On Thursday, senior counter-terror police officers provided a rare insight into the threat from extreme-right terrorism as they see it, revealing the scale of the problem and some of the motives behind its rise.
Their assessment of the threat reveals a disturbing mix of hateful ideologies and grievances, which are inspiring disenfranchised lone actors to plot and in some cases commit acts of far-right terrorism.
Rightwing terrorism now takes up around 10% of counter-terrorism policing’s 800 live investigations, up from around 6% in 2017/18, with around a quarter of all counter-terror related arrests linked to the far right.
Since March 2017, police and security services have foiled 22 terror attack plots, with around a third – seven in total – relating to rightwing terrorism.
And rightwing ideology was behind 18% of referrals to the government’s anti-radicalisation programme, Prevent, in the year to March 2018, up from 10% in the year to March 2016.
Counter-terror officers said the rightwing terrorists are being inspired by three distinct sets of ideology, all of which have associated individuals and groups.
Cultural nationalism and the far-right is anti-Islam, anti-immigration and anti-government. Groups that display this ideology include, but are not limited to, the Football Lads Alliance and the English Defence League. The ideals of cultural nationalism inspired in part the actions of Darren Osborne, the terrorist who drove a van into worshippers outside Finsbury Park mosque, killing 51-year-old Makram Ali.
The ideology escalates to white nationalism and identitarianism, officers explained, which as well as the traits found in cultural nationalism, has an additional focus on the “importance of the white race”. Groups matching this way of thinking include Generation Identity, the racist movement that promotes a conspiracy theory that white people are being replaced by non-whites in Europe. Brenton Tarrant, the man charged with 51 murders in the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, is alleged to have subscribed to these beliefs. He denies all charges and will face trial next year.
Finally, the ideology heightens further to white supremacism and the extreme far right, which sees an even greater importance placed on the “white race” as well as a prominence of conspiracy theories. National Action, the UK’s only banned far-right group under proscription powers, falls under this category. Members of National Action were behind the plot to murder the Labour MP Rosie Cooper.
Aside from National Action, none of the far-right groups on the police radar are banned. And while the police acknowledge that not every individual who associates with such groups is or will become a terrorist, the ideologies across this broad spectrum are having an impact. “It’s influencing people,” one officer said. “It can steer people into dark places.”
With the far right the fastest growing threat, what can law enforcement do? Officers turn to the story of National Action to illustrate how the threat posed can be tackled.
Formed in 2013, the group rose to prominence after a member, Garron Helm, was jailed in 2014 for sending an antisemitic message to Labour MP Luciana Berger. Similarly in 2015, National Action member Zack Davies’ conviction for attempted murder further raised the group’s profile. Davies used a claw hammer and machete to attack Dr Sarandev Bhambra, shouting: “This is for Lee Rigby.”
By 2016, the group, which had small numbers but a high impact, was operating in universities and staging marches up and down the country.
In 2016, National Action declared its support for the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox by the white supremacist Thomas Mair, and in the aftermath made implied threats to other MPs. Police investigated but concluded that this did not cross the criminal threshold.
But in December 2016, the-then home secretary, Amber Rudd, announced National Action would become the first far-right group to be proscribed in the UK. As a result, being a member of – or inviting support for – the organisation became a criminal offence, carrying a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
After proscription, law enforcement action came at the group with full force. There have been 32 arrests since National Action was banned, including for offences under the Terrorism Act. The group has since been “decimated”, according to counter-terrorism officers.
But the challenge moves on. Two key groups to emerge in 2017 and 2018 were System Resistance Network and Sonnenkrieg Division.
Two teenage members of Sonnenkrieg Division, who called for an attack on Prince Harry for marrying a woman of mixed race, were jailed in June for terrorism offences.
Michal Szewczuk, 19, from Leeds, and Oskar Dunn-Koczorowski, 18, from west London, set up online accounts for the faction and shared a series of propaganda posters featuring swastikas and the Nazi “black sun” symbol.
Counter-terrorism officers would not be drawn on whether Sonnenkrieg Division and other far-right groups should or would be banned under proscription powers but said the use of the legislation was being kept under review
As to who is being drawn in by the ideology, a number of National Action supporters were said to be “bright intelligent young men”.
But there are also people on the periphery, who are young or have other vulnerabilities and complex needs such as mental health issues, that are being lured into these dangerous beliefs.
And it is lone actors who are viewed as the greatest threat and the hardest to detect and disrupt.
The network also spreads across the world, with white nationalist and white supremacist links between the UK and the US, Canada, eastern Europe, South America and Germany.
And as counter-terrorism delves deeper, more niche ideologies are being found within extreme far-right groups and individuals including Satanism and extreme misogyny.
The renewed focus on the extreme rightwing terror threat came from two events in 2017.
The first was an official review into the four terror attacks suffered in the UK in 2017, which included Osborne’s attack and looked at what more could be done by counter-terrorism policing and by MI5.
A report by David Anderson QC said the rightwing threat had to be treated as seriously as the larger threat from violent jihadists, not just in rhetoric but the effort and structures in place to stop it.
Anderson’s findings put pressure on MI5 to take a greater role in combating the rightwing terrorist threat. The security service had some reluctance. The rightwing threat had been classed as “domestic extremism” and the police led on it.
Osborne’s attack also prompted a review of the extreme rightwing by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (Jtac), which sources say assessed rightwing extremists and how determined and able they were to murder, what their motivations were and how they spread their propaganda.
Jtac’s findings and the call from Anderson led to an agreement for a greater role for MI5, focusing on extreme-right terror plots. MI5 and Jtac found the more they looked, the greater the threat seemed, sources say.
It was worse than previously thought, and the clear view formed throughout late 2017 and 2018 was that the extreme-right terrorist threat was growing.