The arrest on Tuesday of four serving members of the British Army for membership of a banned neo-Nazi group has highlighted the growing threat presented by the far right in the United Kingdom.
Five men, aged between 22 and 32, were detained for their links to National Action, a particularly violent and outspoken neo-Nazi group. The British government took the highly unusual step of proscribing it in December 2016 – the first time it had banned a far-right movement since World War II.
Although public discourse in the United Kingdom has been dominated by Islamist terror – Britain suffered three bloody attacks between March and June this year – security experts and officials alike also stress the dangers of right-wing violence.
Mark Gardner, communications director for the Community Security Trust – the body that records threats to U.K. Jewry – said National Action was in a different league from other British right-wing groups.
Some ultranationalist factions such as the English Defence League and Britain First have demonstrated a bizarre support for Zionism and Israel, having directed their hostility more squarely at Muslims. National Action, though, has been more provocative and unambiguously neo-Nazi.
“It is the explicit neo-Nazism and praise for Hitler that sets National Action apart from other British far-right groups,” said Gardner. “National Action poses a violent threat to Jews and Muslims in particular, but hard anti-Semitism is at the core of its ideology.”
What also sets National Action apart is its canny use of social media as a recruiting and propaganda tool.
Since its formation in 2013, the group has taken full advantage of online platforms to highlight its provocative public demonstrations and flash mobs, as well as bold leafleting campaigns.
Its stunts include filming members defacing a menorah in Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, in June 2015. It also publicly celebrated the murder of Labour Party MP Jo Cox, who was killed by far-right extremist Thomas Mair on the eve of the European Union referendum vote in June 2016.
Its membership is estimated at around 100, with around the same number of more loosely affiliated hangers-on. The movement has carried out street-fighting training in various locations around the country, and its followers have already been prosecuted for hate crimes.
Some of the most notorious cases include the September 2015 conviction of Zack Davies for attempted murder after he stabbed a Sikh man in a superstore, shouting “This is for Lee Rigby,” referring to the British Army officer murdered by Islamist extremists in 2013.
The previous year, another National Action activist, Garron Helm, was sentenced to four weeks in prison for sending anti-Semitic tweets to Jewish MP Luciana Berger.
More than 20 arrests of National Action associates were made in 2016 alone. As of December 2016, when it was banned by the British government, belonging or inviting support for the organization is a crime with a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Although the actual number of far-right U.K. activists is relatively low, officials repeatedly warn against minimizing the threat they pose. Last June, for instance, a man drove a van into a crowd of people near Finsbury Park mosque in north London, killing one and injuring eight.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick made a point of raising the issue in her keynote speech to the annual Lord Mayor’s Defence and Security Lecture in July.
In a speech mostly dedicated to the threat posed by the Islamic State group and its affiliates, she made sure to stress “the threat posed by other violent extremists, particularly the extreme right wing and those motivated by racist hatred.” She reported that there were currently 14 “domestic extremist individuals in custody, who had lethal capability and intent.”
The Community Security Trust logged 767 hate crimes against its members in the first six months of 2017, the highest since records began more than 30 years ago. More than half of the perpetrators were reported as being white European.
MP Tom Tugendhat (Conservative), the former chair of the all-party parliamentary group on counter-extremism and who served in the British Army for 13 years, said he was “very conscious” of the threat from the far right.
“The rise of far-right extremism is something that a lot of us have been aware of for a number of years,” he said. “The threat is deeply concerning.”
A friend of Jo Cox, Tugendhat said that Mair’s declaration when asked his name during a court appearance – “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” – was a slogan closely linked to National Action.
Some observers say the fact that these latest arrests were made within the British Army is not particularly shocking. There have always been elements of the British military sympathetic to far-right groups, they say, not least because their ranks are drawn mainly from white, working class males – the same pool that extremists tend to target.
“There is no particular problem with the British Army and the far right,” said Gardner. “If this had been serving police officers I would have been more surprised, but [these arrests] don’t say much about the British Army.”
Tugendhat was more surprised by the arrests, but agreed that the arrests were not indicative of a wider trend of neo-Nazi activity within the army.
“It’s incredibly unusual,” he said. “I never heard of any form of right-wing extremism and I was in the army for over a decade. It’s completely against the ethos of the British army.”
He noted that the army has become serious about increasing diversity within its ranks. The percentage of black and ethnic minorities in the forces is currently 7 percent, not much lower than in the wider population.
The way the military functioned as a team organization also meant “there’s less racism in the British Army than in British society at large,” Tugendhat said.
Gardner warned that current right-wing activity was worryingly reminiscent of a trend two decades ago, when groups such as the ultraviolent and provocative Combat 18 grew in influence.
That period culminated in 1999 when neo-Nazi David Copeland embarked on a 13-day nail-bombing campaign in London. He targeted the black, Asian and LGBT communities, killing three people and injuring 140.
After that, more extreme elements went underground, while the far-right British National Party attempted to modernize its image and focus on electoral success. Its failure and fragmentation has in turn led to the rise of groups like National Action.
Gardner said that recent trends in the United States, particularly the events in Charlottesville last month, have definitely emboldened National Action.
“These far-right groups are gearing themselves up for action, very similar to what was happening in the 1990s in the U.K.,” he said. “And then we ended up with the nail bomber.”
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