People walking through anti terrorism barriers in Birmingham city centre

Despite this, almost 80% of terrorist attacks in the UK are being perpetrated by bladed or blunt force weapons, showing a gap between UK public perceptions of terrorism threat, and the available evidence on the current nature and shape of this threat.

The inception of the Protect Duty (Martyn’s Law) and the Communities Secretary’s new definition of extremism are key developments in the UK’s debate on security and social cohesion.

But what is often missing from the debate is an evidence-based understanding of how the general public feel about security and their attitudes towards terrorism threats and counterterrorism measures.

Large-scale survey data from the Atmospheres of (Counter) Terrorism in European Cities (ATMOCT) project highlight the gap between public perceptions and available evidence, and also reveal a problematic association of perception, among the UK public, between terrorism and Islam.

A political debate that does not consider this context, risks augmenting societal divisions around community relations and identity politics. It could also lead to public ambivalence or misunderstanding towards the rationale and effectiveness of security measures in public spaces.

Policy focus should therefore be on public information that updates and attunes the public to the current nature and shape of security threats.

About the research 

The Atmospheres of (counter)terrorism in European Cities research team has surveyed a representative sample of 5009 people aged between 18 and 75 across the UK, as part of a wider European survey of 15,000 people. It focused on perceptions and on feelings of security, to understand changes in use and experience of public spaces in relation to terrorism and counterterrorism measures (including policing, surveillance, and physical barriers). The data show areas of problematic misalignment between UK public perceptions of terrorism and what constitutes threat, and the available evidence on the current nature and shape of this threat. In addition, data show a frequent association, among the UK public, between terrorism and Islam.

Understanding these misalignments and acting to redress them, is crucial in a pre-election landscape that is shaped by debates on community relations and identity politics, and that risks fostering social division if not addressed in an evidence-based manner.

It is essential to redress misalignments between the UK public perception of terrorism and current available evidence around the nature and shape of the threat in order to avoid fostering societal divisions.

Dr Sara Fregonese, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Public perceptions of attack methodologies 

In the survey, when asked “what is the first word you think of when you hear the word ‘terrorism’, 4572 respondents used 416 words., illustrated in the word cloud (figure 1)1. The word bombs was mentioned 583 times and was the second most common, after fear (605 times). The other most frequent words indicate situations or emotions: death (326), followed by attacks (185), violence (134), danger (114), scary (110), scared (106). No other weaponry was mentioned, apart from guns (35 times) and fire (once). These results show that the UK public associates terrorism predominantly with attacks involving explosives.

World cloud showing terrorism associations
What is the first word you think of when you hear the word 'terrorism'?

This mis-perception is understandable given the UK’s long history of IRA bombings against high profile targets, such as the City of London, and of large scale terror attacks in the past decades in London (7/7) and at the Manchester Arena.

However, behind this public imaginary of terrorism involving explosives is the contrasting current evidence about modalities of perpetrated and planned terrorist attacks in the UK and the EU. In the UK, “[a]lmost 80% of domestic terrorist attacks […] since 2018 have been carried out with bladed or blunt force weapons” and the use of explosive is decreasing, partly due to enhanced controls in access to explosive substances. This is part of a larger shift in how terrorists have operated globally in the last years. Complex plots involving explosives against high profile targets (such as the Manchester Arena, or the Stade de France in Paris), are replaced by attacks perpetrated with low-sophistication weapons and methods, and targeting everyday public spaces, such as pavements, restaurant terraces, or shopping areas.

The survey also found that what the public perceives as harbingers of a terrorist attack does not map onto this shift in terrorist methodology away from explosives. We asked the UK public to rank which signals in their surrounding environment they associate with a threat of a terror attack. Here, again [figure 2], the threat is associated with the presence of explosives. 71.47% of our UK sample strongly agrees or tends to agree that sounds resembling explosions/gunshots are the harbinger of a terrorist attack. Explosions scored the highest percentage of strong agreement (23.7%) about sounds of explosions being a harbinger. This is almost 8% higher than the second element the public strongly agrees to being a harbinger of a terrorist attack: sirens (16.1%).

Graph showing terrorism associations
Some people associate the following events with a terrorism threat. To what extent to you agree for each?

Public perceptions of Islam 

The responses in the word cloud about words that the public associates with “Terrorism” also show a particular frequency (251 times in total) of words related to a specific religious group (Muslim: 85; Muslims: 60; Islam:78; Islamic: 28) and to Islamist terrorist organisations (Isis: 61). Muslim and Islam are the first mentions of human groups and religious groups to appear in order of frequency. For comparison, IRA appears 28 times and Ireland 5 times.

This is particularly problematic, for two reasons. Firstly, this association is again misaligned with the available evidence on terrorist threat. According to Europol, bladed weapons are now the primary choice of weaponry in planned or perpetrated Jihadi Islamist attacks, while explosive devices and fire accelerators are more prominent choices among right-wing and left-wing terrorists. Secondly, it indicates a troubling conflation, among the UK public, between Islam as a religious faith and Islamism (or jihadism) as an extremist ideology. The majority of British Muslims and Islamist extremism, as remarked by the open letter published on 10 March by Survivors Against Terror, are two distinct categories that must be kept isolated from each other in the political debate. This becomes particularly pressing, considering our evidence on public perception, to avoid fostering dangerous societal divisions.


Based on these research findings, it is essential to redress misalignments between the UK public perception of terrorism and current available evidence around the nature and shape of the threat in order to avoid fostering societal divisions. This can be done by developing public information that is accurate in its use of words, aims to update public perceptions with actual evidence, and attunes the public to what is the actual nature and shape of threat. Getting the messaging right goes beyond words: it would also improve public understanding towards the rationale, presence, and effectiveness of recent and new counterterrorism security measures in our everyday public spaces.