Main Image Credit Worrying trends: the scene of a terror attack near Finsbury Park Mosque, London on 19 Jun 2017. Image: WENN / Alamy
A recent report indicates some worrying trends in extreme right-wing terrorism in the UK, but also highlights how the threat can sometimes be a product of its response.
The extreme right-wing terrorism (ERWT) threat in the UK is difficult to gauge. Often referred to as the fastest rising threat, the number of actual attacks and casualties the UK has experienced over the past decade can mercifully be counted on one hand. While attacks are a poor indicator of threat, the recent Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on the ERWT threat in the UK shined a light on the problem and made the key recommendation that MI5 would need more resources to manage the threat. Yet it is not entirely clear what this resource growth should look like, or how acute the ERWT threat actually is.
Since April 2020, MI5 has taken on lead responsibility for managing the extreme right-wing terror threat (referred to now formally as ERWT as opposed to the previous XRW). The decision to transfer from the police was made in 2018 in the wake of reviews after the surge of terrorist attacks in 2017. While only one of these was linked to the ERWT (the murder of 51-year-old Makram Ali outside Finsbury Park Mosque on 19 June 2017), the attack came after the proscription of National Action and the murder of Jo Cox MP. The threat from ERWT seemed to be rising and required a stronger response.
According to the then independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Sir David Anderson QC, at the time, he found a ‘lingering attachment in parts of MI5 to the notion that XRW [Extreme Right-Wing] plotting does not engage their national security function in the same way as Islamist plotting does’. He disputed this assessment, and the security establishment largely agreed, leading to the transfer of responsibility for the threat to MI5.
Yet reading the ISC report, it does not seem as though the actual threat from ERWT has notably increased in security assessments. In July 2019, MI5 is reported as saying: ‘Whilst we assess the ERWT threat to the UK is on a gradual upwards trajectory, we have not observed a significant increase in specific mobilisation or radicalisation during this reporting period, and ERWT investigations continue to constitute a significant minority of MI5’s CT [counterterrorism] casework’. This ‘minority’ was clarified by MI5’s Director General recently, who told the media earlier this month that ‘around one in five terrorism investigations in Great Britain were linked to neo-Nazi, racist ideology or other related extremism’, a rate he was reported to have said remained steady.
But the ISC report suggests that this might be a calm before the storm. It highlights research that suggests the coronavirus pandemic has materially strengthened the ERWT threat. Looking at online material, there is no doubt that the far right has adopted and absorbed narratives related to the pandemic to a greater degree than violent Islamists. In continental Europe, there has been a worrying growth in attacks, networks and plotting quite directly linking ERWT and the pandemic – the cases of Jurgen Conings in Belgium in May 2021 and a German network called the Vereinte Patrioten (United Patriots) that was disrupted in April this year highlighted some worrying trends. The involvement of serving armed forces members, the targeting of officials linked to healthcare, references to anti-vax narratives, and the wider networks around the plotters all indicated a problem that is moving in a dangerous direction. Europol’s latest annual report on the terrorist threat picture in Europe highlights how the number of attacks and plots in continental Europe has plateaued at around three per year, while the number of arrests continues to grow year-on-year.
Authorities are seeing a curious dissonance where on the one hand actual ERWT attacks have only been conducted by middle-aged men, while on the other hand teenagers increasingly dominate the arrest load
But it is not clear how much this reflects what has been seen in the UK. There have been cases of serving police officers and soldiers being linked to ERWT groups, but these have been limited. The UK has not had to disband entire military units because of concerns about extreme right ideology as Germany has done, nor has the UK seen mobs linked in part to far-right groups attempt to storm or occupy public buildings (as seen in all other Five Eyes partners, to very different degrees). The UK has seen some hate crime and incidents such as 5G mast burnings which appear to be linked to online conspiracy theories, but these are not clear ERWT attacks.
Rather, the conclusion articulated by the ISC report, which seems to reflect the view of the wider security community, is that the threat in the UK from ERWT is for the most part dominated by Self-Initiated Terrorists (S-IT). While a number of ERWT groups have now been proscribed in the UK, only one attack has been linked to them. An interesting question raised by the ISC report is the degree to which the lone-actor threat and the ERWT threat might in fact be the same thing – or whether the ERWT threat is in large part an articulation of the lone-actor threat.
The report also highlights the significance of youth, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and mental health issues among the ERWT caseload. While there is some internal dispute about these issues, the Homeland Security Group within the Home Office is quoted as highlighting how frontline services have reported an increase in ASD among their caseload, with a particular link to ERWT. The youth question is more obvious, with it becoming regular for very young teenagers to be arrested for ERWT offences (including most recently a 15-year-old boy from the Isle of Wight).
This poses a curious dissonance for authorities, who on the one hand have only seen actual ERWT attacks conducted by middle-aged men, while on the other hand teenagers increasingly dominate the arrest load. The question which was most recently alluded to by the Independent Terror Watchdog Jonathan Hall QC is whether these individuals are in fact simply ‘keyboard warriors’. Given most of their links and activity take place online, with few maturing to real-world plots, there is a question about the nature of the actual threat they pose – and by default, the wider threat ERWT poses if this is the majority of the arrests that are being seen.
There are also some curious aspects of the threat that are downplayed in the ISC paper, though it is difficult to draw too many conclusions on its threat assessments given the volume of redactions. Specifically, there are questions around the degree to which Russia and more recently the war in Ukraine have impacted the UK’s ERWT threat. Within the ISC report, suggestions are made about the far-right group Britain First’s connections to Moscow, but there are more worrying links out there. The Base, a proscribed organisation with deep roots across English-speaking countries, seems to be directed by an American based in Russia, while pro-Russian narratives are increasingly common among the ERWT community globally. This is interesting, as previously, ERWT individuals seeking training tended to go and fight alongside the far-right inclined Ukrainian Azov Battalion – though its current active support by Western authorities has confused things. It is not clear how many UK ERWT actors have actually gone to fight in the current conflict, and whether (if they have been fighting alongside Azov) they would actually pose a threat. How many (if any) have gone to fight on the Russian side is equally unclear.
Most indicators suggest the UK’s terror threat is down, and what plots are disrupted appear to be isolated lone actors often inspired by material they find or people they talk to online
The final point to consider and which the ISC paper alludes to is the degree to which this threat may be a product of its response. Early on, the report quotes MI5 as saying ‘it is difficult to establish an accurate historical trajectory of the ERWT threat on the grounds that the recent increase in focus by HMG and heightened public awareness of the ERWT threat has contributed to an increase in referrals and investigations’.
This raises the complicated interplay of threat and response. In the absence of attacks, terrorist threats are often defined by the response to them. Consequently, the ERWT threat in the UK is defined by the number of arrests, the volume of officials focused on it, and the proportion of capability that is being dedicated to looking at it. But none of these are objective metrics of the actual threat; rather, they are a reflection of the response. Were MI5 or the Police to dedicate more people to looking at the threat, doubtless they would find more things to look at. This is not to accuse them of artificially inflating the threat; it is simply that more resource would lower the general threshold for investigation.
This becomes relevant when looking at the wider threat picture and trying to objectively assess the degree of menace that is posed. It has been some time since the UK courts have seen any major terrorist case presented before them of the scale and ambition that used to be directed towards the country by al-Qa’ida or later Islamic State. There have not been any large-scale networks of the extreme right launching sophisticated and ambitious plots. National Action was stamped on by authorities before it could really mature, and before that one has to go back to the Aryan Strike Force, which in 2010 had mobilised people and one of its members had managed to produce ricin. Patriotic Alternative may yet mature into a future threat, but as of yet it has not. The current threat picture that is seen consists of isolated individuals, shrinking numbers of arrests, and an ERWT threat that seems dominated by (though is not exclusive to) the very young.
The point is that it is not clear how much of a menace the ERWT threat actually is – or more generally how much it is a reflection of the attention it is getting rather than an increased threat. Most indicators suggest the UK’s general terror threat is down, and what plots are disrupted appear to be isolated lone actors often inspired by material they find or people they talk to online.
This is not to say that the threats from both violent Islamists or ERWT might not develop once again – the kindling is certainly in place at home and abroad. Nor is it to underplay the damage ERWT can do to the societal fabric in a way that a seemingly external threat like violent Islamists cannot. But it is to instead ask the question of whether the growing focus on an ERWT threat in the UK is appropriate. It has not yet matured to the state-level national security threat that it could have, but it is not clear if this is because of the security response to it, because the problem is decreasing, or because it is in fact a product of other societal issues which are now less linked to ERWT ideas than before (a possible explanation for the questions around ASD, mental health and youth). Finally, this comes back to the key recommendation made by the ISC for MI5 to receive more resources to deal with the ERWT threat. Is this a proportionate response to the threat, or might it actually have the counterproductive effect of highlighting or accentuating a more limited problem?
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Senior Associate Fellow