A convicted terrorist friend of Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abedi has told the public inquiry into the atrocity the killing of 22 innocents is still ‘haunting me’.
Abdalraouf Abdallah, 28, from Moss Side, said he was behind bars at HMP Altcourse on Merseyside when he heard on the radio about the devastating May 2017 attack.
When he learned that his friend Salman Abedi was behind the slaughter, he said he was ‘crying, confused and shocked’.
He said armed jihad and martyrdom were allowed in Islam but he insisted ‘killing innocent people’ as part of a suicide attack was forbidden.
Abdallah was arrested in November 2014 and charged with assisting others in committing acts of terrorism by facilitating travel and raising money to enable various others to participate in the civil war in Syria.
In May 2016, he was convicted and sentenced to a nine-and-a-half-year extended determinate sentence. He remains behind bars and despite his conviction and sentence continues to deny he was an Islamic State recruiter.
An inquiry-commissioned expert on radicalisation, Dr Matthew Wilkinson, believes Abdallah was responsible for ‘grooming Salman Abedi into the violent, Islamist, extremist world view’.
As the independent inquiry continued today (Thursday), its chairman Sir John Saunders asked the witness if he had any suspicions Salman Abedi could become a suicide bomber.
Abdallah told the inquiry: “No, no way. None of my friends, anyone, had any idea what’s going on in Salman’s head. When it happened, I heard it on the radio in prison and I called my friend Elyas.
“I was crying, confused and shocked and ‘what the hell happened?’ I thought he was in Libya. He said it’s true, it’s him.
“What happened to Salman it’s something I cannot never ever ever take it out of my mind. It’s haunting me until now because he’s my friend and the Salman that I knew, he had never spoken about something like that or do anything horrific like that.”
Asked by Sir John what had changed that made Salman Abedi capable of killing 22 people, Abdallah said: “The truth of the matter is I don’t really know. I have got convicted and went to prison and I was busy with my life.
“I have seen him twice after my conviction in prison. I called him a couple of times. He only answered twice. That’s all I know.
“After what happened happened, I called my friends and everything, Elyas. I said ‘what the hell happened? what was he doing?'”
Later Abdallah added: “It’s haunting me, all these questions are still going in my head. Why? When? How come? Because he was just normal.”
Abdallah, who was paralysed from the waist down after being injured in 2011 during the Libya uprising, spoke from a wheelchair in the witness stand in court.
Abedi, who murdered 22 people and injured hundreds more after detonating a backpack device at the Arena after an Ariana Grande concert on May 22, 2017, visited Abdallah in prison in February 2015 while he was awaiting trial, and once again after he was jailed in January 2017, four months before the bombing.
Manchester-born Abdallah, who has a Libyan father, used an ‘illicit’ mobile phone while he was in prison in early 2017 to attempt to call Abedi, but has insisted he had nothing to do with the attack or radicalising the bomber.
Abdallah was asked what happened when Salman Abedi and a mutual Libyan heritage friend Ahmed Taghdi visited him in HMP Belmarsh on February 25, 2016.
“They came to see how I’m doing, what’s going on, how’s prison, how’s your health? Normal chit chat, this and that,” said Abdallah.
The inquiry heard that Abdallah was transferred from HMP Belmarsh to HMP Altcourse on December 6, 2017, where he had access to a prison phone which was in his cell from the morning until 10pm at night.
The witness accepted he also had the use of an ‘illicit phone’.
The inquiry heard that Abdallah used the illicit phone to call Salman Abedi’s number for four minutes and 28 seconds on January 16, 2017. He said they pair were involved in ‘normal chit chat’.
The illicit device was also used to call Salman Abedi’s phone for four minutes and 17 seconds on January 24, 2017.
Abdallah denied he was using the illicit device instead of the legitimate prison phone he also had access to because he did not want people to listen to what was being said.
He dismissed as a coincidence that the calls happened on days Salman Abedi, and his jailed co-conspirator brother Hashem, were using a contact to source bomb chemicals and get those chemicals delivered.
Abdallah was told there is evidence that in 2015/16 Salman Abedi became more religious. He said he ‘did see the good side of him and he stopped the drinking and the drugs and everything and he started praying’.
The witness said he wasn’t dressing differently but during Friday prayers he would wear the Libyan version of ‘our culture clothes’.
Abdallah said it was Abedi’s mum who had been telling him off and told him ‘you need to grow up and stop this rubbish life’.
The witness said he recalled praising Salman Abedi for this change.
Counsel to the inquiry Paul Greaney QC said: “Did you know before May 2, 2017, that Salman Abedi intended an attack at Manchester Arena or anywhere?”
Abdallah: “No, not at all.”
QC: “Did you suspect he intended an attack?”
QC: “I’m a Muslim and I take my religion seriously when I swear by god. I swear by god I didn’t have no knowledge (sic) or idea or anything about an attack which is horrific actually that happened in Manchester.”
QC: “Did you play a part in the radicalisation of Salman Abedi or his extreme world view?”
Abdallah: “Not at all.”
The witness added: “My view was against the dictators of our countries and what they were doing in our countries. It’s very hard to believe that’s him and he would do such an act like that.”
Earlier, Abdallah told the inquiry he was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, although his father Nagah was born in Libya and his mother Samira was Algerian.
His family came to the UK as refugees but he admitted he was involved in fighting during the uprising against Col Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. He admitted he was part of the Tripoli Brigade, but was not a member of the associated February 17 Martyrs Brigade.
His uncle, he said, was among 1,300 people who were killed in the space of two hours in a prison in Libya.
Abdallah said he knew the Abedi brothers since they were ‘babies’, and their older brother Ismail.
“We were good friends and went to the same school together, Arabic school. Just little kids growing up together, having fun,” said Abdallah.
Their father Ramadan, he said, was a member of the 17th February Martyrs Brigade.
He denied he was an extremist and said: “I’m a normal Islamic Muslim person who lives in the west.”
The witness said Islam allowed ‘armed jihad’ although he said people wrongly ‘thought terrorism’ when they heard the word jihad. He said it actually it meant ‘struggle’.
Pressed further, he said: “It’s not extremist. It’s self-defence jihad. It was talking about war. This was exactly what happened to us in Libya. It was jihad. It was self-defence jihad Gaddafi the dictator and the same in Syria. People came out and peacefully protested and he was killing them and killing them.”
He denied suicide attacks were an acceptable form of jihad, saying it was forbidden in Islam. He said it was worse because ‘you are killing innocent people with you’.