Britain raises terrorism threat level

LONDON — Britain raised the terrorism threat level Friday posed by Irish Republican Army dissidents, who have mounted repeated attacks in Northern Ireland and recently threatened to start targeting London bankers.

The level has changed from "moderate" to "substantial," the middle of the five-point threat scale. This means the threat has risen to a point where an attack is considered a strong possibility.

The existing threat from al-Qaida-inspired groups in Britain has long been rated at the higher level of "severe." The currently unused top threat level of "critical" would mean British anti-terrorist officials consider an attack to be imminent.

The heightened threat posed by IRA die-hards comes just weeks before the start of the annual conference of the governing Conservative Party, long a prized IRA target. In 1984, the outlawed organization nearly killed then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with a bomb that devastated the Conservatives' conference hotel, killing five and wounding 30.

Friday's announcement represented the first time that Britain's Home Office, responsible for law and order in England and Wales, made public its threat assessment of Irish terrorism.

"When we set these levels of threat, we're taking into account any information available to us. Often it is just a precaution, but people have to take these threats very seriously," Foreign Secretary William Hague said in an interview with the Associated Press at U.N. headquarters in New York.

IRA splinter groups continue to pursue violence in hopes of overturning Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant government and other achievements of the 1998 peace accord in the British territory. Police say the dissidents actively seek to recruit veterans of the mainstream IRA, which formally renounced violence and disarmed in 2005.