Anti-terror police chief warns of ‘polarization’ caused by divisive Brexit debate, as militant groups evolve and the threat of terror rises
LONDON — Britain’s far right has never been so politically weak, fractured or disorganized. The British National Party – whose leader, Nick Griffin, once warned against the “unholy alliance of leftists, capitalists and Zionist supremacists” which had conspired “with the deliberate aim of breeding us out of existence in our own homelands” – is now a spent force.
A decade after winning nearly a million votes and seats in the European Parliament and London Assembly, the far right is now “almost extinct,” in the words of the anti-extremist organization Hope Not Hate.
“Organizationally,” Hope Not Hate suggested in its annual report last year, “the movement is weaker than it has been for 25 years. Membership of far-right groups is down to an estimated 600-700 people.”
But counting votes or membership rolls, its opponents fear, fails to capture the nature of the threat it poses.
That threat has seen growing warnings by the police of the danger of far-right terrorism. Last year, Mark Rowley, then the UK’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, warned that the “right-wing terrorist threat is more significant and more challenging than perhaps public debate gives it credit for.”
Over the previous two years, he suggested, far-right activity had evolved from unpleasant protests and hate crimes committed by isolated individuals. “Right-wing terrorism wasn’t previously organized here,” he claimed.
Thus while much media and political discussion on anti-Semitism over the past three years has focused on the opposition Labour party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, that attention has somewhat disguised the danger posed by the far right — a danger which the country’s current political instability and divisive debate over its planned departure from the European Union appears to be fueling.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks after Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May lost a vote on her Brexit deal in the House of Commons, London, Tuesday January 15, 2019. (House of Commons/PA via AP)
As one of Britain’s leading lawyers, Anthony Julius, cautioned last week, the country’s Jews faced a “a kind of perfect storm of pressure from left and right.”
“I am concerned by the threat from a disaffected, street smart, social media-adept right in this country that is learning from the populist right in Hungary, Poland and also the United States,” argued Julius, who has written a history of anti-Semitism in England and represented the historian Deborah Lipstadt in her libel battle against Holocaust denier David Irving.
His fears were endorsed by the Jewish Chronicle, which suggested in an editorial that, however justified the focus on left-wing anti-Semitism, “our community must also be focused on the growth of the far-right.”
They are also backed by Britain’s first counter-extremism commissioner, Sara Khan, who warned in October of “a new wave of the far right — modernized, professionalized and growing; supported by a frightening amount of legal online extremist material.”
This “new wave” poses a direct threat to Jews, experts believe.
“Anti-Semitism is part of the core ideological glue which binds together many in the extreme right,” says Nick Ryan of Hope Not Hate. “From extreme Holocaust denial to more recent anti-Semitic memes around George Soros, there’s always been a deeply disturbing undertone propelling hatred of the Jewish people from those in this milieu.”
BNP leader Nick Griffin speaking after the party’s gains in the 2009 European elections. (CC-2.0/ Flickr/ BritishNationalism)
British police make a distinction between those elements of the far right whose rhetoric and activity is lawful — although offensive — and an extreme right wing, which includes proscribed terror groups such as the neo-Nazi National Action.
Some elements of the former have managed to capture considerable media attention. Tommy Robinson, the onetime head of the now virtually defunct anti-Muslim English Defence League, became a cause celebre among the British, European and American far right after he was briefly jailed last year for allegedly endangering the trial of a group of Asian men convicted of sexual offenses against girls. A petition supporting Robinson, who was later released on appeal, was signed by 500,000 people and the Trump administration lobbied the British government about the case.
But Robinson, who was also once a member of the BNP, remains toxic even on the fringes of mainstream politics. The decision of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) to embrace Robinson – he has become an adviser to its leader and figured prominently in its “Brexit betrayal” march in December – has caused ructions.
Nigel Farage, Ukip’s former leader, and a string of its leading lights have resigned in protest. Robinson is also being deprived of the oxygen of social media publicity, having been banned by Twitter for contravening its “hateful conduct policy.”
Britain’s police have served notice that – particularly in the heated atmosphere generated by Brexit – they are watching the language and activities of far-right activists closely.
Supporters of far-right spokesman Tommy Robinson demonstrate in Trafalgar Square in central London on June 9, 2018. (AFP/ Niklas Hallen)
This week, Rowley’s successor as Britain’s head of counter-terrorism, Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Neil Basu, said he was concerned about the country’s “polarization.”
“I fear the far-right politicking and rhetoric leads to a rise in hate crime and a rise in disorder,” he told an interviewer. “I am concerned about a small number of individuals trying to make a name for themselves such as Tommy Robinson.”
