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Terrorism in the UK: Evolving Threats and Suspect Communities

By Jake Grinyer, researcher at Talking About Terrorism.



The United Kingdom (UK) has historically faced various threats from terrorism in the country. Dating back to around 1980, the country has witnessed numerous terrorist attacks resulting in over 3,300 deaths, this being the highest number from any Western European country. Around the period of 1980, most attacks were carried out by dissident Irish republican groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Defined as "The Troubles," these groups engaged in ethno-nationalist conflicts in Northern Ireland involving bombings and assasinations. The terrorist threat from the IRA has now, however, changed shape, and the nature of the threat stems from groups such as the "New IRA," which the MI5 classifies as a "top priority."

The country has notably also experienced several Islamist-inspired attacks. From the period of 1998 - 2015, there have been over 260 convictions for Islamist terrorism. However, the country has also faced terrorist attacks carried out by "ordinary British citizens.” The most notable case here being the 7 July 2005 London Bombings, which resulted in 56 deaths. The diversity of terrorist threats the country faces is illustrated in the country's threat level: SUBSTANTIAL, indicating that an attack is likely. The UK maintains similar threat levels to other countries in Europe such as Belgium, where the current threat level is a 2 on a scale of 4, and France, where there is a medium threat.

Some of the key areas of concern for the UK are:

  • Irish terrorist groups such as the IRA

  • Jihadist terrorism

  • Far-right groups

  • Home-grown terrorism

  • Radicalisation and extremism

The large emphasis on Jihadist terrorism in the country has had a negative impact on the Muslim population. As such, throughout the years, the country and its laws have invoked an "us vs them" narrative. Project Champion, for example, funded surveillance cameras around predominantly Muslim areas in cities such as Birmingham. Amid wide criticism, protesters labelled these cameras as "1984 Big Brother" and referring to the environment as a "police state."

In addition to the negative impact on the Muslim population, immigration has also played a key part in the county's perspective of outsiders. The infamous Brexit referendum again played on the narrative of "us vs them." The influence of this divide can be seen in the case of Shamima Begum, who had her British citizenship revoked for supposedly supporting terrorism abroad. The growing emphasis on the Muslim population and immigration has encouraged a wide sense of Islamophobia in the country, increasing radicalisation rates.

In response to terrorist attacks, the UK government has quickly eroded individual rights to liberty by invoking discriminatory 'emergency' laws to protect national security. For example, shortly following the 11 September 2001 attacks, the UK approved the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act. This act allowed authorities to detain foreign nationals without charge. The next section will provide a broad overview of key UK terrorism policies like the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act.

Key Counter-Terrorism Laws and Strategy

Similar to the diversity of terrorist threats the UK faces, the country has employed a diversity of legislative laws that seek to combat terrorism. Some of these are invoked as counter-terrorism "emergency laws," allowing the stake to invoke measures they would not otherwise be able to in non-emergency environments. This has, controversially, allowed authorities to have greater interference with human rights, justified under the idea that such measures are only temporary. Some of the earliest emergency powers were used against the IRA from 1874 to 1989.

One of the first major laws concerning terrorism was the Terrorism Act 2000, later revised in 2006. The Terrorism Act 2000, which came into force a year later, focused heavily on Islamist terrorism and was created in the attempt to compose permanent legislation and not one based on emergency and temporary powers. Over the years, again controversially, various laws and legislations have sought to expand on this original legislation to provide police with more powers. Some of these extended laws are:

  • Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act 2001

  • Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005

  • Counter-Terrorism Act 2008

  • Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2001

  • Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015

  • Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (Snoopers' Charter)

Arising from such extended powers was the abuse of indiscriminate stop and search powers under the Terrorism Act 2000. Under Section 44 of the act, police officers were granted powers to stop and search members of the public without the need for reasonable suspicion. In such instances, members predominantly from the Muslim population were being stopped and searched upon a police officer’s subjective suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Moreover, with the introduction of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act 2001, police officers were permitted to detain individuals under suspicion of terrorism indefinitely, raising strong criticism from the public and civil liberty groups. The Snoopers' Charter was also found to be intrusive and discriminatory as it allowed intelligence services to hack into communication devices to monitor a suspect's camera and microphone. This power can also be extended to phone companies to collect records of web browsing histories.

In 2010, then-Home Secretary Theresa May reviewed the country's counter-terrorism and security powers with the specific intention to "provide a correction in favor of liberty." The review found that some of the counter-terrorism and security laws and subsequent powers were "neither proportionate nor necessary."

In 2003, the UK government introduced the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy. The CONTEST strategy has remained the UK's principal counter-terrorism strategy and has been updated in 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2018. The strategy is composed of four central pillars: Prevent, Pursue, Protect, and Prepare. The Prevent pillar focused on terrorism of all forms and attempted to address radicalization at its roots to prevent people from becoming involved in the process. The pillar places a 'Prevent Duty' on local authorities, such as schools, to monitor and protect people from being drawn into terrorism. This formed the basis of Channel - a support scheme for vulnerable individuals in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. The Prevent strategy, however, was quickly criticized as predominately being focused on the Muslim communities, leading to the narrative of "suspective communities" and, thereby, increasing Islamophobia. Moreover, in an official review of the strategy, it was found that "the failure to address concerns about Prevent among the communities most affected by it would mean that it would continue to be viewed with suspicion."

