The Evolution of Extreme-Right Terrorism and Efforts to Counter It in the United Kingdom.


The electoral rise of the British National Party (BNP) from 2001 onward until its implosion in 2010 eclipsed the extreme right's violent, racist, revolutionary fringe. Yet, despite the BNP's 'quest for legitimacy' at the ballot box, violence and terrorism have remained a persistent feature of the broader extreme right landscape. The 1999 terrorist campaign by David Copeland, the so-called Soho nail bomber, which left three dead including a pregnant woman and her unborn child, was only the starkest example. In the 20 years since Copeland, British police have arrested numerous extreme-right motivated individuals for terrorism-related offences. However, the number of arrests has done little to alter the overall threat assessment, largely unchanged since 1999, that if an extreme-right terrorist attack came, it was 'more likely' to come from a 'lone actor' like

Copeland than an organized conspiracy.

Anders Behring Breivik's bomb attack in Oslo, Norway, and the subsequent massacre on Utoya in July 2011 caused security services across Europe to revisit their assessment of the overall severity of the threat posed by extreme-right lone actors and to devote extra resources to the phenomenon. In Britain, then Home Secretary Theresa May informed the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy on December 17, 2012, that after Breivik, there had been an "increased focus upon" the extreme right. The government "enhanced" the capabilities of the National Domestic Extremism Unit and allocated more resources to the issue in general, which included ensuring the "Channel programme" adequately addressed violent right-wing radicalization, too. (1)

The increased seriousness of the threat was demonstrated by the murder of Mohammed Saleem, an elderly Muslim man who was killed on April 29, 2013, by Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian student on a work visa who had been in the United Kingdom for a mere five days. Lapshyn remained at large, his killing unrecognized as the opening shot in a one-man terrorist campaign. Following the murder of the British soldier Lee Rigby by two jihadis several weeks later, and though not directly connected to it, Lapshyn detonated several bombs outside mosques in the West Midlands between June and July 2013 in an effort "to increase racial conflict." Had he got his timings right (Lapshyn's third bomb, outside a Tipton mosque, exploded when the building was empty), his attacks could have been devastating. (2) After his arrest, Lapshyn confessed to Saleem's killing--'I have racial motivation and racial hatred"--leading the authorities, belatedly, to recognize the murder as an act of extreme-right terrorism. (3)

National Action

Lapshyn's actions again caused the authorities to review their responses to extreme-right violence just as a new threat was emerging. Politically, the extreme right was at a low ebb. The BNP had imploded amidst bitter internal strife while the English Defence League, the foremost anti-Muslim street movement, having lost momentum from 2011 onward, continued its atrophy with the resignation of its leader in October 2013. (4) Against this backdrop of organizational weakness--which has only increased with the passage of time--a small, overtly national socialist group called National Action (NA) appeared. (5) Founded in 2013 by two young activists, Ben Raymond and Alex Davies, who had met online, NA quickly gained between 100 and 150 adherents. (a) Many were teenagers attracted to the group's distinct stylized aesthetic with its striking visual imagery and streetwear redolent of the German Autonomous Nationalists. (6) (b) NA staged a series of "Hitler was Right" demonstrations and other provocative anti-Semitic stunts designed to court publicity and outrage in equal measure. (7) It gained national attention after an individual on the periphery of the group, Zack Davies, attempted to murder a Sikh dentist using a machete, in apparent revenge for Lee Rigby's murder. The fact that NA had also begun participating in outdoor training camps, including one allegedly led by Russian MMA fighter Denis Nikitin, (8) also heightened alarm concerning the group's trajectory.

On June 16, 2016, amidst the increasingly toxic rhetoric saturating the E.U. Referendum campaign, Thomas Mair, a far-right extremist, stabbed and shot Labour MP Jo Cox to death as she arrived at a constituency meeting in Birstall, West Yorkshire. He received a life sentence (without the possibility of parole) for his actions. Despite longstanding racist and white supremacist views, (9) Mair had little, if any, contact with domestic extreme-right organizations. He had, however, bought numerous publications directly from the National Alliance in the United States, including guides on improvised munitions, which he began purchasing 10 days after Copeland's 1999 bomb attacks. (10) How Mair, a reclusive and socially isolated individual, acquired his (stolen) firearm remains one of the investigation's unanswered questions. (11) (c)

NA glorified Mair as a "hero." One NA Twitter feed threatened "Only 649 MPs to go #WhiteJihad." Asked to confirm his name in court after his arrest, Mair stated "My name is Death to traitors, freedom for Britain"--the only words he spoke after his arrest. (12) NA adopted it as a mantra, using it as a slogan on its now defunct website. Police were increasingly concerned by the numbers of young people either involved with the group directly or within its wider orbit. During the course of 2016, they arrested 22 NA activists. (13) This figure included Jack Coulson, a 17-year-old who, on the day in June that Mair murdered Jo Cox, had proclaimed on social media that "he's a hero, we need more people like him to butcher the race traitors." (14) Police arrested Coulson the following month after he posted images of a homemade pipe-bomb on Snapchat. (d)

In December 2016, then Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced NA's proscription under section 3(3)(a) of the Terrorism Act, meaning that "belonging to or inviting support for the group" was now a criminal offense, carrying a sentence of up to 10 years' imprisonment. (15) NA thus became the first extreme-right group to be banned by the British state since 1940 and the first ever to be banned for being "concerned with terrorism." Mair's actions were frequently cited as a catalyst for the ban, though Rudd stated that the decision had already been taken prior to his trial but she did not table the debate in the House of Commons until after it had concluded to avoid prejudicing the outcome. (16)

Predictably, raising the legal stakes did little to deter a hardcore contingent of former NA activists from "high risk" activism. Initially, Raymond sought to circumvent the ban by reorganizing former NA militants under the umbrella of the National Socialist Network, which he conceived as a fluid, amorphous movement rather than as a distinct "entity." Raymond cited the British jihadi extremist grouping al-Muhajiroun and its flouting of successive banning orders as a template, believing such a model would enable activists to continue to operate, though his plans collapsed following their media exposure by anti-fascists. (17) Other activists founded new organizations, notably Scottish Dawn and National Socialist Anti-Capitalist Action (NS131), both of which were subsequently banned in September 2017 as synonyms for NA. (18)

Other former NA militants opted for clandestine activity. (19) On the eve of proscription, Raymond and Davies held a secure conference call with their regional organizers to determine their response. Christopher Lythgoe, the northwest NA leader who played a prominent role within the group, urged defiance. He sent a flurry of emails to other activists. "Long term we'll keep moving forward just as we have been," he wrote in one. In another he stated, "We're just shedding one skin for another." (20) Two hours after receiving this email, Alex Deakin, the West Midlands NA organizer, set up an encrypted Telegram group ("Triple KKK Mafia") as a channel for further activity and discussion. At its peak, 21 people were members while another, more select group, called "Inner" had seven subscribers. While the West Midlands group ceased public activity, militants continued to meet up, recruit, and propagate increasingly hardline messages calling for "race war."...

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