Basu suggested that while radical rhetoric is not illegal, it posed potential dangers: “It generates a permissive atmosphere to people who want to take their argument to more extreme levels,” he said. “There is a difference between being offensive and criminally offensive behavior, and that is the line we have to monitor.”
Dave Rich, head of policy at the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitism and protects Jewish venues and events, shares these concerns.
“There is no doubt that far right groups and leaders have tried to use Britain’s current political instability and sense of division as a platform for their own growth, with varying degrees of success,” he argues.
“Online agitators like Tommy Robinson and the thuggish street movements that follow them tend to concentrate their attention on immigrants and Muslims, while smaller, more violent groups like National Action and its successor organizations are more openly anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi,” he adds.
In this file photo taken on June 9, 2018, protesters hold up placards at a gathering by supporters of far-right spokesman Tommy Robinson in central London (AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS)
Growing threat of physical violence
Hope Not Hate has argued that, while it might seem paradoxical, the growing danger posed by far-right terrorists is in some regards linked to its electoral weakness. The collapse of the BNP, it suggested last year, “helped close off the option of a parliamentary route for hard-line fascist activists.”
However, Matthew Collins, head of research for Hope Not Hate, has warned that the demise of the BNP has given way “to something far more sinister.”
The government and law enforcement agencies appear to agree. In October, it was announced that MI5, the domestic security service, will take over from the police the lead in combating far-right terrorism. This officially designates the danger as a major threat to national security, and places it alongside Islamist terrorism and that related to the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Four far-right terror plots have reportedly been stopped in the UK over the past two years. While that is smaller than the 14 Islamist plots which have been foiled by the security services during the same period, there are believed to be around 100 ongoing investigations into extreme right-wing activity.
In December, the government released figures showing that the number of referrals to the UK’s counter-extremism Prevent program related to far-right activity had risen by more than one-third in 2017-18. Moreover, its anti-radicalization program, Channel, had seen similar numbers of people referred to it for concerns relating to Islamist and far-right extremism. Basu told MPs in October that “extreme right-wing terrorism” and Islamists were, in fact, “feeding each other.”
A rally of banned British neo-Nazi group National Action. (Screen capture: YouTube)
The police warnings have been borne out by a series of high-profile cases over the past three years, including the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox a week before the 2016 Brexit referendum. Far-right terrorist Thomas Mair shouted “this is for Britain,” “keep Britain independent” and “Britain first” as he repeatedly shot and stabbed the MP. During his trial, it was revealed that Mair was obsessed with the Nazis, and his browsing history revealed searches about Israel, prominent Jews, and white supremacism.
Shortly after Mair received his life sentence, the government banned National Action, which had vocally supported the assassin, describing it as “virulently racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic” and saying that it was engaged in “the unlawful glorification of terrorism.” It was the first far-right group to be banned in Britain since Oswald Mosley’s pro-Nazi British Union of Fascists was proscribed in 1940. The group had reportedly incited the murder of Jews and talked of the “importance of lone wolf activism.”
Last month, six people were jailed for membership in National Action, one of a number of similar trials which took place during the course of 2018. Among those who received prison sentences were Adam Thomas and his partner Claudia Patatas, who named their baby after Adolf Hitler and whose home was littered with Nazi paraphernalia, knives and crossbows. During the trial it was revealed that Thomas had spent time at a yeshiva in Israel and attempted to convert to Judaism. Patatas’s virulent anti-Semitism was evident in private messages she sent to a fellow defendant: “All Jews must be put to death,” she wrote.
That case followed the jailing in July of other members of National Action, including its leader, Christopher Lythgoe, who the judge called a “fully fledged neo-Nazi complete with deep-seated racism and anti-Semitism.”
A third trial saw the conviction of another National Action leading light, Mikko Vehvilainen. Described by the BBC as “perhaps the most dangerous member of the group,” he was a serving lance corporal in the British Army. Vehvilainen stockpiled weapons for an imminent race war, attempted to recruit fellow soldiers, and harbored an intense hatred of Jews. He wrote in one online forum: “I have vowed to fight the Jew forever in any way possible.” (Vehvilainen was cleared of stirring up racial hatred).
National Action’s origins show the slippery slope from far-right electoral politics into the kind extremism which now occupies the police and security services. One of National Action’s founders, Alex Davies, was a former member of the BNP. But both he and co-founder Ben Raymond believed the far right had lost its way in the search for votes. National Action – avowedly neo-Nazi, Jew-hating and Holocaust-denying – was to be the antidote.
Never big numerically, National Action was nonetheless considered highly dangerous by the police.
