Britain’s top counterterrorism official said Friday that authorities believe they have rounded up most of the network suspected of involvement in Monday’s terrorist bombing in Manchester, but the country remained braced for further violence ahead of a sunny long weekend packed with marathons, soccer matches and other ripe targets.
The announcement eased worries from earlier in the week that the sophistication of the suicide blast that killed 22 people meant that a bombmaker could still be on the loose with further attacks planned. But authorities still cautioned vigilance, and more than a thousand soldiers remained deployed across Britain, an unusual measure in a country where few police officers carry weapons.
“We’re very happy we’ve got our hands around some of the key players that we’re concerned about,” said Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, the head of National Counterterrorism Policing at the Metropolitan Police. He said investigators were trying to unravel 22-year-old Salman Abedi’s life and also to reconstruct his final days and hours.
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd on Friday kept the country’s threat level at “critical,” the highest state of alert, leaving in place 1,000 troops who have been deployed to Britain’s streets to supplement the police. The security alert indicates authorities believe new attacks are imminent.
But top officials said they had no specific knowledge of threats during the upcoming weekend. Monday is a holiday in Britain. Authorities said they were keeping an eye on more than 1,300 public events over the days off, including a series of sporting events across Manchester.
There were signs of the strain on Britain’s diverse society, as Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said that hate crimes in the city had doubled after the Monday-night attack, spiking from 28 on Monday to 56 on Wednesday.
In an early morning raid on a barbershop in the Moss Side neighborhood of the terror-hit city, police on Friday arrested a 30-year-old man, bringing to eight the number of people currently in custody. Their ages ranged from 18 to 38. An additional two people were detained, then released, earlier this week. Part of Abedi’s family lives in Libya, and several were also in custody there, including his father.
Police also raided an apartment building in Manchester’s city center where Abedi is believed to have rented a $97-a-day flat in the week ahead of the attack and where bomb-making materials were found in the days after the raid. British media reported that enough spare nuts, bolts and chemicals were discovered there to have constructed another bomb. Local journalists reported Friday that forensics teams were again searching inside the building and in garbage bins outside of it.
The raids came as top U.S. and British officials tried to patch a significant rift that had opened between normally close intelligence agencies. Leaks, apparently from U.S. authorities, prompted an unusual public rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Visiting London on Friday to offer condolences after the attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the close relationship between U.S. and British intelligence agencies would survive the strain of the disclosures.
The rare dispute with Washington’s closest intelligence partner flared Thursday when police authorities in Manchester briefly interrupted sharing information with their American counterparts.
The cooperation later resumed after President Donald Trump assured May that he would crack down on leaks.
“We take full responsibility for that and we obviously regret that that happened,” Tillerson said after a lunch meeting with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at the British diplomat’s London residence. “This special relationship that exists between our two countries will certainly withstand this particular unfortunate event,” Tillerson said.
“All across America, hearts are broken” about the victims of the bombing, Tillerson said.
Johnson played down any lasting rift between British and American intelligence authorities, praising the “vital importance” of work between U.S. and British authorities, including intelligence sharing.
“Around the world you will find the U.S. and the U.K. facing the same problems together,” Johnson said.
Trump also called upon the NATO defense alliance on Thursday to focus on “immigration” as a security threat, a remark that seemed at least partly targeted toward Abedi, a British-born son of Libyan immigrants.
Tillerson said that during Trump’s nine-day international trip that concludes Saturday, the president had repeatedly raised the issue that “for whatever reason, as people immigrate into our countries, whether it be in Great Britain or in the United States or other countries, we seem to have difficulty assimilating those people so that they feel part of our society and would never consider supporting acts of violence against their fellow citizens and their fellow neighbors.”
May buttonholed Trump on Thursday to push him to keep British investigation information private. Some of the most important developments in the Manchester case were first made public by U.S. media outlets, citing U.S. officials.
The flare-up between the two nations was in part a reflection of their starkly differing culture of leaks and media freedoms.
U.S. media outlets have a long history of publishing leaked intelligence, typically justified by the idea that a maximum amount of transparency helps inform the public about the actions and calculus of government agencies, so long as publishing does not actively endanger lives. Press freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution.
In Britain, however, media outlets have no such legal rights. They have been more deferential to official requests to hold back from publishing sensitive information – and subject to prosecution if they ignore the demands.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Michael Birnbaum