UK Police hunting the terror network behind the Manchester Arena bombing have stopped passing information to the US on the investigation as a major transatlantic row erupted over leaks of key evidence in the US, according to a report.
The police, Downing Street and the Home Office refused to comment on the BBC report, but Theresa May will confront Donald Trump about the leaks – including crime scene photographs – when she meets him at a Nato summit in Brussels on Thursday.
The leaks included suggestions that bomber Salman Abedi’s family had warned security officials he was dangerous.
There were also reports Abedi’s parents were so worried about him being radicalised in Manchester that they got him to join them in Libya and confiscated his passport. It was apparently returned when he said he wanted to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd has admitted Abedi, 22, was known to the security services ‘up to a point’.
But further details have emerged about the UK-born bomber’s radicalisation, and the warnings that were sounded, which will raise questions about why he was not more closely monitored.
Responding to the leak in the New York Times of crime scene photos showing bomb fragments and the backpack used by Abedi to conceal his device, the National Police Chiefs’ Council said it ‘undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families’.
But in the US, politicians were openly briefing the media on what they had been told about Abedi and his ‘cell of Isis-inspired terrorists’.
US congressman Mike McCaul, Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the bomb was of a ‘level of sophistication’ that might indicate its maker had foreign training.
He described it as ‘a classic explosive device used by terrorists’, using the same substance as the one used in the deadly November 2015 attacks in Paris and the March 2016 attack in Brussels.
Mr McCaul said evidence so far suggests ‘we’re not dealing with a lone wolf situation’, adding: ‘There’s a network – a cell of ISIS-inspired terrorists.’
Interior minister Amber Rudd had described the leaks as ‘irritating’ early on Thursday, after details about bomber Salman Abedi, including his name, first appeared in U.S. media, adding that Britain’s allies were perfectly clear that it ‘shouldn’t happen again’.
Greater Manchester Police chiefs today condemned the release of potential evidence while inquiries were ongoing, and said that the leaks represented breaches of trust which undermined their investigation.
In a statement released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, a spokesman for National Counter Terrorism Policing said: ‘We greatly value the important relationships we have with our trusted intelligence, law enforcement and security partners around the world.
‘These relationships enable us to collaborate and share privileged and sensitive information that allows us to defeat terrorism and protect the public at home and abroad.
‘When that trust is breached it undermines these relationships, and undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families.
‘This damage is even greater when it involves unauthorised disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counter-terrorism investigation.’
The disclosure is regarded as ‘completely unacceptable’ by Britain, because of the distress it may cause families of those killed or injured and because of the risk it could complicate investigations.
The row – which goes to the heart of the close intelligence-sharing relationship between the transatlantic allies – provides an awkward backdrop to the Prime Minister’s meeting with President Trump at the Nato summit in Brussels.
A Whitehall source said: ‘We are furious. This is completely unacceptable.
‘These images leaked from inside the US system will be distressing for victims, their families and the wider public.
‘The issue is being raised at every relevant level by the British authorities with their US counterparts.’
The new pictures show torn scraps from a blue rucksack as well as screws and nuts used as shrapnel and a metal item which the newspaper suggests could have been part of the bomb’s detonator.
The NYT described them as ‘law enforcement images’ but did not make clear how they had been obtained.
The nature of the photographs – one of which includes a ruler placed alongside the detonator – left no doubt that they were taken as part of the forensic investigation of the scene, and were not snapshots taken by members of the public.
The paper also published a map showing the location of the victims of the bombing, positioned in a circle around the site of the explosion in the arena foyer, as well as what is thought to be Abedi’s torso some distance away.
Speaking on Wednesday morning, before the publication of the photos, the Home Secretary said she did not believe the Americans had compromised the investigation with the early release of information including the numbers of casualties, the name of the bomber and suspicions he was not acting alone.
But she added: ‘Quite frankly, the British police have been very clear that they want to control the flow of information in order to protect operational integrity, the element of surprise, so it is irritating if it gets released from other sources and I have been very clear with our friends that that should not happen again.’
Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham said that a decision had been taken early in the investigation to be cautious about putting information into the public domain.
He tweeted: ‘Complained to acting US Ambassador about leaks out of US and was assured they would stop. They haven’t. Arrogant, wrong and disrespectful to GM (Greater Manchester).’
Congressman Adam Schiff, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said: ‘If we gave up information that has interfered in any way with their investigation because it tipped off people in Britain – perhaps associates of this person that we identified as the bomber – then that’s a real problem and they have every right to be furious.’
Britain’s intelligence links with the US are among the closest in the world, and information is routinely shared by security and intelligence agencies as part of the special relationship between the transatlantic allies.