The UK has raised its terrorism threat level from “substantial” to “severe” following attacks in Austria and France, which officials say have “raised the tempo” of terror activity around Europe.
The move by the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre on Tuesday puts the UK at its second-highest threat level, meaning there is no specific intelligence of a new risk to Britain but that an attack is still deemed “highly likely”.
Explaining the decision, Priti Patel, home secretary, said people should be “alert but not alarmed”. “This is a precautionary measure following the horrific events of the last week in France and last night in Austria and is not based on a specific threat,” she added.
The move comes after a terror attack in Vienna on Monday night, in which a gunman killed four people and left more than a dozen seriously injured. The perpetrator, who was known to authorities because of his extreme Islamist sympathies, was shot and killed by police at the scene.
Days before, a knifeman murdered three people in a church in the French city of Nice, and a French history teacher was decapitated in Paris in mid-October — both confirmed by French authorities as acts of Islamic terror.
One Whitehall official said the change in the UK threat level reflected the “change in tempo” of Islamist terror attacks around Europe, which could potentially inspire copycat incidents. The official also noted that the attacks in Nice and Vienna happened on the eve of new national lockdowns. The UK is due to enter its second lockdown on Thursday.
Neil Basu, head of UK counterterror policing, said officers began to increase visible patrols from Tuesday, while implementing other security and protection measures.
“We are also working closely with our local communities — businesses, faith groups and community groups across the UK to provide reassurance and seek their support and assistance in keeping the UK safe,” he added.
The UK’s terrorism threat level was raised to its highest rating of “critical” on two occasions in 2017, after attacks at the Manchester Arena and on a tube at Parsons Green in London. Since then, the level remained at “severe”, but was downgraded a year ago.
British intelligence agencies have recently been under pressure to defend their decision to focus resources on counterterror operations given the rising threat from hostile states.
Ken McCallum, the new director-general of MI5, last month said his agency had disrupted 27 “late-stage terrorist plots” across the UK over the past four years, of which the majority had been planned by Islamist extremists.