Overview: The UK remains a key U.S. partner in the global fight against terrorism, and their bilateral counterterrorism cooperation is excellent. As a partner in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the UK continued to contribute to Iraq and northeastern Syria stabilization efforts. The UK is a supporter and donor to GCERF and Hedayah.
The UK’s terrorism threat level was at the third-highest rating (substantial) for most of 2020. On November 3, following terrorist attacks in France and Austria, the UK increased the threat level to severe, raising its threat assessment of an attack from “likely” to “highly likely.” UK officials categorize Islamist terrorism as the greatest threat to national security, though they recognize the growing threat of racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism (REMVE), also referred to as “extreme right-wing” terrorism. Since 2017, police and security services have disrupted 27 plots, including eight categorized as REMVE.
The terrorist threat level for Northern Ireland, set separately from England, Scotland, and Wales, remains severe, because of threats from dissident republican groups, which remain opposed to British governance and use paramilitary-style attacks and intimidation to exert control over communities. In November the Independent Reporting Commission published the third of four annual reports assessing loyalist and republican paramilitarism remains a serious concern, while noting a reduction in recorded paramilitary-related incidents in 2020, owing in part to COVID-19.
2020 Terrorist Incidents: The UK suffered three terrorist incidents in 2020:
- On January 9, two Islamic violent extremist inmates at a maximum-security prison in Cambridgeshire, using makeshift bladed weapons and fake suicide vests, stabbed one prison officer. Five prison staff were injured.
- On February 2 a recently released convicted terrorist under active counterterrorism surveillance stabbed two persons in Streatham, London. Police shot the terrorist to death, and debris injured one bystander.
- On June 20 a Libyan refugee fatally stabbed three men and injured at least three others in Reading. Though counterterrorism officials had twice flagged him, they did not think he posed a danger of staging an attack. The judge who sentenced the attacker to life in prison confirmed it was a terrorist attack.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security
- In February, Parliament passed the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act to end early release without a Parole Board review for terrorist offenders.
- Parliament introduced in May and is currently reviewing the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, which would increase maximum sentences for terrorism offenses; create a new, extended, postrelease probationary regime for terrorism offenders; and make it easier to impose stringent restrictions on individuals suspected of terrorist activity but not yet charged with a crime.
UK law enforcement made 215 arrests for terrorism-related activity, of which 55 were charged with terrorism-related offenses from October 2019 to September 2020, according to Home Office statistics. Of the 49 persons convicted of terrorism-related offenses, 34 received sentences of less than 10 years and 5 received life sentences. As of June, 243 people in the UK are in custody for terrorism-related offenses.
In September the UK shared evidence with the United States against UK-origin ISIS fighters known as the “Beatles,” Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh. They were subsequently brought to the United States for prosecution.
The UK launched the 2025 Border Strategy consultation in June to seek views on strengthening UK border security by 2025, using new digital systems. The country uses advanced biometric screening at some points of entry but may lose ready access to real-time EU information on automated DNA and fingerprint comparisons after the Brexit transition period ends December 31. The UK may lose the ability to widely retain and access historical Passenger Name Record data with information on terrorists trying to enter the UK after December 31.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: The UK is a member of FATF and has observer or cooperating status in the following FATF-style regional bodies: observer of the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, observer of the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group, observer of MENAFATF, and a cooperating and supporting nation of CFATF. Its FIU, the UK Financial Intelligence Unit, is a member of the Egmont Group. The UK is a member of the Defeat-ISIS CIFG.
The 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act provided the legal framework to implement sanctions after the UK left the EU. The Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) Regulations 2019 took effect in January. The UK’s new domestic counterterrorism sanctions regime — The Counter-Terrorism (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 — will replace the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act 2010 when the Brexit transition period ends December 31.
As of March, when the latest data are available, the UK had $92,985 of terrorist assets frozen under EU Regulation 881/2002, which implements the UN Security Council ISIL and al-Qa’ida Sanctions Committee, and an additional $11,158 frozen under the Terrorist Asset Freezing etc. Act 2010. It also had $22,316 frozen under Council Regulation (EU) No 2580/2001.
Countering Violent Extremism: The Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE), a nonstatutory expert committee of the Home Office, published a June report on how violent extremists have exploited COVID-19 to spread conspiracy theories and disinformation about ethnic and religious minority groups to incite hatred and violence. The CCE launched the Academic-Practitioner Counter Extremism Network (APCEN) in November to convene experts in countering violent extremism from the CCE, government, and academia to align policy, practice, and research. The November meeting focused on “extremism and conspiracy theories.” APCEN will meet six times a year to identify gaps in understanding violent extremism and counter violent extremism.
International and Regional Cooperation: The UK continued to strongly support counterterrorism efforts in regional and multilateral organizations, as well as through the Global Counterterrorism Forum. The UK is a key member of the Five-Country Ministerial, which promotes multilateral ministerial dialogue on border security and counterterrorism. The country leads Five Eyes efforts to prevent new European data laws from interfering with lawful government access to suspected terrorist content and voluntary industry efforts to report suspected criminal content on their platforms. The UK cooperates with other participating OSCE states in countering terrorism.
Birmingham, Derry/Londonderry, Leicester, London, Luton, and Manchester are members of the Strong Cities Network.