Right-wing extremism is growing in the UK and, while other forms of terrorism remain a threat, there is a heightened possibility that future terrorist attacks will be perpetrated by right-wing terrorists. This growing risk could be curtailed by a better awareness from law enforcement services and other relevant statutory bodies.
Europe has seen an increase in terrorist attacks on its soil, particularly since 2015. The UK is not immune to this trend, and it has also seen an increased frequency of successful terrorist acts.
The main focus of UK law enforcement services has been on Islamist terrorism, which has been at the root of the majority of the recent attacks. However, there has also been a more insidious rise of extreme right-wing terror plots. In February 2018 the UK’s former lead for counter-terrorism policing Mark Rowley stated that, in the 11 months since the March 2017 Westminster attack, the British police had foiled four extreme right-wing inspired plots.
Right-wing extremism is a loose, ill-defined concept that comprises a number of different ideologies and aims. Broadly, right-wing extremism encompasses a wish for the status quo ante, or ‘how things were before’, and neo-fascist aspects, such as ultra-nationalism. Some groups may be focused on a single issue, while others may hold several views, including anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and anti-immigration beliefs.
Right-wing extremism has been growing steadily over recent years, as seen in the number of referrals of right-wing extremists to Prevent (one of the four branches of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST). In 2017/18, 18% of referrals to Prevent were due to concerns relating to right-wing extremism, compared to only 10% in 2015/16.
Not only have right-wing ideologies become more prevalent, but there has also been a growing number of extreme right-wing terrorist attacks, attempted acts, or failed or foiled attacks. These include the murder of Jo Cox in 2016 by Thomas Mair who held extreme right-wing beliefs, the 2017 Finsbury Park attack where Darren Osborn drove a van in a crowd of people near the Finsbury Park mosque, an attack planned on an LGBT event by white supremacist Ethan Stables, and a number of arrests of members of the National Action – a proscribed neo-Nazi group – some of whom were arrested on terror charges for allegedly planning a ‘race war’.
Right-wing extremism has been deemed serious enough by the UK that MI5 is due to take over responsibility from the police on preventing right-wing extremism. Contrary to the recent Islamist attacks, which have mostly all been claimed by the Islamic State (IS), there is no single right-wing faction which claims to either coordinate or inspire attacks. Indeed, in their 2017 Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, Europol states that extreme right-wing activities are mainly carried out by lone actors or loosely coordinated groups.
The growth of right-wing extremism, and related risk of right-wing terrorist attacks, is fuelled by a mixture of factors. The rise of populist politics and movements in the UK and abroad stem from a general dissatisfaction with political elites, combined with increasing economic inequalities. External factors have also exacerbated the rise of right-wing extremism. The high migration levels from Africa and the Middle East – particularly during the peak of the migration crisis in 2015 – combined with Islamist terrorist attacks have reinforced an ‘us versus them’, and an increasingly inward-looking, mentality.
Another issue fuelling this growth is the fact that the UK’s counter-terrorism and counter-violent extremism tools and experience are primarily geared towards dealing with Islamist terrorism. Furthermore, the right-wing extremist movement has shown signs that it is increasingly organising itself, a recent development that makes it more dangerous. While Islamist extremism remains the primary cause of terrorism – driven partly by the continued threat of IS in Syria – right-wing extremist movements have increased and, consequently, so has the possibility of right-wing terror attacks.
There are a number of ways in which right-wing extremists may be impeded. Firstly, while there are some well-known right-wing groups, a better mapping of these extremist groups would be beneficial, as trends so far indicate fragmentation and a lack of knowledge amongst authorities. There is also the need to improve recognition of the early warning signs of potential right-wing terrorists by other statutory bodies involved in the UK’s counter-terrorism effort, such as schools, universities, social care and healthcare providers.
Secondly, a better recognition and understanding of the threat by law enforcement services, placing right-wing extremism more firmly in the agenda and within people’s minds as a threat factor.
Finally, there needs to be a concerted effort to prevent further reductions within counter-terrorism resourcing, in order to ensure greater preparedness by forces across the country against the threat of terrorist attacks.
Sarah Grand-Clement is a defence and security policy researcher. Her research interests include counter-terrorism, counter-violent extremism, and the Middle East. She holds an MSc in Arab World Studies from Durham University.