MCR: Salman Abedi's disappearing sister

Blog by Milan Rai
Image: Falluja by Emily Johns

In the month since the attack on the Manchester Arena on 22 May, commentators have offered a number of different motivations that could have led a Manchester-born-and-raised 22-year-old to massacre dozens of teenage girls and parents as they left a pop concert.

While there has been a lot of confident speculation by people who never met Salman Abedi, there is one person who has spoken up who definitely knew Abedi well, and who suggested quite a different kind of motivation for his appalling actions:

'Abedi’s sister, Jomana Abedi, said her brother was kind and loving and that she was surprised by what he did this week. She said she thought he was driven by what he saw as injustices. "I think he saw children - Muslim children - dying everywhere, and wanted revenge. He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge,” she said. “Whether he got that is between him and God."'

This quote was given to the Wall St Journal and published on 25 May: 'Manchester Bomber Believed Muslims Were Mistreated, Sought Revenge'.

It's possible that Jomana Abedi is wrong about what motivated her brother. What is not in doubt is that her testimony is the single best piece of publicly-available evidence about Salman Abedi's state of mind prior to his act of mass murder at the Manchester Arena.

We'll consider exactly what her comment might mean in a later article. Right now, let's examine the way that the British mainstream media handled this important piece of information about the Manchester attack.

How to edit history

What we find is more confirmation of the Chomsky-Herman Propaganda Model of the mainstream media. According to this model, the mainstream media in countries like Britain and the US see themselves - and present themselves - as devoted to truth and hostile to established power, but actually in crucial ways shape their work to serve power not truth, and in fact to minimise public understanding of important events and issues.

In this case, that would mean editing news reports and angling commentary in order to exclude uncomfortable facts and insights, and by doing so create public ignorance about a major terrorist attack.

This doesn't necessarily mean completely excluding uncomfortable facts and insights. They do appear in the media. US academic Noam Chomsky said in 1982:

'The enormous amount of material that is produced in the media and books makes it possible for a really assiduous and committed researcher to gain a fair picture of the real world by cutting through the mass of misrepresentation and fraud to the nuggets hidden within.'

Chomsky and his co-author Edward Herman wrote in 1988:

'That the media provide some information about an issue... proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage. The media do in fact suppress a great deal of information, but even more important is the way they present a particular fact - its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition - and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.'

They continued:

'That a careful reader, looking for a fact can sometimes find it, with diligence and a skeptical eye, tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to most readers, or whether it was effectively distorted or suppressed.'

In this case, what we find is that Jomana Abedi's evidence has been reported in the British press - and it has effectively been suppressed. It has already been erased from history.

We will examine each story in detail below, but overall, what we find, repeatedly, is that her statement is buried at the end (sometimes the middle) of a story; it is noted casually without emphasis; and it has been mentioned (briefly) only a few times in each newspaper.

The Guardian has carried only three mentions of Jomana Abedi's statement in the past month. The Observer, the Guardian's Sunday sister paper, has made one brief mention also. That is almost half the haul for the elite print media. The Times has had two mentions (one substantial) and the Telegraph has had only one story (on the other hand, it was the most substantial report of the lot). The Financial Times buried the story deeper than any of the others, mentioning it just once in print, as we shall below.

Using the Chomsky-Herman framework for analysis, we see that the media have used placement, tone and frequency of repetition to self-censor Jomana Abedi's claim out of history. As Chomsky and Herman predict, the mainstream media have created larger frameworks of analysis within which her evidence makes no sense. As a result of all these moves, the few reports of her statement that do exist have effectively disintegrated and disappeared from the public mind. 

Moving to the details

There was a report of Jomana Abedi's statement in the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Times on 26 May, the day after it appeared in the Wall St Journal. We'll come back in a moment to exactly what kind of reports appeared in these papers (the Guardian's behaviour is particularly interesting).

On the face of it, you might have expected this very newsworthy story to become part of the conversation about the attack from this point onwards. Far from it.

Taking the four elite UK national newspapers that still appear in print, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Times, I can find only four references to her evidence in these papers in the four weeks since the first notices of her statement appeared on 26 May. There were two references in the Guardian, one in the Guardian's Sunday sister paper, the Observer, and one in The Times.

The Times

Let's take them in reverse order. Dominic Kennedy wrote a profile in The Times on 27 May: 'Drinker, smoker, and fanatic whose family would not cut ties to Libya' (the online version is titled 'Abedi was fanatic whose family would not cut ties to Libya').

The thrust of Kennedy's piece is that Abedi was a typical religiously non-orthodox, non-observant attacker. The first sentences: 'Salman Abedi was a textbook example of the jihadists who have brought carnage to Europe since the upheavals of the Arab Spring. He came from a north African Muslim immigrant family and had travelled to the troubled region. Most tellingly, he lacked piety and was not religious.'

Kennedy's feature is a straightforward description of Salman Abedi's life, with no overarching argument about his motives. He notes Jomana Abedi's evidence about her brother in passing, but he does not consider it or give it any weight.

In this 38-paragraph profile of Salman Abedi, Jomana Abedi's Wall St Journal quotation is not referred to until it appears in paragraph 36.

The Observer

On 28 May, the Observer had a team including Jamie Doward write an article which has this title online: 'How Manchester bomber Salman Abedi was radicalised by his links to Libya'. 

Like the Times piece, the Observer profile reproduces Jomana Abedi's Wall St Journal statement towards the end, but gives no indication of its existence until it appears very late in the piece.

The conclusion of the Observer article is clear from its print edition title, 'How hardline theology, resentment, and an obscure 90s terror group in Libya radicalised Salman Abedi and sowed seeds of Manchester attack'.

