ‘very close’ to the pulpit and he could see from Salman’s face ‘he was not happy with me’, he added.
A total of 22 people, many of them children, died in the terror attack at the Manchester Arena on May 22 2017. Pictured: Armed police stand guard outside the arena following the terror attack in 2017
The terror attack claimed 22 lives at Manchester Arena and injured hundreds more
Mr El-Saeiti said: ‘One of the congregation told me he sent his children to sit behind them in case ‘they might do something to you’.’
Shortly after, he had a second encounter with Salman in a corridor at the mosque, the inquiry heard.
The former Imam said: ‘He gave me a hateful look. He showed me that he didn’t like me, basically.’
He said he went on to phone Ramadan Abedi because he believed his Facebook post had incited harm against him.
Mr El-Saeiti said: ‘He said to me “you spoke about the brothers of Ansar al-Sharia”. He said “I know them, they are good people”.
‘So I then told them they are terrorists, they behead, they kill.’
Ansar al-Sharia was a banned terror group in the United States at the time of his sermon in October 2014, and the organisation was proscribed in the UK a month later.
Mr El-Saeiti also recalled regular meetings being held at the mosque between supporters of a ‘coalition’, namely supporters of groups related to Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, as well as the ‘Libya Shield Force’, from 2014.
It followed evidence from the mosque’s chair, Fawzi Haffar, claiming it had no knowledge or any association with attendees who may have gone to Libya to fight.
However, Mr El-Saeiti told the inquiry that political meetings did take place at the mosque, contrary to what the Mr Haffar had said just a day earlier.
He said he raised concerns between 2015 and 2016 over worries there was a risk of radicalisation – a view shared by the community.
The inquiry heard: ‘It is wrong. It shouldn’t be happening. The meetings were – people are gathering for political purposes and in support of terrorist groups.
‘The vast majority of Muslims are against extremism.’
Mr El-Saeiti also said his fellow Imam, Mustafa Graf, was ‘praying’ for terrorist groups fighting in Libya.
The inquiry was subsequently played a Facebook video, dated February 2020, showing a man talking inside the mosque in front of a banner saying ‘Libyans for a civil state’.
Salman Abedi killed himself and 22 others as gig-goers were leaving Manchester Arena.
His brother, Hashem Abedi, now 24, is serving a minimum of 55 years behind bars for his role in helping his sibling prepare for the attack.
The inquiry resumed on Tuesday following three weeks of ‘closed’ hearings where MI5 and counter-terror police chiefs were questioned.
The hearings, being held secretly to protect national security, assessed what was, or wasn’t, known about the Abedis, and others, and how intelligence was acted on.
The public inquiry was also shown shown images of the Abedi family posing with machine guns in Libya on Tuesday.
An image shown to the Manchester Arena inquiry shows suicide bomber Salman Abedi, 22, carrying a huge machine gun while smoking a cigarette
Salman Abedi’s older brother, Ismail, who refused to co-operate with the inquiry and has left the country
One photo showed Ismail and Ramadan Abedi, the elder brother and father of suicide bomber Salman Abedi, carrying guns in the African country. In another image, Ismail Abedi pointed to a book about Isis at a shop.
It also emerged that Ismail possessed a ‘significant’ amount of pro-Islamic State material during a period he taught youngsters in a school at the mosque.
Both Ismail and Hashem Abedi were signatories of a petition calling for the removal of Mr El-Saeiti following his sermon speaking out against extremism.
In the petition, the former Imam was accused of ‘speaking bad’ about some ‘important figures of the Libyan revolution’ and accusing them of terrorism.
Ismail was due to give evidence, but after flying abroad he said he would not be attending the inquiry and was ‘unwilling’ to help.
Salman, the terrorist who carried out the atrocity, left the UK with his family on a one-way ticket to Libya on April 15 2017.
He returned, carrying only hand luggage, five weeks later – four days before he carried out the atrocity.
On arrival in the UK, Abedi, 22, immediately bought a new phone and SIM card at Manchester Airport and took ‘anti-surveillance’ measures to stay ‘off grid’ by getting a bus and taxi – going straight to where he had left the bomb components.
Abedi was a closed subject of interest (SOI) for MI5, meaning he was not under investigation and was one of 20,000 such closed SOIs at the time, with the security services also running 3,000 ‘live’ anti-terror investigations.