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Why the terrorist threat level is still 'Severe' 

The current threat level for international terrorism in the UK is Severe and has not been below this level since August 2014. Roger Gomm asks: Is it still justified?

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(Image Aliaksei Brouka/123rf)

The threat level for the UK from international terrorism is set by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) . In reaching a judgement on the appropriate threat level, several factors need to be taken into account.

Available intelligence 
It is rare that specific threat information is available and can be relied upon. More often, judgements about the threat will be based on a wide range of information, which is often fragmentary, including the level and nature of current terrorist activity, comparison with events in other countries and previous attacks.

Intelligence is only ever likely to reveal part of the picture. For example, it is currently possible that the threat will be affected by the release of terrorist prisoners. Because of the 2017 attacks, the police are likely to have a lower tolerance for risk, especially as it affects public safety within investigations. Operationally, this will mean earlier arrests or plot disruptions to reduce the risk, but potentially could result in evidence and prosecutions for lesser offences and, if convicted, reduced sentences for the perpetrators. Consequently, this leads to quicker release, which may add to the current threat.

Terrorist capability
Examination of what is known about the capabilities of the terrorists in question and the method they may use, based on previous attacks or from intelligence would also analyse the potential scale of the attack. The threat of returning fighters undertaking attacks appears not as stark as had previously been feared. Although in 2017, the UK experienced four Islamist attacks, it is reported that none of the terrorists had undertaken extremist travel to Iraq and Syria.

However, the events in the UK are in stark contrast to trends seen in Europe, including the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and upon Brussels airport and metro in March 2016, where cell members had returned from the Iraq and Syria.

However, the Internet has become a key means of indoctrinating and training would-be terrorists. Extremists use websites and social media to recruit and radicalise individuals through videos and propaganda. Such websites and social media messages can also provide advice and instructions on how to plan and prepare for attacks, acting as a virtual training camp or ideas forum.

Several individuals have been convicted of running or contributing to extremist websites or have been found in possession of downloaded material that would assist in preparation of terrorist attacks.

As has been previously reported, ISIS encouraged low complexity attacks against a range of targets by those who could not travel. A wave of attacks, starting in Australia, then spreading to America and into Europe quickly followed. This is a strong indication of the start of extensive and sophisticated media and social media campaigns, creating a ‘virtual caliphate’, whereby evolving media technology and extremist messaging offered an alternative to actual travel for extremist purposes. This virtual caliphate continues to provide a domain of both al-Quada (AQ) and Daesh narratives, propaganda and instructional videos.

Terrorist intentions
Intelligence and publicly available information permits an examination of the overall aims of terrorists and the ways they may achieve them, including what sort of targets they would consider attacking. This post-caliphate generation of extremists will prolong the Severe terrorism threat to the UK.

This generation incorporates those convicted terrorists already released, or soon to be freed, after serving custodial sentences. This includes, al Muhajiroun co-founder Anjem Choudary and members of significant plots, such as the AQ cell who attempted to bring down transatlantic planes with liquid bombs in 2006. As such, the UK will soon experience a mix of both AQ and ISIS terrorists freed from prison and likely to reside in existing hotspots of Islamist extremism within England, particularly Birmingham and London. While the rates of reoffending for terrorism offences may be low, these releases can only place even greater demands on the security services and the police, managing and monitoring their reintegration with society.

The threat level expresses the likelihood of an attack in the near term. We know from past incidents that some attacks take years to plan, while others are put together more quickly. In the absence of specific intelligence, a judgement will need to be made about how close an attack might be to fruition. Threat levels do not have any set expiry date but are regularly subject to review in order to ensure that they remain current.

Encrypted messaging channels and social media platforms now provide extremists with an operational apparatus to incite, encourage, plan and publicise attacks. This online network provides a realistic alternative to the knowledge transfer and experiences previously only offered by travel to certain countries for extremist purposes and returning home. Like AQ’s experiences post-Afghanistan, the Daesh post-caliphate now has a decentralised command and control structure with senior leaders’ communications being disrupted and infrequent.

Daesh is exploiting technology and uses it to sustain operations internationally. This, together with the sheer volume of extremist material and encrypted messages, makes plots harder to detect and disrupt. The intensity of this influence now means attack plans can quickly progress to an advanced stage, reducing opportunity to stop them.

I hope this goes some way to explain why the UK threat shows no likelihood of reducing. While fighters returning from the Syria and Iraq and undertaking attacks is a factor, greater risks can be found closer to home. Attacks are likely to happen with little or no warning and involve a range of methodologies against a range of targets.

The high level of arrests and disrupted plots is likely to continue, and the private sector should, through proportionate security measures, place itself in a position not only to reduce the likelihood of being caught up in an attack, but to reduce the impact and recover from the incident quickly. 

Roger Gomm, 03/01/2019
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