FIRE’s Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the political rationale behind the recent reduction in the threat level and asks, is the government taking an extreme risk?
The lowering of the threat level in the United Kingdom from international terrorism before the General Election was a surprise for many. Clearly the government was determined to send a signal that the potential for a terrorist attack had been lowered.
Since then a great deal of evidence and a number of events across the world have suggested that the move may have been pre-emptive. It was certainly risky to lower the threat level before a major event like the General Election. Imagine if international extremists had chosen to mark the day with a series of attacks across the United Kingdom. At the very least it would have caused the result to be seriously questioned.
The two most recent attacks in London, while not being significant in terms of casualties, have served to remind everyone that the threat is enduring. Attacks by two individuals, using knives and recently released from prison, were never likely to create a major incident. Both attackers were quickly shot dead. One because the attack took place in Westminster; the other in a slightly more remote part of London, Streatham, ended quickly because of the close proximity of a police firearms team who were watching the individual.
Both incidents have raised the important issue of people being released early from jail sentences who had been convicted of planning an act of terrorism. Despite some politicians reacting to the events and making moves to increase the time that convicted terrorists remain behind bars, this problem had been well known to the security services. The wave of releases, which the moves by the government are now (belatedly) trying to prevent, is continuing.
Evidence suggests that prison acts as a magnifying lens for radicalisation. Those who are convicted of terrorism are often lauded during their incarceration and treated like demi-gods by communities inside prison that are made up of vulnerable people looking for a sense of identity. As a result of being in prison many become disciples of the convicted terrorists. This creates a much larger problem for the process of releasing individuals as they reach a point half-way through their sentence. Research has also suggested that the process of trying to de-radicalise people while they are held in prison largely fails. Few repent their ideas.
Neil Basu, the Head of Counter Terrorism in the United Kingdom, noted recently that the security services have about 3,000 individuals that are of immediate interest because of their activities. To monitor them would require the security service to increase in size by an order of magnitude. That clearly is not going to happen. It would take years anyway to recruit suitable people.
So, any government, irrespective of their political hue, would have to take risks allowing people convicted of terrorism onto the streets. That the two individuals who have conducted attacks since the start of the year chose to use knives and were clearly willing to die should not be seen as representative of a wider threat from a dedicated group who take deliberate actions to plan and execute their attack. The events of July 7, 2005 should not be forgotten that easily.
If events that day had panned out differently the death toll and casualty count would have been so much higher. One day terrorists may execute their plan perfectly. That would be an extreme example of a mass casualty attack. No government would be readily forgiven in the wake of such an atrocity. They would be seen to have failed in their prime responsibility to protect the people.
Events other than the two attacks in London also point to a worsening of the situation. The assassination by the United States of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian General who is alleged to have been behind many organisations like Hezbollah, involved in sponsoring and conducting international terrorist attacks, has added to the uncertain environment.
While Iran’s initial response was limited to a missile strike on some United States military bases in Iraq, the leadership in Tehran may be playing a longer-term strategy. With careful planning it is entirely possible to develop and execute a mass casualty attack that is deniable using proxy elements. While suspicion may be raised that Iran was behind an attack it is also possible to raise sufficient doubt that denies an American President the right of a military response, frustrated by Congress.
“It was certainly risky to lower the threat level before a major event like the General Election”
Concerns about the worsening situation are not simply confined to international terrorism. Remnants of the Irish Republican Army seem determined to continue the fight for a united Ireland even if the unexpected consequences of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union create conditions favourable for a political unification of Ireland.
The ongoing threat from dissident Republicans has recently been graphically illustrated by the planned attack on a ferry from Belfast to the mainland using a lorry containing a significant bomb. Analysis of the disrupted plot suggests that had the plot succeeded the loss of life would have been considerable. The ferry itself may also have sunk with further serious casualties.
Due to a timing error the lorry did not board the ferry on the evening of January 31, 2020 (the day the UK left the European Union) and the plot was disrupted after an intelligence report warned of the attack. Yet again a novel plot by terrorists went astray in its execution. As the IRA has said before, they only have to get it right once. It is an axiom that in Brighton in 1984, five people were killed and over 30 injured when the Conservative Party Conference was bombed in an attempt to kill the Prime Minister, showing what could be achieved with detailed planning.
The attack in Brighton showed obvious weaknesses in the security operation surrounding the party conference. That a bomb on a timer could have been planted in a room vertically above the one occupied by the Prime Minister a year later showed innovation and an ability to think outside the box and exploit a known pattern of life. When in Brighton, the Prime Minister always had the same room in the same hotel.
Another axiom of the counter terrorism world is to mix up processes and procedures and not always arrive at the same rendezvous point. Given this assessment it should be clear that the government is taking a huge risk with lowering the threat level. But it had become stuck at ‘Severe’. With that being one below ‘Critical’ the policy options for government became restricted. With the threat level being set to ‘Substantial’ the Home Secretary can at least move it up to ‘Severe’ if advised that is a suitable course of action by the security services.
Despite the outward reassurance of the lowering of the threat level, the simple fact is that the Home Secretary, on advice from the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) – which is supposed to be above political influence – has decided to take additional risk at a moment when the international and domestic security landscape is hardly stable.
The fact the United Kingdom is about to become involved in a military operation in Mali alongside French forces that have been fighting Islamic extremists since January 11, 2013, risks our armed forces being drawn into yet another long-term war from which extraction will be difficult.
With terrorism in France showing little signs of abating, the fact that 250 members of the British Army will be operating on the ground in Mali will inevitably create the conditions for another terror attack in the United Kingdom conducted by Islamic extremists. Ironically, as we leave the European Union our political desire to show we are still good partners in the security field with our European partners has increased the risk of some reaction at home.
All of this means that the enduring truth for the emergency services is that terrorism in a range of forms can strike at any time, in any place and at any scale. Preparation for such events requires that the emergency services do not lower their guard because they feel the prevailing zeitgeist is that terrorism is not as much of a threat as it was. That would be foolhardy. It is not the way to read the government’s decision to lower the threat level. By giving itself political room to manoeuvre by lowering the threat, the warnings from the security services that they are unable to watch all of those thought to be involved in terrorism should be heeded.