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Cautious confidence: terror threat levels lowered

Margaret Gilmore
Commentary, 22 July 2009
Terrorism, UK, Domestic Security, Intelligence, Terrorism, Europe
The threat level to the UK from international terrorism has been reduced from ‘severe’ to ‘substantial’: the lowest it has been for more than four years. The move suggests there is cautious confidence within the security agencies.

It is a brave person who decides to reduce the threat level to the UK from international terrorism. Last time it was lowered to ‘substantial’ was in May 2005. Six weeks later on 7 July 2005, the first suicide bombers to commit an atrocity on UK soil detonated four bombs on public transport in London, killing fifty two commuters.

Afterwards the decision to lower the level then brought much soul searching and public scrutiny. Had it been a mistake? Was the intelligence wrong? The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), in its report into the 7 July attacks published in May 2006 concluded the decision was ‘not unreasonable’ and was ‘unlikely to have altered the alertness of responders’ to the attacks. Nevertheless the Committee recommended more strategic thinking when analysing intelligence reports, and a new system to enable intelligence gatherers to highlight limitations in the quality or coverage of intelligence. The report also called for more transparency and soon afterwards the Government decided to publish the threat levels. Until then they had officially been kept secret, although, as in the case above, details did sometimes leak out.

A simple system was devised with five threat levels. ‘Critical’ suggests an attack is imminent, ‘severe’ suggests it is highly likely, ‘substantial’ means an attack remains a strong possibility, ‘moderate’ means it is possible but not likely, and finally ‘low’ suggests an attack is unlikely. There are further tiers within these levels which are not published but which help the intelligence agencies and other organisations and commercial companies to define the specific levels of security needed.

This is the first time since the threat levels officially became public in 2006 that they have fallen so low. Most of the time since then they remained at ‘severe’, rising to ‘critical’ twice briefly, most recently in June 2007 in response to the Haymarket and Glasgow Airport bomb attacks.

The Risks of Reducing the Threat Levels

It would not be surprising if those who had made the decision to reduce the threat to ‘substantial’ back in 2005 been reluctant to risk doing so again, in case the same thing happened and an attack followed. But it is vital they keep their nerve, changing the levels as intelligence dictates – without being swayed by fears that confidence in the system will be undermined or that they will be in trouble if there were an attack soon afterwards.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it is important that commercial and public organisations do not waste money on unnecessary security: keeping the level too high would probably cause this to happen.

Equally, those who decide the threat level must change it as they see fit. They must not bow to interference or pressure from the terrorists who amongst other things will want to undermine the system by launching an attack to show the threat is not diminishing. Nor must they be pressurised by Government or politicians who fear may they are tempting fate by lowering the levels and who may prefer not to have to deal with the fallout if there were an attack soon afterwards. It is important to maintain public confidence in the system and those setting the levels should not keep the threat level unnecessarily high or let the experiences of 2005 influence them now.

The country's most senior counter-terrorism officer, John Yates, who is Head of Specialist Operations at Scotland Yard, raised a similar point at a recent police conference, effectively anticipating the level could be lowered. He said:

‘I think there is a possibility the threat level may come down. It is logical because we cannot keep having it high unless the threat is there.’

Mixed Messages?

But maintaining confidence may not be that easy. Logic does indeed suggest lowering the threat level means the threat is no longer as high as it used to be. Yet in a move which risks confusing the public, Ministers in particular appear reluctant to articulate this. In announcing the change on 20 July 2009, the Home Office chose not to dwell on the fact the risk is down, but to emphasise instead that even on the lower tier, there could still be an attack without warning. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson stated:

‘The change in the threat level to ‘substantial’ does not mean the overall threat has gone away. There remains a real and serious threat against the United Kingdom and I would ask that the public remain vigilant.’

So instead of the threat being ‘highly likely’ as it was at the ‘severe’ level, it is now ‘real and serious’ and there could still be an attack without warning.

It may be that the public definitions are deliberately blurred – perhaps to cover all eventualities without hyping the threat – but it does send mixed messages to the public who in any case will see little if any change in everyday security.

Getting it right is a tough call for the analysts at the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre(JTAC), who decide what the threat level should be. JTAC operates independently of Ministers, from inside the headquarters of the Security Service, MI5. Analysts there assess the threat from international terrorism by considering intelligence and information from a variety of sources including intelligence collected by GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and the police. Their decisions are based on a broad range of factors, including the currently assessed intent and capabilities of international terrorist groups such as Al-Qa’ida.

Improvements in Intelligence Gathering

They should have confidence in the fact the intelligence they are using to assess the threat level is likely to be significantly better now than four years ago – and easier to assess. New systems recommended in the 2006 ISC report are coming online so there is greater clarity over the quality of intelligence as it passes between departments, thus reducing the chances of inappropriate reassurance about the level of a threat in the absence of specific plots. As the ISC report put it, ensuring ‘that security practitioners have all the relevant information at their disposal in making risk-based decisions’.

And though there may be terrorist cells which are not on the intelligence radar, intelligence coverage is likely to be greater. New regional offices mean counter terrorism officers from the intelligence agencies and police are closer to communities where terrorists may hide. MI5 in particular has been recruiting steadily since 2001, and will have doubled in size by 2011, much of the expansion, according to its website, reflecting ‘the greater volume of work undertaken in our international counter-terrorist sections’. 3,500 people currently work for the Agency. By 2011 they are expected to have 4,100 staff.

Lowering the threat level may not be hugely meaningful to the public. But it suggests there is cautious confidence within the security agencies that the frantic work of the past eight years is having effect. We should interpret it as a positive sign.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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