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On Thursday 5 July, the current threat level in the UK was reduced from Critical to Severe. It had been raised to Critical, the highest of five possible levels, on Saturday 30 June following failed car bomb attacks on Central London and Glasgow Airport and was kept there for six days – longer than was the case for last summer’s ‘liquid bomb plot’ to down transatlantic airliners – until the police and Security Services were sure they had captured all those involved in the plot.
The threat level is set, changed, maintained, reassessed and reduced by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), based on available intelligence information: Critical relates to a situation in which there is specific information available to indicate that an attack is imminent; at Severe, an attack is still considered to be ‘highly likely’. While the threat level will be raised when JTAC considers it necessary, the decision of when to drop it can be just as important, but in many cases harder to make, as it is much easier to see when an attack has happened than to be able to say confidently when it will not be repeated. It is also important to remember that when the level is at Critical this does not mean that the country is ‘in crisis’: it is a technical term, aimed at security practitioners, to alert them to the level of vigilance they should consider maintaining.
Ken Jones, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers (APCO) is adamant that maintaining the level at Critical – indefinitely if need be – poses no problem for the police in terms of resources or manpower. Mutual Aid enables trained counter terrorism officers from forces more experienced in such work, such as the Met, to move around the country as and when required to help out those in areas with less expertise. At the same time, lessons learned after 9/11 ensure that certain officers’ roles within the community are protected, ensuring that regions are not left unprotected. After all, terrorism is not the only crime affecting the UK.
Retaining the threat level at Critical for long periods can have detrimental effects to national security. It is an extreme level used sparingly and only when necessary for a very good reason: as well as the implications it has for the Police and the Security Services, it is also a signal to the public, to private businesses and to all organizations that they need to be on ‘red alert’. If it became the norm, how long would it be before we all became complacent, ignoring the discarded hold-all or unfamiliar vehicle?
While JTAC would never drop the threat level if they believed a genuine threat was imminent, they are also careful not to keep it elevated unnecessarily. The public would soon tire of having bags searched when entering hotels, and of not being able to drive into the concourse of train stations and airports, if they did not think such extreme measures were necessary. Keeping the level at Critical for short periods ensures that the public recognize and accept that more stringent measures are necessary during these times. Private companies and organizations – as well as the police – also need to understand that they too may need to be extra vigilant.
Maintaining the level at Critical not only puts extra requirements on the obvious organizations such as the police and the Security Services, who in the most part are well set up to cope with the situation, but also for many other organizations and businesses. Additional staff may be needed to cover increased security checks and while in the short term this can be covered by calling in additional overtime and cancelling holidays and leave, this cannot be maintained for more than a few days before any company will find itself looking at tired staff operating at reduced levels of efficiency, or be faced will quick recruitment of additional staff without time to train them or adequately check their background.
It is therefore important that all organizations – not just the police and the Security Services – have contingency plans in place to enable them to increase necessary staffing levels and resources during Critical periods. All companies should have a list of reliable, trustworthy individuals who can be called in to help with additional bag checks, security searches and perimeter patrols when needed. Additional admin staff may be needed who can check the credentials of guests signing up for conferences or attending meetings. In the long term, this may mean taking on additional staff, and where this is necessary the time must be taken to recruit the right people and to check their references thoroughly, and not quickly ‘panic’ recruit people who are available but not necessarily ideal for the job.
The numbers of police officers, and people working for the Security Services, has increased hugely since the 7/7 attacks and is continuing to increase, but these aren’t increases that can be made overnight and they aren’t the only organizations who should be looking at what the new security climate means to them. It is up to us all to be vigilant and to be aware of the situation around us and equally important to know when it is safe to drop our guard. Correct application of the national threat level is key in maintaining this awareness.
Editor, Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor, July 2007
The views expresssed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI