Matthew Collins, the HOPE not hate head of intelligence, got the message while on holiday in Portugal: call me ASAP. The encrypted message came from HOPE not hate’s source inside the banned neo-nazi group National Action, Robbie Mullen. The news Robbie shared was serious: a nazi had hatched a plot to murder an MP.
The conviction of Jack Renshaw, the man who was planning to carry out the murder, means that we can now tell the story of how HOPE not hate came to be in a position to foil this terrorist attempt and bring a nazi gang to its knees.
The story begins with National Action: a small but violent group formed out the remnants of the BNP’s youth wing, by a group of men who worshipped Hitler and held some of the most extreme views we’ve ever seen in years of tracking the far right. You can read the full story on them here, and track their development on a new NA timeline.
NA was banned in 2016, but – unlike the authorities – HOPE not hate never stopped tracking the organisation. We followed their activity carefully, trying to understand their leadership and plans. We never stopped pursuing them. Then one day, a disillusioned member contacted us. After working with him for several months, we got word of the murder plot. Matthew Collins tells the full story for the first time here. You can trace the timeline of the plot here.
We’re proud of the work we did, and we’re proud of our source, Robbie. With Jack Renshaw only days away from acting on his plan, Robbie basically saved the life of Rosie Cooper MP and quite possibly DC Victoria Henderson. He did this at great sacrifice to himself but he had no hesitation in revealing the plot and taking the witness stand against his former NA friends. He had to walk out of his job, go into hiding and know there’s a target on his back for the rest of his life.
We all owe him a great deal of gratitude.
It is vital that the authorities learn lessons from this case: why were they unaware that an organisation was banned for being a terrorist threat had, in fact, continued to operate? Why were HOPE not hate staff and our source treated with suspicion when we came forward with information? And what do the authorities plan to do to counter the ongoing threat from the far right? Nick Lowles asks these questions and more in this new article.
Working with people inside far right organisations is a core part of HOPE not hate’s strategy to fight fascism and extremism. The trial brought a lot of that work to light, and for the first time, we expanded on why – and how – we keep track on extremist organisations.
The far right has been beaten at the ballot box but, as the nazi murder plot shows, the far right is increasingly turning to violence, and to street movements. Our work will go on.
Read the full story – chapter by chapter – below.
Matthew Collins remembers the day the murder plot warning came
A very posh lawyer and I would argue when, exactly, I received the message that something big was happening.
By the time I was being cross-examined in the Old Bailey, a year later, I wasn’t sure it mattered any more. It was fact. A British neo-Nazi had admitted planning to murder his MP. Indeed, he was only days away from doing it.
Someone who was in the room when the killing plan was announced, texted me. I was on holiday. My break was ruined. I’d spend the remaining days abroad hanging by the telephone making hushed calls, answering questions and offering reassurances.
I no longer made phone calls without encryption. Even we, the old dogs of HOPE not hate, were being taught new tricks by the modern breed of Nazis we were monitoring. They were also hunting us and were sophisticated at hiding themselves. They bragged they were impenetrable. Only an act of gross stupidity on their own part could catch them out.
We were in the very guts of National Action, an outlawed organisation concerned with terrorism. If members were caught, they faced up to ten years’ imprisonment.
We discovered not only had National Action members ignored a government ban; they’d upped their game, changing leaders and opening a gym exclusively for training members and supporters. They not only wanted a race war, they were preparing for one.
We blogged on our website, exposing titbits of information we’d uncovered about the group, making little hints and digs at them, letting them know we were still watching them. But it wasn’t until one of their most senior members came to us that we had our eyes fully opened to the scale of their operation and just how – no matter how experienced we were with dealing with the most hardline of neo-Nazis – these kids were deadly serious about terrorism.
They idolised terrorism for the sake of it. Academics had focused on their aesthetics, trying to find ideological justifications for their nonsense, playing into the hands of a small but sinister clique desperate to be feared as brilliant minds. They churned out dross after dross until even they tired of themselves. They became vulgar and ‘brutes’.
Across the political spectrum from Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik to Jihadi John via the Provisional IRA and Khmer Rouge, National Action abandoned its own ideology to admire others, seeking to mimic the very best at doing the very worst.
Their degeneration terrified us. National Action members existed inside their own cult world, cut off from the rest of society, communicating only with each other where possible. They, themselves, often didn’t know who they were talking to; only by their individual quirks and perversions would they learn the identities of people in their new, secret chat groups.
Like any group, National Action had its schisms and obtuse personalities, but more than any far-right organisation we’d come across, this motley crew of sad individuals egged each other on, driving their racial hatred and perversions to new levels. They were fascinated by pornography, beheadings and violence.
National Action operated under intense pressure and paranoia because members knew they faced up to ten years in prison if they were they caught still active, still recruiting. They no longer wanted simply to shock and offend little old ladies and Daily Mail readers. Left to their own devices, packaged away in darkness, racism, fascism and Nazism were no longer enough for them.
Although National Action attracted many young men through its bright graphics and a sense of danger, it explored ideas and ideals that went as far as embracing Satanism. Throughout NA’s existence, both publicly and privately, rape and paedophilia were often seen as weapons to use on or against their enemies.
In Robbie Mullen we found an individual who was bright and fiercely independent but unable to extricate himself from National Action through fear and habit. Seeing inside NA through his eyes, we understood how difficult it was for him to leave.
From the moment we received his unsolicited email begging for help, he impressed upon us how urgent it was, how imminently NA was preparing to unleash terrorism and violence. Mullen warned us that although we’d been close to understanding the real nature and truth about NA, we’d no idea how ready and desperate this group was to kill people. The clock was ticking down to murder.
Their outbreak of terror was to be the ‘White Jihad’. More than fascism, or the usual drunkard’s admiration of Hitler and the smashing of a few shop windows and spraying swastikas on walls, by the time Mullen came to us National Action was at the point of no return. It felt defeated, there was nothing left for its members to do but destroy themselves and those around them in the desperate hope others would follow suit and there’d be an almost apocalyptic ending of society.
The national outpouring of grief after Jo Cox was murdered in June 2016 excited National Action. A vile tweet, glorifying in her killing, led to the group being proscribed by the government. The following year, like ghouls, NA members travelled to Manchester Arena to watch people grieving after a jihadi suicide attack.
Death and terror had become their only obsessions. They wanted others to suffer in similar sadistic acts of their own doing. Their new leader wrote copiously about how he was a medieval king destined to rule a dystopian society.
Mullen contacted us because he’d wanted us to break them up, where the government and the police had failed. National Action obsessed over every sentence we wrote about them, so it seemed only natural that we should be the ones to bring them down. Mullen had realised all the violent things he’d heard from NA members were more than just words. He’d realised the bloody training they undertook in their gym and elsewhere was to prepare his comrades for murder.
It came to a head in July 2017, when a National Action supporter one evening in a Warrington pub in July 2017, when National Action’s leader was told by one of their supporters he was going to kill the MP Rosie Cooper and, if he could, a woman police officer investigating him for grooming boys.
Mullen panicked, leaving the pub and texting me, alerting me to the impending bloodbath. I heard my phone beep, but I was in bed and ignored it.
I rang him back first thing the following morning. Armed with HOPE not hate’s assurances and our personal fledgling friendship, our rescue plan swung into action. Nick Lowles made the relevant phone call to the authorities while I calmed down Mullen who was to say the least, anxious, terrified and confused.
But first things first, I asked. Who even was Rosie Cooper?
The story behind the nazi plot to kill an MP, and how it was foiled by HOPE not hate.
Robbie Mullen had only been a mole inside neo-nazi group National Action since April 2017. He had joined the group in 2015, impressed by what he had seen of it in the media, and in the search for friends.
From the very moment he made contact we treated him with kid gloves. We had to establish over long and delicate communications that he actually was who he said he was: unlike many activists in National Action he was completely unknown to us.
National Action had been threatening HOPE not hate from almost from the moment it was founded in 2013, and we knew we were still getting under its skin in 2017.
In March 2017 – three months after it was banned by the Home Secretary, because the group publicly venerated the killer of Jo Cox MP – we exposed National Action’s efforts to regroup and reform under new names but with even more violent intent. NA members were furious with founder Ben Raymond for being so careless and being exposed in this way.
After several weeks of negotiations with Robbie and with us checking and re-checking the information disclosed in every email he sent, and in the cordial but nervous phone calls between us, we agreed to meet Robbie Mullen in London in mid-May 2017. It was one of the biggest security operations HOPE not hate had ever mounted.
Even down to making sure he got the train we told him to get and that he was sitting in the seat we had booked for him, we wanted to make sure everyone left the meeting as they arrived: safely.
It was tense. The government had only recently been assured by the police that National Action was finished, that the banning order against the group the previous December had ended its operations and closed down its networks. We knew otherwise.
Mullen had been struck by National Action’s hatred of HOPE not hate and by our equally dogged attitude in pursuing them. His problem was that he wanted to leave the group, which felt like an impossible task to do on his own. National Action had become akin to a cult and he had little or no life outside the organisation.
We are used to meeting with members of far-right groups who want to pass on information or become ‘informers’. Not everyone passes the test, and it is not something we advertise very often. Those that do come to us, like Mullen, are treated with dignity and respect and we get to work on an exit plan for them. For Mullen, we envisaged that the process would be relatively simple. One day he would be able to walk away or stop taking their phone calls once we had unsettled and disrupted National Action’s activities. And, if need be, we’d vanish him to another part of the country to carry on his life as part of ‘normal’ society.
National Action was complex. The person we, and everyone else, had thought was the leader of the gang, its co-founder Ben Raymond, had been ostracised. The group had simply outgrown his cowardice and self-promoting neuroses.
So, before we met with Mullen, we had put together a fairly accurate picture of the group’s new dynamics. More than anything, we were impressed by the sheer extent to which the group had gone underground and how sophisticated it had been in doing so. National Action was becoming more and more like a cult and Christopher Lythgoe, the previously unheard of leader, controlled almost every living and breathing part of its apparatus.
What Mullen had realised very early on after the government ban, as had some others who had literally “fled” the group or who were told they were no longer wanted, was that National Action was planning for what we would come to know as “white jihad” and that it had become an ever more a likely eventuality.
In 2016 Jack Renshaw had replaced Ben Raymond as the group’s “mouthpiece”. Despite his boyish demeanour, Renshaw was harsher than Raymond when he spoke about immigrants and, in particular, Jews. Christopher Lythgoe had also replaced co-founder Alex Davies and Ashley Bell as the group’s leader, but had managed to do this without either his identity or this shift becoming common knowledge.
HOPE not hate had written at the time that National Action was operating as if there had been a schism within the group. We opined that there were those within it who had tired of Ben Raymond’s ability to drag the group to what looked like the brink of terror, then drag it back again within the parameters of the law. But we had no idea at that time just how severe the schism was becoming or how little Raymond seemed aware of it.
In January 2017, Jack Renshaw was arrested for two horrendous speeches he made in public the year before, one in Blackpool and one in Leeds. During both speeches he described Jews and immigrants as vermin. During the Leeds speech, to a branch of the notorious ‘London Forum’, he actively encouraged people to hunt Jews down and eradicate them.
Disposing of Jews had long been one of Renshaw’s favoured themes. While a member of the British National Party (BNP) and a student at Manchester Metropolitan University, he wrote an article called ‘The Enemy.’“These are the instigators of World Jewry, or to put it simply, the Jew,” he wrote;
“World Jewry is the disease, whilst its product ideologies are just the symptoms. Beat the symptoms and they’ll return or be replaced – but – beat the disease and you’ll eradicate the symptoms.”
Renshaw was later informed by the police officers investigating his hate speech that they had found evidence on his mobile phones that suggested he was grooming young boys for sex. (He would later claim, when convicted of that crime in June 2018, that HOPE not hate had hacked his phones as part of a Jewish conspiracy against him. Independent experts rubbished the notion that this was even possible).
Time was running out for Renshaw. The noose tightened when in May last year he was told he was likely to be charged with sex offences as a result of the investigation into the content on his phone, and he was bailed. One of the investigating officers was Victoria Henderson, who would later feature in Renshaw’s murder plot.
While on bail, Renshaw continued to offend and attempted to groom young boys and search the internet for websites that catered to his sick fantasies. By this time he was not even bothering to try to cover his tracks. Previously he had used a series of different SIM cards to hide his identity; now he used his own phone and even posted under his own name.
Renshaw had seemingly given up caring and his mood changed accordingly. He repeatedly told the group that the police were persecuting him and he voiced his fears about going to prison. He admitted to others that he was under investigation for grooming, but claimed that this related to him recruiting boys to the cause. Attempts to make him look like “a paedophile” were merely a smear by the police. Leading NA members bought his lies.
Now worried that he would go to prison for grooming and be forever remembered by the far right as a sex offender, Renshaw began plotting. He bought a 19-inch machete and began researching the police officer, Victoria Henderson, who was investigating both his racist speeches and the grooming offences. Determined to make a mark, he even went onto Google to research the slowest and most painful methods of murder. It is interesting to note that Henderson was not the officer in charge of the case, but she was a female officer working on the case, something that made her a justifiable target in Renshaw’s sick version of reality.
Meanwhile, National Action continued to train and recruit. Key activists even moved around the country in the hope of evading police scrutiny of their activities. The group had made plans for a ‘white homeland’ in West Yorkshire, where they could all move and live together as an active, highly-trained fighting unit.
In preparation for the coming ‘race war’, in December 2016 Christopher Lythgoe used the money refunded by Paypal (after the group was banned) to rent a gym and office near his home in Warrington. As the leader of the group, he also drew a small salary. Members were told they had to contribute to the new gym and Lythgoe’s upkeep. They were also instructed to travel to and train at the gym. Christopher McCartney, a taxi driver from Huyton, oversaw Lythgoe’s personal security and everyone else’s travel arrangements.
The training Lythgoe ran was bloody and brutal. After each session, he would hold court upstairs at the Friar Penkreth pub in Warrington where he would outline to members his blueprint for the group’s descent into terrorism. It was these conversations and their increasing intensity that saw Robbie Mullen come to HOPE not hate. Mullen and I began meeting regularly and in secrecy. We were well aware that if our relationship was discovered, Mullen would almost certainly be murdered by the group.
On 1 July 2017 I was on holiday when I received a message late at night from Mullen, telling me to contact him “ASAP”. What unfolded was a story that was to change his life forever.
Earlier that evening, Jack Renshaw had attended a meeting in the Warrington pub to declare his intention to murder his local MP, Rosie Cooper. Unbeknown to the group, Renshaw had been told that he was to be charged for child sexual exploitation. He had decided that if he were to be charged with grooming children, instead of becoming known as a “nonce” he would murder an MP.
Renshaw told the gathered group that he had bought a machete and claimed to have even tested the 19-inch blade on a pig in Oldham. The Gladius Machete he had purchased was well known for its strength and cutting power. It is often referred to as a sword.
Renshaw had settled on killing Rosie Cooper, the MP for West Lancashire, a constituency that covers Renshaw’s home in Skelmersdale. After killing Cooper, Renshaw would lure the police officer, Victoria Henderson, to meet him and then kill her too. Having murdered both women, he would force the police to shoot him, donning a fake ‘bomb vest’ similar to those worn by suicide bombers attached to groups like ISIS. Like a jihadi terrorist, Renshaw said he would make a video to be played after his death. He would kill in the name of “white jihad”. Surely, he thought, news of his child grooming would be forgotten amid the sheer sensationalism of an MP and a policewoman being slain.
The phone call I had with Mullen that night while away on holiday was tense. Renshaw was due to report to his local police station on 3 July to find out whether he would be charged with grooming offences. Rosie Cooper could only be days away from being attacked. I made a call to pass the information to Nick Lowles, who in turn contacted Labour MP Ruth Smeeth. Ruth had previously worked for HOPE not hate, and understood our work, including the sensitivity of protecting our sources.
Smeeth relayed the shocking news to Rosie Cooper, and she in turn contacted her local police, along with the Deputy Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, who has responsibility for security and safety issues for MPs.
A sense of urgency gripped us after we saw a number of posts Renshaw had made on Facebook on the evening of 3 July.
“The Blackpool speech and the Yorkshire speech apparently incited terrorism,” he wrote angrily. When told by a far-right friend that the case would collapse, Renshaw simply replied: “I’m past caring. I’m too tired.” A Yorkshire-based National Action activist then commented: “Pushing someone to the point of not caring anymore, that’ll help keep the public safe, well done CTU.”
“I’ll laugh last but it may not be for the longest,” came the reply.
Robbie Jones invited Renshaw out for a drink at the weekend, but he had other plans. “I’m spending time with my family. I’ve put them through enough shit, I owe them that much. It will all be over soon.”
With genuine concern that Renshaw was about to put his plan into action, events began to move very fast. On the morning of Tuesday 4th July Nick Lowles sat down with the police and told them what he knew. Immediately after the meeting, the order was made to arrest Renshaw.
With doors being put in, and suspects bundled away, our focus now turned to protecting our source, Robbie, keeping him safe, and preparing for the inevitable high profile trial…
Inside undercover work at HOPE not hate.
The Nazi plot to kill Rosie Cooper MP ended up in the Old Bailey rather than somewhere darker due to the actions of former National Action (NA) member turned HOPE not hate informant, Robbie Mullen. Thanks to Robbie, when the plot became apparent HOPE not hate was able to warn of the threat to Rosie’s life. Moreover, members of the terrorist group have faced justice, thanks to Robbie.
Today, HOPE not hate’s intelligence work is under heavy scrutiny. But cases like Mullen’s represent a fraction of the information we gather on the far-right – most of it never reaching the public eye.
“At any one time we might be receiving information from as many as 20 people inside far-right groups,” says Nick Lowles. “Some are ours, committed anti-fascists who have gone in to deliberately gather information. But most are walk-ins, people who approached us after becoming disillusioned with the far right and who now want to make amends.”
Information gathering is an integral part of HOPE not hate’s research on the far right. It necessitates not only gathering surface information, but also understanding the key drivers, motivations and tactics of people in such organisations.
According to Duncan Cahill, a researcher at HOPE not hate, undercover work helps unveil the mechanisms, operating procedures and power structures in a movement. The higher up in an organisation an informant reaches, the more of this information can be scrutinised.
“This has been especially important for us, to know where far-right parties are planning to target before elections, which allows us to ramp up counter campaigns in those communities before the far-right campaign is announced publicly,” says Duncan.
Remaining a step ahead allows HOPE not hate to be proactive rather than merely reactive to the far right in Britain and abroad, not only with respect to election campaigns, but also in working to build more resilience in communities vulnerable to adopting far-right ideas.
Undercover work is also a tool used to reveal the true nature of far-right movements and political parties. There is body of research highlighting how extreme groups portray themselves publicly in a more moderate fashion, obfuscating their core beliefs.
If HOPE not hate merely took into account public information, they would only hear about events after they could do anything meaningful about it – they would never be in a position to expose the true ideology at the heart of these movements.“The British National Party at its peak was publicly way more moderate than say the 200 people at its core who were fundamentally antisemitic and violent,” says Duncan. “So if part of our message is that these groups are more extreme than they say they are, we have to have evidence.”
One HOPE not hate exposé has been of the far-right party, the For Britain Movement. Whilst For Britain does not publicly espouse openly racist views, HOPE not hate’s intelligence work has found members and candidates engaging in appalling racism, and others who are former activists of the British National Party, and even former members of NA.
An advantageous side effect of undercover work has always been the schisms and internal divisions created in the far right due to their suspicion and paranoia of HOPE not hate infiltration.
“It reduces their capabilities to do anything as they spend so much time running around in circles, trying to find the source, trying to find the mole”, says Duncan.
“Creating the climate of paranoia and suspicion is clearly a key part of our work,” adds Nick. “The far right is a very paranoid world and it is often not difficult to get leading members blaming each other when internal information appears in the public.”
HOPE not hate has used a wide variety of undercover informants in groups and informants fall into two broad groups: those who are recruited specifically to infiltrate a far-right group and those turned from within the organisation.
