“The right-wing threat was not previously organised,” declared Mark Rowley, outgoing assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police and head of counter-terror policing in the UK, during a speech on Monday night.
“Every now and then there’s been an individual motivated by that rhetoric who has committed a terrorist act but we’ve not had an organised right-wing threat like we do now.”
Rowley revealed that four extreme rightwing-inspired plots were foiled last year, emphasising that the far-right terror threat was “significant and concerning” and that the public should be “gravely concerned” by the existence of National Action, the white supremacist, nazi group banned, in 2016, by the Home Secretary under terror legislation.
With 28 far right supporters convicted or arrested for terrorism or similarly violent crimes over the last 12 months, Rowley is correct. As HOPE not hate can reveal in our new 2018 State of Hate report, the threat from far right terrorism is growing, a trend that is likely to continue.
There is a paradox to the far right in Britain today. Organisationally, the movement is weaker than it has been for 25 years. Membership of far-right groups is down to an estimated 600-700 people. Traditional far-right parties like the British National Party (BNP) and the National Front (NF) are now almost extinct.
Meanwhile, the nazi Blood & Honour hate music scene increasingly looks like a badly attended 1980s nostalgia night. Even UKIP, which as recently as 2015 took 14% of the General Election vote, has virtually collapsed.
Yet, at the same time, the far right poses a bigger threat – in terms of violence and promotion of its vile views (particularly anti-Muslim views) – than it has in many years.
The threat is evolving.
As traditional British far right groups collapse, far right-inspired terrorism is on the rise. Replacing old-fashioned racial nationalism is anti-Muslim hatred. Today’s key activists tend to be younger, operate online and have little of the obvious “nazi” baggage of their predecessors.
An evolving threat
The growing threat of far-right terrorism, plus an evolving and increasingly sophisticated online far right presence online, is helping to drive anti-Muslim propaganda and conspiracy theories worldwide.
In the past year, 22 people have been arrested for alleged membership of the outlawed-for-terrorism nazi National Action. Fifteen of these individuals now await trial with two being charged with a plot to kill a Labour MP and a policewoman.
The far right’s online threat was brought into stark relief in the days immediately after the Westminster terrorist attack in March 2017. The most mentioned person on Twitter in the UK during the 24 hours that followed was Paul Joseph Watson, the London-based editor of the US conspiracy website InfoWars, with a series of vehemently anti-Muslim tweets.
A video shot at the scene of the attack by Stephen Lennon, alias “Tommy Robinson” – the founder of the anti-Muslim street gang, the English Defence League (EDL) – was watched over three million times in just 72 hours.
These are not isolated events but reflect the evolving far right presence whose long-term trend is towards more confrontation, and even far right terrorism, with anti-Muslim hatred replacing immigration as the main driver of recruitment to the far right.
A younger generation of activists, using social media and video (often vlogging), to mobilise supporters is also emerging. Alarmingly, three of the world’s five most high-profile far right social media activists and online warriors are British.
HOPE not hate cautiously welcomed the banning of National Action in December 2016 but warned that the ban was only as good as its enforcement.
We had seen the way that Islamist-inspired hate preacher Anjem Choudary and his al-Muhajiroun network avoided similar government bans for many years by simply reinventing themselves under different names.
And so it proved to be. A core of National Action supporters simply ignored the ban and continued as before, moving their organisation underground and communicating by a wide array of secure communications. Others decided to set up front organisations to continue the group’s work but circumventing the law.
It was only in July 2017, when HOPE not hate notified the police of an alleged plot to kill a Labour MP, that the authorities finally woke up to the continuing threat and began arresting alleged members.
But the far-right terrorist threat extends well beyond National Action. Last year, another seven far-right enthusiasts were convicted, or are currently on trial, under terrorism legislation or for similar offences. They include Darren Osborne, who self-radicalised online in just three weeks, before driving a van into a crowd leaving a mosque in Finsbury Park, north London, last June, killing one man and injuring a dozen others.
Another is Ethan Stables, a self-admitted nazi sympathiser, convicted in February this year of preparing a terrorist attack on a pub hosting a gay pride night in Barrow-in-Furness.
While Assistant Commissioner Rowley is right in describing the sustained threat of far right terrorism as “new”, it is a phenomenon that has been building up for a while and should, frankly, have been picked up earlier by the authorities.
This rising threat is the consequence of the increasingly confrontational tone of far right rhetoric, combined with the almost universal extreme right belief that a civil war between Islam and the West is coming as well as the growing influence of hard-line European nazis living in the UK. This is coupled with the collapse of the British National Party (which helped close off the option of a parliamentary route for hard-line fascist activists).
Two weeks before Darren Osborne drove murderously into worshippers outside a mosque in Finsbury Park, EDL founder Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), with 1.1m followers on social media, threatened that “militias will be set up”, citing Northern Ireland as an example, to “clean out this Islamic problem.”
Osborne was an avid follower of Lennon/Robinson online as he was of Britain First, described in his trial as a “far right, ultra nationalist group”, which made its name by invading mosques and intimidating worshippers.
Rowley mentioned both Lennon/Robinson and Britain First (whose deputy leader, Jayda Fransen, was infamously retweeted by US President Donald Trump) as voices from the far right that stir up tensions.
Columnist and former “Apprentice” star Katie Hopkins, with almost 900,000 followers on social media, was sacked from her LBC show after scandalously calling for “a final solution” following the Manchester Arena bombing, merely the latest in a long line of incendiary, bigoted, tweets she has put out.
Britain First leader Paul Golding has been equally voluble. On release from prison at the beginning of 2017, he produced his most nasty video to date, threatening “journalists and politicians” who have committed “crimes against our nation”.
He said that his stint behind bars left him “even more angry, more determined and more bitter at the scum and criminals ruining my country than ever before” and added that “every lie, every act of treachery will be revisited on you ten fold”.
Given all this violent rhetoric, we should not be surprised that some people are “inspired” to carry out acts of violence – whether as a follower of a particular group or floating between organisations or a sad loner like Darren Osborne.
At the same time, there is something more fundamental going on. For several years there has been a universal acceptance by far-right extremists and anti-Muslim zealots that a war with Islam is looming. For many, this has been a “resigned acceptance” while for others it has been something to prepare for.
For a minority, this idea of a clash with Islam is something that is both welcomed as well as actively encouraged as (in their view) it is only through a civil war that Islam will be defeated and Muslims ultimately expelled from Europe.
Each Islamist terrorist incident confirms and underlines this view in the extremists’ mindset. Political correctness and liberalism have “betrayed” the nation, the extremists think, through immigration and multiculturalism.
The state, and its agencies – so their theory goes – are too soft and unwilling to do what is necessary. The answer lies in the hands of the true believers, those who can see through the lies and indoctrination and see the threat of Islam for what it is.
This worldview is prevalent across the far right. And we agree with Rowley that it is clear that the far right as well as Islamist extremism share many attributes in common. In fact, both need each other and the idea that the “other” is out to destroy (their) society.
2017 was a significant year for the British far-right. Organisationally weaker and politically more marginalised, it does, however, pose a greater threat to the social fabric of society.
A trend towards terrorism and its ever-increasing capacity to engage and incite large numbers of people online with its belligerent and violent rhetoric means we will have problems for some time to come.
Nick Lowles is chief executive of HOPE not hate