It has been announced that the threat of a terrorist attack has been reduced from “severe” to “substantial”.  There have been various suggestions that such a change may be made for some time.  But what does it really mean in practice?  The answer is not a lot. 

In principle, the change is supposed to mean that an attack is “a strong possibility” as opposed to “highly likely”.  What does that mean?  Well, how will you change your behaviour as a result?  This encapsulates the problem with generic threat levels – particularly those with a five-point scale.  Whilst, in principle, additional security measures may be triggered when the threat level goes up a notch (and deactivated when the level goes down), in practice the response should be more graduated and should in any case be related to more specific factors (is the threat against iconic sites, financial centres or crowded places?).

Nonetheless, the decision to reduce the overall threat level is good news, particularly as until quite recently the official line was that the threat level was “at the severe end of severe” (whatever that might have been intended to mean).  It demonstrates the degree of success that the police and the security service have had in disrupting terrorist plotters and the work that is being done to divert individuals from violent extremism.

So we can relax?  Not really – the threat of attack remains substantial and a strong possibility.  And, of course, last time the threat level was reduced was in May 2005 – just a few weeks before the London bombings that July.

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