Since the infamous retweeting of Britain First, the extreme far-right is dominating the news once again and we are now marking the anniversary that neo-Nazi organisation National Action was banned in the UK. Inevitably, they tried to circumvent the ban by rebranding themselves, so in last 12 months another two white supremacist groups have followed suit, Scottish Dawn and NS131.
The ban (proscription) is a tough piece of legislation; it means these groups are officially designated terrorist organisations meaning membership, support and even promotion of them is a crime and we have seen an increase in arrests for alleged links to neo-Nazism since the original ban was put in place. In an ideal world, we could prevent people from joining or supporting such terrorist groups and so in the UK we have a strategy designed to do exactly that.
Developed in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, the Prevent Strategy initially focused on tackling recruitment by al Qaeda, the influence behind if not the actual masterminds of, the 7/7 attacks, but even in those early days many of our conversations about terrorism invariably turned to the extreme far-right.
It is a natural detour to take, with Islamist extremists sharing many traits with their far-right cousins: supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, virulent anti-Semitism and an immersion in conspiracy theories. The pathways to radicalisation can also be identical, involving similar combinations of social and emotional factors.
For many years, the most significant terrorist attack by a neo-Nazi was in 1999, by the London nail bomber David Copeland. He wanted to start a ‘race war’ by predominantly targeting members of London’s black and Bangladeshi communities in the hope of triggering a backlash of violent reprisals. Copeland is currently serving life imprisonment, having murdered three people, including an unborn baby, in a series of bomb blasts in Soho, Brixton and the East End.
Far-right convictions have continued steadily: Martin Gilleard, Nathan Worrell, Neil Lewington, Terence Gavan, Darren Tinklin, Ian Davison, Ian Forman, Zack Davies, Garron Helm and Thomas Mair, to name just a handful.
But it was on 29th April 2013, when a Ukrainian national called Pavlo Lapshyn took the life of an innocent grandfather in Birmingham, Mohammed Saleem, that the national discourse on neo-Nazi terrorism saw a sharp refocus. At the time of the incident there was no obvious motive or suspect (which would explain the disparity of there being no emergency COBR meeting convened) and so it appeared to be a brutal and senseless murder rather than a political act of terrorism. This is in contrast to the murder of Lee Rigby a few weeks later in which the killers gruesomely broadcast their motives and identities to the world from the scene of their attempt to behead him in public.
It wasn’t long before Lapshyn resurfaced, targeting more members of the Muslim community by planting bombs at Mosques in Tipton, Walsall and Wolverhampton. He was caught after thousands of hours of CCTV footage was painstakingly examined and during his interview Lapshyn confessed to killing Mohammed Saleem. Eight weeks after his tragic murder, Mohammed Saleem was now recognised as the victim of an act of terrorism.
This horrific tragedy was the catalyst that sparked an even more concerted impetus by Government, Police and Prevent to tackle neo-Nazism. Both James Brokenshire and Theresa May (then Security Minister and Home Secretary respectively) visited the family of Mohammed Saleem, as well as meeting the communities affected by the bombing campaign. The Home Secretary insisted she be kept personally informed of all developments and made specific mention of this “series of terrorist attacks” in a subsequent conference speech.
This was an unusual request by a Home Secretary, but to receive such personal attention from two of the country’s most senior politicians reflected the gravitas of the crime and the significance with which extreme far-right terrorism would be addressed. At the time of these visits, Mr Saleem’s daughter Shazia Khan bravely spoke to the media and was entirely correct when she said: ’It was an act of terrorism because he was killed for his faith and that is exactly what the police have arrested this man for, on terrorism grounds.”
Just six months after his campaign of terror began, Pavlo Lapshyn was tried and convicted as a terrorist and received a life sentence in prison.
It is important to reflect on the events that unfolded after this unspeakable act of murder because they were so fundamental to the Prevent strategy becoming more deeply immersed in tackling the extreme far-right as well as the political support required to drive this forward. And as we saw with the Finsbury Park attack, the recognition of far-right terrorism now takes minutes, not weeks.
Sadly, today our inboxes are filling with far-right cases with almost a third of all safeguarding referrals to Prevent being linked to this ideology. From teenagers celebrating the events at Finsbury Park, to young children radicalised by extremist siblings or relatives.
The overwhelming terrorist threat to the UK is still from those inspired by Al Qaeda and Daesh, but the figures show we are not blind to the reciprocal threat from the extreme far-right. I am grimly confident that we are seeing a resurgence of these groups going beyond online promotion and becoming involved in secreting weapons caches, attending military training and planning for a wave of neo-Nazi terrorist attacks.
Through the Prevent strategy we can successfully reach out to those individuals before they engage in violence and offer positive interventions to resolve the underlying vulnerabilities that make these ideologies so attractive to so many. A staggering 84% of people we support disengage from extremism.
Incredibly, there are some who are committed to derailing this vital safeguarding work but collectively we should challenge the danger this poses to our communities. Perhaps they too should reflect on the tragedies that can occur, the lives destroyed and who the intended victims would be if we miss that opportunity to prevent the resistible rise of far-right extremism.