9 March 2021

How worried should we be about a surge in far-right terror?


The latest terrorism statistics released by the Home Office last week suggest that there has been a surge in extreme right wing (XRW) terrorism in this country. Some 20% of those in custody for terror-related offences are classed as holding this ideology, the highest number (42) since records began to be kept in 2013. 

Should we be worried?

Well, it’s complicated. There is no doubt that XRW ideology has inspired some of the most heinous attacks of recent years. From El Paso to Christchurch via Utoya island in Norway, murderously disaffected young men have gone on the rampage. In the United States, the latest Homeland Threat Assessment warns of a heightened risk from domestic terrorism almost all of which is driven by white supremacist or associated actors. Over in Germany, there are concerns about the penetration of far-right activists in the armed forces and the domestic intelligence agency has just placed a legal political party, the hard-right AfD, under surveillance as “a threat to democracy”.

In the UK, however, the figures conceal a more complex picture. The most common sentence for terrorism is now under four years, comprising 34% of all convictions over the latest recorded year, coinciding with the rise in XRW convictions. The detail isn’t there, but this could mean that the majority of XRW convictions are for lesser terrorist crimes, compared with the 75% of terrorist prisoners motivated by Islamism. As the police and security service become more experienced and successful in detecting plots further and further upstream from reality, this will mean that an increasing number of people from all ideologies will be scooped up earlier and their sentences might reflect this diligence. Couple this with the widening scope of anti-terrorist legislation and its increasing use, including controversial ‘glorification’ offences, and you probably have a current terrorist population in our prisons, more diverse than ever, ranging from people who actively engaged in mass casualty attacks to tin rattlers, logisticians and some deeply inadequate teenagers.

At the other end of this dismal conveyor belt, commentators have made much of the fact that our Prevent extremism safeguarding strategy is now handling almost as many referrals by professionals of those suspected to be at risk of being drawn into XRW ideology as Islamism. Moreover, of those who were further screened as being in need of active intervention, the majority are, for the first time, XRW-related. But do these bald statistics signal an enduring change in the threat to our national security? And what should it mean for the way we bolster our protection from it?

Research in Israeli prisons uncovered an interesting difference in motivations for offending. It found that Palestinian terrorists were mainly motivated by ideology and far-right Jewish terrorists were mainly motivated by personal factors. While it is dangerous to oversimplify, it would not be a surprise to see this pattern repeated over here. This has implications for how we intervene to control the threats posed by different extremists, which is beyond the current sophistication of our response. Alienation and grievance certainly does dominate lone actor far-right extremism, as does the fear of ‘replacement’ by ‘inferior’ races. These poisonous tropes are easily bundled into often very slick conspiracy-laden online XRW propaganda, which has proliferated during lockdown, targeting already vulnerable and isolated people.

It’s increasingly clear that in the online battle for hearts and minds  young people in particular are drinking from a firehose of often hateful and usually unmediated material. The simplistic and binary worldviews that animate XRW can be countered after they are drawn in but only of course if they are detected.

Rather than relying on detection alone, it would be far better to focus our efforts in skilling up young people to critically evaluate information in advance of the threat. Far better to mandate reluctant Big Tech to be responsible publishers of information and stop hiding behind spurious free speech defences for inertia. Far better to use the undeniably greater penetration agencies have into white working class communities where XRW will flourish and tackle head on the social inequalities – real and imagined – that give life to dangerous grievance.

There is no doubt XRW terror is a threat, and one of the problems is that its exponents will learn from our failure to robustly confront Islamist extremism with the necessary ‘whole of society’ approach. In terms of potency and lethality, however, Isis-inspired terror still completely eclipses XRW, however inconvenient this might be for senior officials who like their threats symmetrical. There have been 89 fatalities in Great Britain as a result of Islamist terror since 2000, against two that are legally attributable to XRW terrorists. The balance of injuries is similarly disproportionate, as are the numbers and seriousness of disrupted plots – 70% of those are Islamist inspired according to MI5’s Chief. The other problem is a disordered prison system: as well as over 200 terrorists in custody, it contains hundreds of non-terrorist offenders who have been identified as at risk of being radicalised and who are already in close proximity to ideologues.

Covid has suppressed violent extremism, as it has other forms of criminality. As the country opens up, so too will the list of available targets and opportunities. Terrorists of all stripes pay constant attention to their environment – so should we.

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Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison officer and Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.