By Grace Rollison | Wednesday 27th January 2021
A few months ago, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) increased the terrorist threat level from “substantial” to “severe”. An attack in the U.K. is now highly likely, but intelligence agencies lack specific knowledge of imminent threats. “Severe” is the fourth-highest threat level in the five-tier system: low, moderate, substantial, severe, and critical. Urging the public to be “alert but not alarmed”, Home Secretary Priti Patel has downplayed the threat to the country’s national security, but we should not consider this as merely a precautionary measure.
The JTAC decided to raise the threat level in the wake of a wave of deadly terror attacks across Europe. However, the situation may even be more precarious than “severe”. Indeed, terrorists have successfully executed attacks in this country with the threat level judged lower than it is now. Despite the government’s call for calm, it is a possibility that terrorist intelligence will fly under the radar.
In September, a group of seven terrorists killed two people outside the former offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The attack occurred alongside a high-profile trial involving 14 individuals accused of helping jihadists carry out the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks. French Interior Minister Gérald Moussa Darmanin said that the recent attack was “clearly an act of Islamist terrorism”. Just a month later, in October, Paris was targeted again. An 18-year-old man decapitated History teacher Samuel Paty outside his secondary school after showing a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad by Charlie Hebdo to his pupils. On 29th October, France was shocked by yet another Islamist attack, when Brahim Aouissaoiu knifed three people to death outside a church in Nice. In an audio message found on his phone, Aouissaoiu described France as a “country of unbelievers.” French officials have stepped up security at places of worship across the country. The French Interior Minister has warned that there would be more attacks, as he declared a war against “Islamist ideology”.
Elsewhere in Europe, a man wearing a fake suicide bomb vest, and armed with an automatic rifle, a pistol, and a machete opened fire at the “Bermuda Triangle”, a popular area for nightlife in Vienna. The shooter, Kujtim Fejzulai, was well known to the authorities and was sent to prison two years ago for attempting to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State.
The U.K. has responded to this recent spate of attacks with vigilance. The move to “severe” will mean a visible increase in policing in public and crowded spaces, as well as locations considered to be symbolic or iconic, which are desirable targets for terrorists. The threat level has been higher than “severe” on several occasions: in 2006 following the discovery of a plot to blow up as many as ten planes flying from Britain to the U.S., in 2007 following the car attack on Glasgow Airport, in 2017 the day after the Manchester Arena suicide bombing, and in 2017 following the Parsons Green attack on the London Underground.
However, is the U.K. being vigilant enough? The JTAC decided to lower the threat level from “severe” to “substantial” shortly before the 7th July 2005 bombings, a decision that continues to haunt the JTAC. Hopefully, this decision will not come back to haunt them.
The incident also sparked intense debate on the role of intelligence (and intelligence gaps) in counterterrorism and security, following reports which found that the 7/7 bombers came under surveillance, but not deemed a high enough priority to investigate thoroughly. Alongside this, the growing contemporary prevalence of so-called ‘lone wolf’ predominantly right-wing terrorism and the move from hierarchical to decentralised, cell-like terror networks also make detecting potential attacks increasingly difficult.
The above discussion does raise questions about just how secure British security services can be in their assessment that there is no specific intelligence on a future attack. Indeed, intelligence collection is a highly complex process, facing issues surrounding resources, secrecy, and lack of international collaboration. However, it is crucial to acknowledge these limitations when analysing the current threat level to the U.K. and to not be overzealous in proclaiming our security, especially in the face of such severe threats.