The '90s terror group, which Albedi's father was an active member of, was: 'the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), one of the more obscure terrorist organisations to have proclaimed allegiance to Osama bin Laden'. (There is some doubt as to whether LIFG really did merge with al-Qa'eda.)

The argument of the profile is summarised again in its final sentences: '"He’s not been radicalised by Isis," Rafiq said. "His life story is all about being radicalised from birth and then Isis cherrypicked him."' (Rafiq is 'Haras Rafiq, chief executive of Quilliam, the anti-extremism thinktank'.)

In this 35-paragraph story, the first sign of Jomana Abedi's testimony is paragraph 28. Her quote forms paragraph 29. The remaining paragraphs take no account of her evidence, which undermines or is in tension with Haras Rafiq's conclusion at the end of the feature.

The Guardian profile 

Finally, let's consider the two Guardian articles in the last four weeks that have referred to Jomana Abedi's statement about her brother. They both appeared in the 27 May issue, the day after she was first reported in the paper. One mention was in a profile of Salman Abedi, the other was in commentary by Jonathan Freedland.

The profile was called 'Salman Abedi: why did young, hot-headed party animal become a suicide bomber?' It was a team effort, like the Observer piece, this time featuring Esther Addley and three others. (The online headline was 'Salman Abedi: from hot-headed party lover to suicide bomber'.)

Like all the other pieces mentioned so far, Jomana Abedi's claim that her brother wanted 'revenge' for Muslim children killed by western forces was only noted, not considered or evaluated or incorporated into the story in any serious way.

In this 31-paragraph feature, Jomana Abedi's statement does not appear until paragraph 28. This is the whole of paragraph 28:

'Jomana told the Wall Street Journal this week that her brother had been driven by "revenge" for American military attacks in the Middle East.'

(This sentence is two words shorter online: 'Jomana Abedi said her brother had been driven by a desire to seek “revenge” for US military attacks in the Middle East.')

If we use the online version of this article, only 22 words out of 1,586 take any account of Jomana Abedi's evidence about her brother's state of mind.

Jonathan Freedland

The Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland deserves credit for having written the only opinion piece or editorial in the five British newspapers under review that referred to or took account of Jomana Abedi's evidence about her brother's state of mind.

Given that dozens of opinion pieces and editorials in these newspapers have considered the Manchester bombing over the past four weeks since the Wall St Journal report appeared, this is an impressive display of consistency, uniformity and discipline. It was achieved not by any government diktat, but was the result of rigorous self-censorship.

What did Freedland write? He wrote one of the few articles in the last month that acknowledged that British foreign policy has played a role in increasing the risk of terrorism in the UK. He made this acknowledgement, however, in the course of disputing that foreign policy played a really significant role, hence his headline: 'It's a delusion to think this is a all about our foreign policy'. (Unusually, the online title is longer: 'It’s a delusion to think that the terror attacks are just about foreign policy')

Freedland wrote that he understood the position put forward by British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn:

'For one thing, foreign policy clearly plays some role in these horrific events. Listen to the testimony of Jomana Abedi, sister of the Manchester murderer, who said of her brother: "He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge,” before adding, rather chillingly: “Whether he got that is between him and God." Recall the posthumous video released by Mohammad Sidique Khan, ringleader of the 7/7 bombers, in which he cast himself as an avenger for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And recall too the warnings of Britain’s security services, who feared the Iraq war could lead to increased radicalisation.'

This is paragraph 7 of 17. One other thing different about the treatment here is that Jomana Abedi's statement is given some context in the preceding paragraphs, and supported by other evidence. This is the first and only article in elite British print newspapers that actually digests and makes sense of Jomana Abedi's evidence about her brother's motivations, rather than just noting what she said.

Having said that, this contextualisation and consideration occurs only as part of a fierce attack on the idea that British foreign policy is a significant motivator for these kinds of attacks. Jomana Abedi is encapsulated and neutralised by the surrounding overarching argument.

The initial reports

Let's go back to the beginning of this story. Jomana Abedi is reported in the Wall St Journal on 25 May. The following day, all four newspapers under review carried some notice of her statement.

Two newspapers carried substantial stories. The Telegraph had an almost-whole-broadsheet-page profile of Salman Abedi entitled 'My brother the bomber thought world was at war with Muslims'. Of its 29 paragraphs, the first six were entirely devoted to Jomana Abedi's evidence. The Times had a nine-paragraph story largely about her statement to the Wall St Journal, with this headline: 'Attack was revenge for Syria, Abedi sister claims'.

The Guardian and the Financial Times did mention the news on 26 May, but buried the story.

The Guardian had a news story, 'Accomplices to bombing may still be at large', which started on the front page. (The headline indicates what the focus is.) Continuing on p5, the article reproduced Jomana Abedi's statement to the Wall St Journal in paragraph 11 (out of 21 paragraphs in total). There was no further comment.

The Financial Times had a 30-paragraph profile of Salman Abedi which did not mention Jomana Abedi's evidence until its final sentence:

'However, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Jomana Abedi said it was likely her brother was driven by "revenge" over the west’s role in Middle East conflicts.'

That is how to bury a story and ensure that no one ever takes any notice of it. The placement signals that it is irrelevant, a trivial curiosity. The lack of any further notice of the story in the rest of the piece reinforces this signal - as with the Guardian news story. In the case of the Telegraph and The Times, the initial reporting was quite appropriate to the newsworthiness of the story, with straightforward headlines summarising the claim, and substantial consideration of the shocking new development. The two newspapers signalled the insignificance of the story by their lack of repetition, by their decisions to never again mention Jomana Abedi's evidence as to her brother's mental state (apart from the profile in The Times mentioned above, which noted her statement without comment right at the end of the article).

Jomana Abedi's evidence about her brother has been thrown down Orwell's memory hole and edited out of history. This is a tragic disservice to the Manchester Arena victims and to those who have been left behind.