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7 February 2005

Bikini Alert

According to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Britain is currently on the "Black Special" leve

By Christopher Thompson

What exactly is the Bikini alert-state system? The Bikini state is an indication of an alert state as used by the government, specifically the MoD, to warn of non-specific forms of terrorist activity. The system was established on 19 May 1970 and is subject to periodic review.

How does it measure terrorist threats? By using colours. Five different colours represent different levels of threat to national security. It goes (in descending order):

Bikini Red Information has been received about an imminent attack on a specific target.

Bikini Amber Specific information has been received and it is assessed that there is a substantial threat to government targets within a specified period of time.

Bikini Black Special Information has been received and it is assessed that there is an increased likelihood of terrorist activity with no defined target or time of attack.

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Bikini Black It is assessed that there is a possibility of terrorist activity with no defined target or time of attack.

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Bikini White No information about a specific threat.

Who uses it? Only government departments and specifically the MoD. It is not used for the general public.

Why? An intriguing question which has so far attracted no clear answer. However, Sir David Omand (head of security and intelligence at the Cabinet Office) attempted to allay any public fears with this reply to the same question in March 2003:

“The system we have in government buildings for colour-coding has very specific meanings which are understood by the security staff and by those who work in those buildings so that if that alert state changes, then everybody knows exactly what to do, and that is in the confines of a single building.”

So the public will not be aware if there is a “Bikini Amber” alert at their local Tesco’s? Correct.

Who determines the colour symbol? The MoD has the right to raise the Bikini alert state unilaterally if it judges itself under a particular and pressing threat. However, it normally changes in line with the government’s own statewide alert system. Decisions on the latter are taken by the security division of the Cabinet Office after discussion in committee, in which the MoD takes an active part, and following briefing on the latest intelligence by the security service.

What happens if the threat level is raised? There is no uniform operating procedure in response to a threat. Any Bikini level is intelligence-led and filters from central government to regional government down to local police. The type of action taken would depend entirely upon the nature of the threat.

How often is the alert on “Red”? The simple answer is that we don’t know, as the MoD won’t release this information to the public. All we do know is that, as of January 2002, the alert state had, together with the government-wide alert state, been raised from “Black Special” to “Amber” three times since 11 September 2001. These were on 11 September and 7 October (when US operations in Afghanistan began), against the possibility of an attack on Great Britain by al-Qaeda. On 27 October it was again raised to “Amber”. The figures since January 2002 are anybody’s guess, excepting staff at the MoD.

What’s in the name “Bikini”? The word came into fashionable use after the US conducted the first peacetime nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific in 1946. It was subsequently appropriated to describe the “dynamite” effect of women’s swimwear. However, the MoD denies any parallels between this connotation of the word and its designation to describe the threat of terrorist bombs. According to the MoD, the word bikini was randomly selected by a computer.

You don’t seriously expect us to believe that? No comment.