THE director of Europe’s oldest centre for the study of terrorism says the pandemic could make it harder for authorities to spot signs of radicalisation.

The St Andrew’s University unit is an authority on terror activity and political violence.

This week the UK’s terrorism threat level has been upgraded from “substantial” to “severe” in a move which follows recent attacks in Austria and France.

Four people died in Vienna on Monday in an attack perpetrated by 20-year-old Kujtim Fejzulai, who has been described by the country’s Interior Minister as an “Islamist terrorist”.

Last week three people died in Nice when Brahim Aouissaoui allegedly set upon them with a knife, almost beheading one victim.

That incident happened after teacher Samuel Paty was killed in Paris in a similar fashion. The perpetrator, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, was shot dead by police.

Raising the UK’s terror threat level Home Secretary Priti Patel said the public should be “alert but not alarmed”, stating: “This is a precautionary measure following the horrific events of the last week in France and last night in Austria and is not based on a specific threat.”

She went on: “We face a real and serious threat in the UK from terrorism.

“I would ask the public to remain vigilant and to report any suspicious activity to the police.”

Dr Tim Wilson, who leads the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV), says “spasm terrorism” of the kind seen recently in Europe is “shocking” in its violence but “relatively low tech” and can spark copy-cat actions.

He says the UK is “wise” to raise its threat level, but that the public must not take that as a cause for alarm.

However, he warns arm’s-length operations by many authorities as a result of the pandemic could make it more difficult for specialists to spot potential threats. “Covid has to change the focus on the security situation,” he says.

“In some ways, it makes incidents less likely when everyone is under lockdown. However, the incident in Vienna happened on the last night of bars opening before lockdown.

“Long term, there does seem to be a really genuine concern around mental health, around people like probation officers and teachers having less direct access to their charges and not seeing the work of radicalisation that must be going on. All of that is concerning.”

Terror threat levels are assessed on a continual basis by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), which is part of MI5.

The levels range from low, where an attack is highly unlikely, over five categories to critical, where an incident is deemed high likely in the near future. The current rating suggests the UK is highly likely to experience violence, but that there’s no evidence that this is imminent.

Wilson says authorities are “trying to be as transparent as possible” in order to make security services “more accountable, more trusted”.

However, he says the nature of the work means much must be held back. “They say they don’t have any specific intelligence, it’s an awareness of a possibility.

It’s not impossible to think there might be further attacks and therefore it’s a wise precaution.

“Spasm attacks are very easily imitated. The thing is what’s driving them. Extremisms can spark off each other.”

Wilson says incidents perpetrated by proponents of one ideology can lead to others from opposing mindsets, such as Islamists and the Far Right, which he says is “growing in confidence” and could become a greater threat as the end of the Brexit transition period takes hold.

On cooperation with European security agencies, Wilson says the idea “that we would be safer without” the current level of partnership is “absurd” and that the issue is “a genuine concern”.

“We have good communication, or have had, with EU partners,” he says.

“We need that, they all realise we need it, the question is how effective that might be with political grandstanding and the worst case example of a No-Deal relationship.

“The other concern is that Brexit has proven to be a very divisive issue. Whatever the final outcome will be, it’s hard to see it not leaving some very large disappointed minorities.

“It’s possible to imagine some of those extreme Brexiteers not being content.”

Describing the future for Northern Ireland as a “big flashing light”, Wilson says the Irish border “is an issue that the London government seems to have really struggled at a deep level to understand the full implications of.”

“As we head into 2021 we have the centenary of Northern Ireland.

“That is already destabilising and likely to be highly contentious,” he says.