Far-right extremists are “weaponising internet culture” in an increasingly coordinated effort to spread their radical ideas around the world – and the UK is their next major target.
Researchers who spent three months undercover inside European and American movements said Britain was seen as key a “bridge” to link up growing radical movements in the EU and US.
Julia Ebner, a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), told The Independent members of the ethno-nationalist Identitarian movement met in London over the weekend with the aim of starting a new British branch.
Among key figures believed to be at the meeting was the Austrian co-leader of Génération Identitaire Martin Sellner, who also headed the Defend Europe mission that claimed to combat the flow of refugees from Libya to Europe, and American alt-right activist Brittany Pettibone.
Ms Ebner said the extremists were also interested in setting up branches in Ireland and Scotland, adding: “They’ve seen that there is a vacancy there because the UK has either very traditionalist street movements like the English Defence League (EDL) and British National Party (BNP), or the very hard-right and violent ones like National Action who are now terrorist organisations.
“There wasn’t really anything in between and that’s the niche they are trying to fill.”
Official figures suggests Britain is an increasingly fertile ground for the divisive ideology, with police figures showing dramatic rises in hate crime as around a third of extremists referred to Government programmes are from the far-right.
The terror attack that targeted Muslim worshippers in Finsbury Park, murder of Labour MP Jo Cox and pipe bombing plot have all been linked to extreme nationalism and there are fears of more violence if radicalisation continues.
A new ISD report warns that the Identitarians, American alt-right and other far-right extremists are increasing collaboration, while “weaponising internet culture” to target the youngest and most easily manipulated members of society.
Researchers warned that the sophistication of far-right messaging had been underestimated after discovering some networks were using leaked strategic communication documents from the GCHQ and Nato to run campaigns against their own governments.
The Identitarian movement, which originated in France, is a rapidly expanding ethno-nationalist group focusing on the preservation of European culture and identity.
Members reject accusations of antisemitism and racism but former Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis are among their ranks, with supporters including the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Ms Ebner said some extremist have been kicked out of the movement “from a PR perspective”, with policies officially banning Nazi symbols.
“They have learnt to be very careful how they portray the movement publicly but inside their channels you see a very different rhetoric,” she added.
“It’s really interesting to listen to them try to mainstream their views as publicly acceptable.”
The Identitarians have been amassing growing international online support through projects like Defend Europe, which crowdfunded hundreds of thousands of pounds from dozens of countries.
By focusing on narratives of white victimhood, including perceived threats to ethnic and religious identity and mass immigration, they have drawn in a huge spectrum of right-wing support by appealing to a populist base.
Jacob Davey, a research coordinator at the ISD and co-author of the report, said the Identitarians had links to Scottish Dawn – a proscribed terrorist group.
The group, which describes itself as a “patriotic society for the defence of our race and nation active across Scotland”, was exposed as an alias of National Action alongside another group called NS131.
“By extending the proscription of National Action, we are halting the spread of a poisonous ideology and stopping its membership from growing - protecting those who could be at risk of radicalisation,” Amber Rudd said while announcing the ban last month, although The Independent revealed that Scottish Dawn’s website was still operating.
Mr Davey said not all Identitarians were neo-Nazi and their ideology is not ostensibly violent, but “they represent a threat through the mainstreaming of fringe ideas to appeal to a broader constituency”.
He warned that they were manipulating migration, terrorism, the refugee crisis and sexual offences using sophisticated messaging techniques that stay just within the law to avoid censorship.
“They do talk about white genocide [but] they are careful to represent themselves in a peaceful way and avoid any suggestion of violence,” Mr Davey added.
“They are using memes and the language of young people to compartmentalise and broadcast very far-right ideals.”
Ms Ebner said extremists had so far been “ahead of the curve” exploiting social media mechanisms and algorithms to radicalise new audiences, calling on European authorities to increase counter-messaging efforts to the same levels seen with Islamist propaganda.
Key forums include 4chan, Gab and Discord, while important moments for the burgeoning global extreme-right are the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, attempts to manipulate the German elections and the Defend Europe mission.
The ISD found all three events significantly raised the profile and support for radical narratives amid increasing cooperation across borders to radicalise and disrupt democratic processes.
With four main groups – Identitarians, neo-Nazis, the US alt-right and Islamophobic “counter-jihadists – identified, the research showed mounting collaboration with the ultimate aim of radicalising “normies” and Generation Z in particular.
The cooperation sees movements magnify each other's messages on social media, for example using Twitter and Facebook posts, and appearances on far-right websites like the Daily Stormer.
The outlet came to international attention in August, American white supremacists, nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and militias gathered in Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally.
Counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by a car in the ensuing clashes, which provoked shock and condemnation around the world.
Meanwhile in Germany, there was a concerted and successful effort to bolster the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party, which shocked the world by taking third place September’s federal elections with 13.3 per cent of votes.
The ISD found coordinated extreme-right efforts including the Reconquista Germania Discord channel and international “troll armies” dictated social media conversations and the top trending hashtags for a period of two weeks.
At the same time, Defend Europe’s ship was sailing in the Mediterranean with the stated aim of preventing migration from Libya to Europe.
Although the mission was ridiculed for a series of mistakes and its lack of true involvement in the crossings, it sparked a slew of media coverage on unfounded claims of collusion between NGOs and people smugglers and coincided with intensified operations by the Libyan coastguard that forced some rescue ships to pull out of the Mediterranean over safety concerns.
The ISD report concluded that “strategic, tactical and operational convergence has allowed the extreme right to translate large-scale online mobilisation into real-world impact”.
Calling for urgent action across Britain, Europe and the US, researchers said it “is imperative that counter-strategies are developed which match the sophistication of the extreme right on a technological, cultural and communications level”, adding: “Policy makers, technology companies, practitioners and activists need to work closely together to challenge the extreme-right.”