27 July 2021

The disturbing rise of neo-Nazi terrorism in Britain

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Neo-Nazis are the fastest growing cadre of violent extremists in our prisons, and now yet another offender motivated by far right ideology has entered our creaking jail system. Last week, Andrew Dymock was jailed for seven years for terrorist offences. Earlier this year Dymock, 24, was found guilty of multiple charges of encouraging and fundraising for terrorism. He was also convicted of possessing and disseminating terrorist material. He was unrepentant and the judge noted his “calculated, sophisticated” behaviour designed to “promote hatred and violence towards other human beings”. He was, the judge said, a “leader, not a follower”.

Neo-Nazis make up 20% of the current prison terrorist population – 44 of the 215 terrorist offenders in custody at the last official count held extreme right-wing ideologies. The safeguarding strand of Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, which evaluates those thought to be at risk of being drawn into extremism, is having record numbers of referrals from people suspected of holding far-right beliefs. Three quarters of young people between 18 and 21 arrested on suspicion of terrorist offences in the year to this April were far right affiliated. The criminal justice conveyor belt seems crammed with white supremacists, many of whom, thwarted and isolated, have been either been radicalised by the internet or have used it to radicalise others.

Dymock will enter a prison system, probably at the top end in terms of his offence, which is already informally segregated in terms of power and space. Muslim prisoners are grossly over-represented in our jails, and they tend to form groups that share their religious characteristics. Some of these groups operate as gangs and, as we have seen in the recent case of the terrorist Usman Khan, these gangs exert control over everything from religious conversions to the illicit drugs market.

The emergence of far-right gangs is still largely the stuff of anecdote, but in places where space and control is contested and ideologues can mobilise people around the many grievances real or imagined that prison creates and magnifies, it is surely inevitable. Even those not drawn to such gangs will often make pragmatic decisions for their own safety to identify with them. Ideology of any stripe can provide a useful pretext for predators when the unending demand for status, meaning and money meets the unending supply of credulous young men.

The way to counter this phenomenon doesn’t start with prison managers, always faced with playing the hand dealt by a rapacious criminal justice system and societal failure. But there is a clear responsibility on those running the system to ensure that people like Andrew Dymock – clearly a dangerous and charismatic ‘leader’ – are not permitted to mobilise others. Our prison system is a complex patchwork of potential recruits to or victims of violent extremism. Some groups, like veterans, making up around 2,800 people across the system could potentially be both. There is already some evidence that those most marginalised and vilified in custody, sex offenders, are being protected in exchange for converting to Islam. This is not normal. The number of far-right extremists who are also convicted of the possession of extreme child abuse pornography is another intriguing ingredient in the terrorist pathology that deserves further exploration. The number of occasions where people who have previous contact with prison custody go on to commit further offences of violent extremism is alarming.

The justified concern over Islamist extremist attacks with these factors in the background must be extended to extreme right-wing terrorists who will be just as determined to exploit their environment for gain, whether financial or ideological. Leaders like Andrew Dymock, adept at networking and grooming, who show no remorse for their crimes and who are able to intellectualise appalling racist ideologies, cannot be allowed the latitude to grow an insurgency in a system, shut down and overheated by Covid, that is barely capable of keeping the windows fixed. 

Extreme right-wing terrorists will probably continue to grow as a proportion of the prison population. Eighteen months of lockdown, economic uncertainty, political turmoil, culture wars and the relegation of white working class boys to the margins of prosperity have all combined to create an explosion of online conspiracy theorists who are helping disenfranchised young men find a malign purpose in life. While we must be vigilant against those who would conflate the murderous potency of Islamist extremism with its mirror image on the extreme right, we cannot ignore the potential. In the southern US extreme right-wing gangs have made some prisons almost ungovernable. In Australia, biker gangs with neo-Nazi affiliations have become so dominant in jails, intimidating staff and controlling the narcotics trade, that they have their own separate prison, albeit rarely used in practice. Neo-Nazis in British jails are not yet strong enough or organised enough to compete with Islamists. But in places where mutual radicalisation is made ever easier by the withdrawal of legitimate authority, and warped perceptions can be honed by dangerous propagandists like Andrew Dymock, there can be no room for complacency. We need a strategy. I don’t know if it exists.

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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.