Soldiers are to patrol British landmarks and sporting events in their biggest homeland deployment in decades, as security services warned that another attack by terrorists who killed 22 people at a pop concert on Monday was imminent.
Prime Minister Theresa May announced late on Tuesday that intelligence analysts had raised the U.K. terrorism threat from “severe” to “critical” — the highest level — for the first time since 2007. Their fear is that the bomber who struck in Manchester, northwest England, on Monday and who was killed in the blast wasn’t working alone.
“Critical means an attack is imminent,” Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the BBC on Wednesday. “It is based on intelligence which is assessed by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre.”
The worst terrorist incident on U.K. soil since 2005 came just over two weeks before a general election and ahead of a weekend that has major sporting events scheduled including soccer’s FA Cup final at the national stadium in Wembley, London. Armed troops were deployed in the Houses of Parliament at about midday on Wednesday.
Rudd’s comments went further than May’s the night before. The prime minister had said that raising the threat level to critical meant an attack “may be imminent.” The official definition, which the home secretary followed, is that “an attack is expected imminently.” The BBC reported that the bomber is thought to have been using a device built by someone else.
Police arrested three men in south Manchester on Wednesday in connection with the attack. They also arrested a 23-year-old man, reported to be the bomber’s brother, on Tuesday.
Government buildings have procedures to follow for different threat levels. The Houses of Parliament have canceled all tours, and the Bank of England’s museum is closed. The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, a popular tourist attraction, was canceled.
Campaigning for the June 8 general election is also on hold, though the U.K. Independence Party said it plans to end the truce and publish its manifesto Thursday.
But the biggest impact in the the increased threat level is the military deployment. Rudd said as many as 3,800 troops would be available to meet requests from the police. They will be stationed in places where Britain usually has armed police, freeing those officers for other front-line patrol duties. Most U.K. police are unarmed, so the most jarring sight for many British people may be that of officers with submachine guns on the streets.
The widespread use of troops on the streets of the British mainland is a very rare sight.
During the 2012 Olympics, rocket batteries were set up around London as a precautionary measure against an airborne attack. In 2003, armored vehicles were briefly sent to Heathrow Airport because of a specific terrorist threat. But historical precedents for large-scale deployment on the British mainland are few. Apart from World War II, when the country braced for an invasion, there is the General Strike of 1926, when soldiers protected food supplies from protesters.
France has had a state of emergency in place since the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in January 2015, giving the state powers to ban public gatherings and heighten surveillance. President Emmanuel Macron’s government will have to decide whether to extend the state when current powers run out in mid-July. About 7,000 soldiers are currently deployed on patrols in mainland France as part of the counter-terrorist effort. Belgium has also deployed troops on the streets since last year’s attacks on Brussels airport and the city’s Metro.
Rudd emphasized that Britain has never previously stayed on the “critical” threat level for more than a few days.
She made a very rare public criticism of Britain’s leading security ally, the U.S., for leaking information about the investigation into the bombing. “The British police have been very clear that they want to control the flow of information in order to protect operational integrity, the element of surprise, so it is irritating if it gets released from other sources,” Rudd said. “I have been very clear with our friends that that should not happen again.”
It wasn’t only the U.S. that released privately shared information. On Wednesday, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told a television interviewer that the Manchester bomber, 22-year-old Salman Abedi, had traveled to Syria and had Islamic State links. Rudd had earlier confirmed only that he had been “known” to security services and had recently returned from Libya.
May visited Manchester on Tuesday and vowed to fight the “ideology” behind the attack on a concert packed with children and teenage fans. On Wednesday morning, she presided over the third meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee in 24 hours.
A total of 119 people were wounded in the attack and 64 are still receiving treatment, according to the regional health authority.
May said on Tuesday evening that Abedi was born and raised in the U.K. That has led to fresh questions about how young Britons are being radicalized. Rudd renewed her demand that social-media companies such as Facebook Inc. do more to prevent extremist material from appearing online. The government is also looking at compelling Facebook’s WhatsApp service to decrypt messages if requested.
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