I was sitting in a Home Office seminar yesterday when someone mentioned in offhand fashion that the UK’s terrorism threat level had changed. MI5 and the cross-agency Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) have reduced the threat level from ‘severe’ – where an attack is deemed highly likely – to ‘substantial’, where an attack is considered a strong possibility.
This might seem like linguistic tweaking but has evidently been the result of a significant intelligence assessment. The ‘severe’ assessment is the lowest the national security footing has been at since 9/11 – the threat level has oscillated between severe and critical since August 2006, when it was first made public.
Alan Johnson, current Home Secretary, had this to say: ‘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.’
Some have suggested that the downgrade is a political ploy to convince an increasingly sceptical public that the war in Afghanistan is succeeding in reducing the domestic terrorism threat – this week’s stated strategy.
Apart from the fact that JTAC works independently of Whitehall and Westminster, I doubt this slightly conspiratorial assertion, although the timing of the announcement might, of course, work in government’s favour.
The reduction has been signposted for a while, with both ex-Home Sec Jacqui Smith and now CT police chief John Yates hinting in recent months it was imminent.
I agree with Paul Wilkinson, widely quoted across the news and intahwebs, who says it is a ‘very cautious, very tentative reduction’. It does sit slightly at odds with MI5 boss Jonathan Evans‘ statement in January that two thousand terrorism suspects were under constant surveillance. Can we assume that the situation is now firmly in hand?
The question is a straw man. The downgrading is not a cause for a general relaxation of vigilance, as Alan Johnson says. It merely means that the likelihood of a terrorist attack tomorrow is marginally less than it was yesterday; it is no longer probable but possible.
The whys and wherefores of this assessment are unknown, and neither MI5 nor JTAC can be expected to tell us. Nevertheless, an interesting development.
One can only hope that nothing serious does happen; it would be unfair to the intel services to cop more flak for another status downgrade ahead of an attack, as happened prior to 7/7.