Although UK laws have attempted to focus on a variety of terrorism types, there has been a large focus on Islamist terrorism, as seen with the Prevent strategy. The next section will provide a review of all the most current types of terrorism and list basic statistics to illustrate their prevalence.

Types of Terrorism

Over a long period, the key threat to the UK was Islamist terrorism. In fact, in the 2018 CONTEST strategy, the government still defines Islamist terrorism as the "foremost terrorist threat to the UK." The CONTEST strategy lists the major groups possessing the highest threats to the UK, such as Al Qa'ida and Daesh, the latter being responsible for most Islamist terrorism in the UK. Groups such as Al Muhajiroun remain active in the country whilst Al Qa'ida is able to actively influence individuals online. The most recent Islamist attacks to take place in the country were the 29 November London Bridge stabbing in 2019, which resulted in 3 deaths, and Streatham stabbings on 2 February 2020, which resulted in 3 injuries and one death.

In addition to Islamist terrorism, however, there are other types of terrorism within the country. Historically, the country has witnessed ethno-nationalist and separatist terrorism in the form of the IRA. The government define such attacks as Northern Ireland related terrorism (NIRT). In fact, during 2019, 55 attacks were related to Dissent Republican (DR) groups in Northern Ireland. The UK government placed the threat from DR groups as SEVERE and reported an increase in attack planning. In 2019, UK authorities made over 147 arrests solely in Northern Ireland. Groups that are banned by the UK government include the Irish National Liberation Army and the IRA.

Far-right terrorism in particular has been described as the UK's fastest-growing threat. In 2019, four attacks were associated with far-right terrorism in the country, the most at the time from any other European country. Far-right attacks in the UK have not resulted in mass casualties and have instead resulted in individual casualties usually via stabbings or by driving into crowds of people. However, the wider threat from far-right extremism derives from its ability to influence young people. In fact, online extremism and radicalization for far-right groups have increased, with people from as young as 14 being arrested on terrorism charges. Moreover, in 2016, the government proscribed National Action as an extreme far-right group under the Terrorism Act 2000, the first time a far-right group has been proscribed. Some of the other groups and networks associated with far-right terrorism include:

  • Blood & Honour

  • Sonnenkrieg Division

  • English Defence League

Environmentalist groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace in the past have been labelled as "terrorist groups,'' albeit both groups deny this label. Other similar movements such as the Animal Liberation Front have also been described by critics as "terrorists,'' although the government does not label these groups as "terrorists.'' How the government chooses to define 'terrorism' has been an ongoing debate for a while, particularly with the emergence of other forms of terrorism and extremism not associated with traditional Islamist terrorism in the country.

In 2020, the UK's principal security agency, the MI5, stated that investigations into left-wing terrorism would be conducted for the first time. However, the government stressed that the threat level from left-wing terrorism was relatively small compared to Islamist and far-right extremism.

Threats from terrorism have been evolving and shifting in the UK. The oldest forms of domestic terrorism in Northern Ireland are, albeit operating under a different nature, still ongoing with the New IRA. Brexit and other events in the country have encouraged a dramatic rise in far-right groups that invoke the "us vs them" narrative that has plagued the country in its fight against Islamist terrorism. With the evolving apparatus of terrorism and technology, the country now faces various types of terrorism. For the UK to "evolve" and successfully prevent terrorist attacks, it needs to implement effective and just policies that do not discriminate against specific members of its population. Trust building and cooperation is essential to achieve this, particularly to reverse damage inflicted upon "suspect communities.''


Types of threat

  • Terrorist attacks from the IRA constitute some of the oldest forms of terrorism in the country

  • The UK faces threats from DR groups, jihadism, far-right groups and home-grown terrorism

  • The first far-right terrorist group was proscribed in 2016

  • Daesh is responsible for most Islamist terrorism in the UK Threat level

  • The terrorism threat level remains as SEVERE

  • Islamist terrorism remains the "foremost terrorist threat to the UK"

  • Attacks from Dissent Republican groups are increasing

  • The threat from far-right terrorism is increasing

Domestic policies

  • Individuals from as young as 14 are being arrested on far-right terrorism charges

  • The UK government has often invoked "emergency laws" in response to terror attacks

  • CONTEST is the UK's principal counter-terrorism strategy

  • Previous counter-terrorism powers have been found to be "neither proportionate nor necessary"

  • The 'Prevent Duty' places a responsibility on local authorities to prevent vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism

  • Members of the Muslim community have historically been targeted by counter-terrorism laws


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