Terrorism continues to pose as a major threat to UK business. Domestic attacks over the past eight years have tended to straddle the boundary of international terrorism and self-radicalisation. However, there have been no major terror related incidents recorded since November 2019 and no notable developments at all reported in 2022, though last year the murder of MP David Amess and the Remembrance Day bomb in Liverpool were terror-related and each incident provided a critical source of concern.
Additionally, several notable attacks were thwarted in 2021 and arrests of those deemed to be terrorist actors continued. According to our statistics, in the 12 months leading up to 25 April 2022, there were 255 notable, separate terrorism or extremism-related incidents across the UK. The graph below shows how these detected incidents were mapped throughout the past year.
These include arrests, shootings, knife attacks, plots thwarted, legal trials, legal bills, hostile online content and bomb threats. The number of incidents plotted in the above graph increased considerably after July 2021, coinciding with final stage of the easing Covid-19 restrictions in country. It also shows there were two peaks in activity, the first was recorded in the lead up to the Christmas period, where attacks and fears of terrorist violence has posed a consistent threat since 2014. The spike in March 2022 relates to several factors, including , elevated fears and threats born out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Northern Ireland lowering their Terrorist Threat Level from Severe to Substantial – the first reduction in 12 years. This follows the UK Home Secretary announcing in February 2022 that the UK's Terrorist Threat Level had been lowered from Severe to Substantial.
Several factors are assessed to determine the appropriate threat level in the UK, including intelligence, terrorist activity at home and abroad, terrorist capability and intentions, and timescales relating to the near-term likelihood of attack. The previous threat level was Severe, which means an attack is ‘highly likely’, though Substantial meaning an attack is ‘likely’ still though less so.
Nevertheless, recent high-profile incidents in the UK further motivate bad actors and provide a morale boost for inspired terrorism – which increases the risk of further attacks, possibly in the form of attacks carried out by lone wolf individuals. Typically, in these cases the attackers use unsophisticated weaponry with the objective of maximising casualties. In addition, surveillance and the rapid response times of emergency services around larger metropolitan areas will drive terrorists towards softer, more localised targets. Corresponding to this, data reported by Europol in 2021 shows the UK as having the second highest levels of jihadist attacks, arrests and plots in Europe after France. As such, the immediate threats are real, and businesses need to remain vigilant as a result.
Some of the wider trends driving the UK terror threat include:
The impact of the conflict in Ukraine
UK government sanctions against Russian individuals and entities, as well as the official sending of British weaponry, and also non-official UK foreign fighters raise the threat level of a Russian-government or Russian-backed attack on British soil. It has been estimated that up to 20,000 foreign fighters from all over the globe have travelled to Ukraine to help support the fight against Russian invasion, of these at least 300 of these are believed to be British nationals. However, Britons fighting against Russia forces could fall under the UK’s definition of terrorism, but prosecutions are unlikely.
Meanwhile, last month, the home secretary Priti Patel claimed Russia could smuggle female agents into the UK among Ukrainian refugees to carry out biological or chemical terror attacks. As such, she reaffirmed the importance of security checks conducted as part of the refugee visa application process to help avoid a repeat of the 2018 Novichok nerve agent attack in Salisbury.
Reciprocal radicalisation and youth recruits
Sustained Islamist attacks in the UK and Europe over the past seven years have led to reciprocal radicalisation amongst far-right actors in the UK. Most concerning of these is a rising trend in convictions of under-18s, including a neo-Nazi teenager from Cornwall who committed their first terror offence at 13-years-old. This individual had downloaded manuals on making explosives, napalm and fire-bombs; knife fighting skills; and how to build an AK47 assault rifle using readily available supplies.
Resurgence of the far right
There have been a number of notable attacks in recent years both in the UK and worldwide, including the murder of Rt Hon Jo Cox MP in 2016, the Finsbury Park Mosque attack in 2017, and the Christchurch Mosque Shootings in 2019. In April 2020, the Security Services took over primacy of Right-wing Terrorism investigations from the Police.
Security services recruited
Following investigations carried out in 2019, at least 16 members of the armed forces were referred to the UK’s terrorist prevention programme, with the majority being linked to far-right activity. In April 2021, 22-year-old Benjamin Hannam, a former probationary police officer, was found guilty of being a former member of a far-right neo-Nazi terrorist group.
Isolation of individuals during lockdown assists terrorist recruiters and the radicalisation process, with children and teenagers particularly vulnerable.
The end of Covid-19 restrictions
Restrictions initially reduced opportunities for terrorism, as the lockdown had seen UK high streets and public spaces deserted, lowering the number of potential terrorist targets. However, post lockdown, public spaces are being fully utilised and have once again become increasingly attractive terrorist targets.
Furthermore, a study carried out by Cardiff University’s Violence Research Group and released at the end of April 2022, found that serious violence increased by 23% after Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were eased in England and Wales last year – this rise is the biggest since records began. Since the early 2000’s there had been a long term trend for decreasing violence and A&E hospital admissions, and so it is possible that this could also impact acts of terrorism in the UK.
Homegrown threats return
British nationals who have fought for extremist groups overseas continue to return to the UK, increasing the risk of terrorist attacks. Simple, self-organised attacks by UK-based Islamist extremists have increased and are inherently harder to detect than more complex and ambitious plots.
Motivated by social media
There has been a significant growth in social media channels promoting reciprocal ‘far-left vs far-right’ radicalisation and ‘echo chamber’ chat rooms where like-minded users amplify and reinforce a shared narrative and extreme views. Once inspired, an individual might decide to conduct a terrorist attack without any outward signs of radicalisation. In 2020, the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) figures showed a 7% increase year-on-year in suspected terrorism content that had been reported to them.
A special thanks to our business partners AnotherDay for this insight and thought leadership.
www.another-day.com. April 2022.