A childhood friend of suicide bomber Salman Abedi said he had no inkling of the deadly suicide attack on a crowded pop concert, despite speaking to the mass killer in Libya only days before the atrocity.
Ahmed Taghdi, 29, said he was “shocked and appalled” when he realised his friend was involved in the attack in the north-west English city of Manchester and had assumed that he was still outside the UK.
Mr Taghdi was giving evidence at the public inquiry into the 2017 attack that killed 22 people after being brought from prison. He was arrested on Saturday as he prepared to fly to Vienna amid fears that he was trying to avoid giving evidence to the inquiry.
The inquiry heard that Mr Taghdi helped Abedi and his brother and accomplice Hashem, to buy a cheap car in April 2017, just days before they were to return permanently to Libya to live with their parents.
The car was later used to store bomb components and was kept outside flats in Manchester while the two brothers were in Libya.
Salman Abedi returned a month later to collect the materiel and set off a rucksack bomb containing nails and metal shrapnel in May 2017 in the crowded foyer of the Manchester Arena venue at the conclusion of a concert by US pop star Ariana Grande.
Mr Taghdi denied that he was an extremist despite helping Abedi and his accomplice brother to buy the car. He said he believed it was being used for the two brothers to run a few final errands before they returned to Libya.
Mr Taghdi had also previously joined Salman Abedi on a prison visit to see convicted terrorist Abdalraouf Abdallah, who terrorism experts believe groomed Salman into a radicalised Islamist extremist. Mr Taghdi said the visit was closely monitored and they spoke only about social matters.
“Had he [Salman] ever indicated to you that he was in effect a terrorist, or he had radical views, that he hated this country and the people of this country sufficient to blow up children?” asked inquiry chairman John Saunders.
“No sir,” Mr Taghdi said.
Mr Taghdi, a member of the large Libyan community in Manchester, said he contacted Salman Abedi during the month he was in Libya. They chatted and discussed business plans, including a request by Abedi for him to buy sheep to send to Libya.
Mr Taghdi said he ignored a request by Abedi to delete his number and their messages in the last communication they had before the attack.
Paul Greaney, counsel to the inquiry, suggested that he asked him to remove the messages “because he had told you something of his plans”.
“No, that wasn’t the case,” Mr Taghdi said. “It was just a social conversation. I didn’t even delete it.”
Mr Taghdi, whose father was killed in Libya in 2011 by forces of Muammar Qaddafi, was arrested and questioned after the bombing but never charged with any offence.
The hearing was told that police found pictures of armed men dressed in black on Mr Taghdi’s electronic devices seized after the attack. Mr Taghdi said they were not ISIS fighters and that he did not know who they were.
Salman’s older brother, Ismail Abedi, was also due to give evidence on Thursday but he fled the UK in August after he was told he would be giving evidence.
It emerged on Wednesday that he was stopped by police at Manchester airport the day before he travelled and missed his flight. But he was able to fly out the following day.
He sent a “self-serving” and “disgraceful” message through his lawyer to indicate he would not be giving evidence.
“A situation in which this important witness has been able to flee then effectively laugh in the face of the inquiry is one that should never be permitted to occur again,” Mr Greaney said.