What does Theresa May's terror threat level decision actually mean for us?

Operation Temperer - the plan to protect the United Kingdom from terrorism

Army soldiers are working with police officers to protect the UK from terror attacks

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

When Theresa May spoke at Downing Street last night, all the headlines fell on her decision to raise the terror threat level to critical - meaning authorities are preparing for a new terror attack imminently. Coming so soon after the carnage at Manchester Arena, the announcement left millions of people confused and afraid.

But, behind all the sensational headlines, tweets and articles, would does this decision actually mean?

Well, essentially, the threat level has been raised because officials believe Abedi didn't act alone - or at least can't be sure that he did. As May herself said, the possibility of a “wider group of individuals” being linked to the attack couldn’t be ignored.

It's also important to point out that a follow-up attack is not certain to happen. Indeed authorities are not expecting a follow-up attack, but merely preparing for one - which is a very different thing.

It is only the third time the level has even been jacked up to critical, and the first for a decade. In 2006, the threat level rose after intelligence officials became aware of a plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto flights going to the US and Canada. Then, the following year, an attempted attack on Glasgow Airport and a plot to blow up a club in London prompted the level to increase once more.

Many will be relieved to know that, on both occasions, the level was lowered again after only a few days.

May has also implemented Operation Temperer, a decision which might have far more far-reaching consequences for the average Briton. For it means the troops are going to be sent in - and in big numbers.

The plan was conceived after the spate of attacks in early January 2015 across the Ile-de-France region – the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and subsequent attacks on Fontenay-aux-Roses, Montrouge, and Porte de Vincennes. It was meant to be kept secret, but details of the operation were leaked to a newspaper later in 2015.

As the afternoon goes on, upwards of 3,500 soldiers are being deployed to protect key or critical locations across the UK. In London alone, 984 military personnel have been drafted in to guard places like Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, the Palace of Westminster, and various embassies across the city – sites which could be, and in Westminster’s case, have been, targeted in terror attacks.

They will stand guard at various events to allow police to conduct more routine patrols in other areas and if need be, make arrests. Under the coordination of Scotland Yard and the police, who have assumed temporary control over them, the soldiers in place will help to ensure as wide a net as possible to stop any imminent attacks.

The deployment of British soldiers to the streets is not entirely unfamiliar. Armed forces patrolled the streets of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. More recently, Tony Blair deployed a total of 450 armed forces members and a series of tanks to guard UK airports after security services were alerted to a potential threat in 2003. 

However, this decision led to accusations Blair was scaremongering among the public by having visible military services. Theresa May hopes to avoid this – both she and Home Secretary Amber Rudd have clarified they are wary of the political and public impacts of having armed soldiers visibly patrolling in the streets. They have made it clear they want to use the measure for as little time as possible, and have called for vigilance and cooperation as Temperer continues.

Once the terror threat is lowered, then Operation Temperer will be called off. The site of troops on our streets could have disappeared within a matter of days - and millions of people will hope that is the case.