Like its Islamist counterparts, National Action targeted disaffected teenagers and young people; glorified violence and terror (“We must be ruthless – and if innocent people are cut down in the process, then so be it,” one leading member declared); and sought the mass murder of Jews. “It is with glee that we will enact the final solution across Europe,” National Action documents stated.
With their talk of “white jihad” and online videos featuring masked, knife-wielding members and black flags, National Action appeared quite consciously to ape the Islamists they supposedly hated.
Jews were by no means the only group National Action had in its sights. Muslims, Asians and black Britons, as well as white “race traitors” like Cox, were similarly on its target list.
Nor was all this idle talk. One member was convicted of carrying out a hammer and machete attack on a Sikh dentist, another was arrested for posting images of a homemade pipe bomb and making threats against Muslims.
After the sentencing of Thomas, Patatas and their fellow members last month, a senior police officer in the West Midlands suggested that the convicted Nazis were “not simply racist fantasists; we now know they were a dangerous, well-structured organization.”
“Their aim,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Matt Ward, “was to spread neo-Nazi ideology by provoking a race war in the UK and they had spent years acquiring the skills to carry this out. They had researched how to make explosives, they had gathered weapons and they had a clear structure to radicalize others.”
The far-right ‘friends’ of Israel
Some elements of the British far right have explicitly disavowed anti-Semitism and presented themselves as friends of Israel.
Interviewed by the Jewish Chronicle in 2015, Robinson sought to dispel the notion that, after attacking Muslims he’ll inevitably move on to Jews.
“That argument — Muslims now, then Jews — is pathetic,” he told the paper. “The only Jews I’ve ever met have been great. My barrister was a Jew, my accountant, too. The point I always make is that there’s no Jews that are involved in any radicalization, there’s no Jews that are involved in any gangs, or selling heroin, there’s no Jews jumping out of cars beating people up — all the things that affect us here.”
In this file photo taken on April 01, 2017 Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson, former leader of the right-wing EDL (English Defence League) is escorted away by police from a Britain First march and an English Defence League march in central London (AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS)
He similarly cast himself as a convinced Zionist. “If Israel falls, we all fall in this battle for freedom, liberty and democracy,” he said. “English people see it as their fight as well.”
Prof. Matthew Feldman, director of the UK-based Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, believes that some elements of the far right in Britain are, in common with their counterparts across Europe, attempting to shake-off their association with anti-Semitism.
Some groups, he argues, are professing “a philosemitic attitude, most often with respect to Israel.”
“The most likely explanation for this is a widespread turn toward anti-Muslim hostility in Britain, and Europe more generally, this century,” says Feldman.
“Many radical right activists in Britain today — especially those who do not subscribe to neo-Nazism or other forms of eugenic racism or overt, revolutionary fascism associated with the radical right prior to the end of the Second World War — are likely to embrace Jews and/or Israel as an expression of anti-Muslim prejudice,” he says.
He is, though, unconvinced by this apparent shift. “It is difficult to see this ‘marriage of convenience’ as anything other than skin deep. Put simply, these groups are likely appropriating support for Israel and or the Jewish Diaspora as a perceived way to express hostility to Muslims in Europe, and more specifically, Britain,” Feldman says.
Illustrative: A caricature of George Soros as a tentacled monster has appeared on various right-wing and pro-Russian web sites since at least 2015. (Google Images via JTA)
Certainly, websites frequented by many of Robinson’s far-right supporters contain much anti-Semitic chatter with attacks on “George Soros-financed Communist thugs,” “globalists” and “Zionist-created leftist movements that despise traditional Christian family values and morals.”
Moreover, Feldman suggests, even absent the threat of terrorism, far-right activity comes with a heavy price for Jews, quite literally.
“The risks posed by the radical right in Britain extend beyond this,” Feldman says, and include harm to community cohesion and the costs of policing the often violent demonstrations, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Other costs, he says, include “increased hate crimes, and increased feelings of threat by ethnic, religious or other minorities in the UK. The publication of online extremist material is also substantial, and like the above risks directly targets Jews in Britain,” he argues.
The latest available hate crime statistics from the CST bears this out. They indicate that, of the 727 anti-Semitic incidents recorded in the first six months of 2018, there was some form of political discourse in 341 of them. Of these, 209 featured far-right discourse.
“Of course, anti-Semitism in the UK is not only limited to the radical right,” concludes Feldman. “But the longstanding hatred of Jews by fascist and radical right movements in Britain, past and present, suggests that unprecedented levels of hate crimes against British Jews in the last 18 months … is doubtless not unrelated to the vexing growth of the radical right in contemporary Britain.”