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Christmas caution: Terror threat level raised amid celebrations

The threat level increase raises questions about the government's terror policies

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Image Credit: Andrew Parsons

One of the UK’s most senior counter-terrorism officers has warned of an increased terror risk over the Christmas period, as crowds gather to enjoy the festivities in cities across the country.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist of the Metropolitan Police, who presides over the national ‘Protect and Prepare’ programme, has urged members of the public to be more vigilant of their surroundings.

In an interview with LBC, Mr Twist encouraged people to “be alert, not alarmed” when in crowded areas. He discussed the importance of reporting concerns and reassured listeners that ‘you’re not going to ruin somebody’s life, but you might just save one’ when calling in any suspicions.

The advice follows two terror-related incidents in recent weeks, the murder of Sir David Amess MP and the Liverpool Remembrance Day attack, providing a chilling reminder that terrorism has not disappeared after the pandemic.

In response the Liverpool incident, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre increased the UK’s terror threat level from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’ meaning an attack is highly likely.

Indeed the inevitable lull in terror attacks both this year and last, where town centres and public places were noticeably desolate, has produced a form of ‘pent-up threat’ since social restrictions eased.

Both the Met's Assistant Commissioner Matt Jukes and his predecessor AC Neil Basu have raised concern about the invisible radicalisation during the pandemic; Mr Jukes said there was ‘no doubt’ that people will have been radicalised by spending more time online while Mr Basu said it had become significantly easier for groomers to exploit social isolation.

The reported surge in those radicalised during this period is of grave concern to the authorities, creating exceptional demand on their resources. There are currently ‘record levels’ of counter-terrorism investigations in the UK, with more than 800 live operations and 31 foiled plots since 2017.

Alongside this, government initiatives such as the Prevent programme which steers people away from terrorism have been called into question. It was revealed that the man suspected of killing Sir David Amess had been referred to Prevent several years ago, yet remained able to commit such a serious offence and had been preparing acts of terror since May 2019.

The strategy has also faced criticisms of around systemic racism against British Muslim communities, breaches of civil rights around state surveillance and accusations that it probes for extremism where it may not necessarily exist. The fierce opposition to the strategy was shown in January 2020 when over one hundred leading academics and activists signed an open letter to the Home Office calling for the abolition of the programme.

Yet as the government grapples with its Prevent strategy, more tangible measures have been implemented ahead of the Christmas period. Territorial forces have been stepping up visible patrols in town centres as part of Project Servator, a national strategy which seeks to disrupt serious criminality and reassure the public. The deployment of these resources simultaneously deters would-be terrorists while also enabling a quick response to any incidents which unfold.

In a similar vein, anti-terror barriers have been popping up in cities across the UK to mitigate the weaponisation of vehicles in acts of terror. Historic cities such as Cambridge have seen permanent barriers installed along King’s Parade and just last month the same treatment was given to the City of York, to the dismay of local business owners and residents.

Despite the compromising aesthetics, there is an incredibly valid case to install these ahead of large gatherings particularly at this time of the year. Recent tragedies such as the Waukesha attack in Wisconsin, United States saw six people killed and more than 50 others injured when a car was driven into a large crowd at the Christmas parade. While it was later confirmed the motive was not terrorism, this is precisely what UK police chiefs fear.

Events in Waukesha bore remarkable similarities to the 2016 terror attack in Berlin, where a hijacked lorry drove into the Christmas market killing twelve people and injuring 56 others. Indeed during 2017 alone, London saw three terror incidents involving the weaponisation of vehicles showing that British authorities are well-versed in dealing with this type of threat. For terrorists, the use of vehicles maximises the destruction they can wreak upon dense crowds.

These cases demonstrate that the job of both the police and security services is increasingly relentless with a silently evolving threat. Attempts to de-radicalise those corrupted by harmful ideologies is an uphill battle, facilitated by a government programme under frequent attack. While the programme has undeniably averted many attacks and is deserving of appreciation, it is unclear whether the existing infrastructure can withstand the post-pandemic surge in cases.

In the wake of DAC Twist’s comments, it must be questioned whether mere advice is enough to combat the threat too, with calls for the government to reform its existing counter-terrorism procedures. Given the increase in the terror threat level to ‘severe’ just weeks ago, one must inevitably remain alert during the Christmas period yet it is difficult to not be alarmed by recent events too.

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