In 2017, Patrik Hermansson went undercover in the alt-right for a year under HOPE not hate’s guidance. He reported on the key players in the movement both in the US and the UK while he infiltrated the London Forum – an important hub for international far-right speakers before Patrik’s infiltration crippled its reputation.
“The aim was to split Stead Steadman, the ‘power behind the throne’ in the London Forum, from Jez Turner, the front man,” accroding to a member of our research team. “We also wanted to stop the London Forum from being a hub for the international far right, understand how the alt-right functions in America and create division between them and the UK far right – all of which happened. Through the London Forum we also managed to photograph Greg Johnson, an important American white nationalist who had never been seen on camera. Our work stopped London from being a safe operating space for the international far right.”
Patrik is now a researcher for HOPE not hate but not all informants are anti-fascist activists. Those recruited from within turn on far-right organisations for a range of reasons; it is the researcher’s job to identify people with potential motivations to feed intelligence to HOPE not hate.
“Some people are increasingly disillusioned from within or worried about the direction the group is heading in. Like Mullen in National Action – he disliked the direction and wanted to get out, so he decided to do something about it,” according to Cahill.
Matthew Collins, head of research at HOPE not hate, is another person who left the far right, worried by the violence. Joining the National Front (NF) as a teenager, Matthew was a far-right activist who rose quickly through the NF ranks and then on to recruitment by Combat 18 (C18) and even the fringes of the Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association. However, surrounded by extreme violence, he began to be repulsed by what he saw in the far right and approached the anti-fascist organisation Searchlight wanting to make amends. For the next few years he began passing information out of the very heart of Britain’s far right.
Another high profile recruit was Darren Wells, one of the leaders of nazi terror group C18. “Darren passed information over to me for almost five years,” says Nick, “during which time we stopped two bombing campaigns, prevented a C18 plot to spark a riot at an England vs Pakistan test match at Old Trafford just a fortnight after the Oldham riots, and exposed attempts by Loyalist murderer Stevie Irwin, who was responsible for the Graysteel bomb shootings which left six Catholics dead, to link up with C18.”
The likes of Robbie Mullen, Matthew Collins and Darren Wells are the rare exceptions. “The vast majority of our informants never come out,” Nick adds. “Most quietly retire without any great fanfare. On one occasion, back in 1999, one of our informants gave up a share of the £70,000 reward money for the arrest of the London nailbomber, David Copeland. It was one of our long-running informants who identified Copeland from the TV images and we were the first to make a far-right link. But our source was not interested in the money or the limelight. He was a committed anti-fascist who had read a story about an anti-fascist mole in the 1980s and decided to do the same. He was undercover for the best part of 10 years and to this day has never been exposed.”
“It’s all about relationships, where you trust them and they trust you. You spend a lot of time with them, they’re your asset and you’re their handler. It’s a lot of evenings, a lot of weekends, you can’t ever turn off your phone because if anything happens to them, you’re responsible,” says Lowles.
The nature of the group a researcher is responsible for determines how dangerous the undercover work might be. Matthew, who was responsible for monitoring NA has to be extremely cautious. After all, NA is an officially designated terrorist group, and Matthew knew from the inside information he had just how dangerous this group was.
However, most of the information uncovered by undercover work is never published. The data collected allows HOPE not hate researchers to analyse and understand extreme groups. It helps them figure out what they are doing and what they are planning next.
“After the Oldham riots in 2001 we knew the far right would make a concerted effort to make political gains in the former mill town and so we made it our national priority,” reflects Nick. “Over the next few months we put three people inside Oldham BNP and as a result we knew everything they were up to. We were able to reveal how the men who were later jailed for – in the words of the judge – ‘triggering’ the Oldham riots were active BNP members. We had access to their election plans and even canvass returns so we were able to respond accordingly. And – probably most significantly of all – we were able to expose their deputy organiser as a convicted armed robber and gang rapist just three weeks before the election”.
As with every HOPE not hate infiltration, the undercover work in Oldham had a clear goal: to stop the far right achieving their goals.
“The BNP never won a councillor in Oldham and I really do believe that our infiltration work was a central reason for this.”
How police and intelligence blunders almost allowed an MP to be killed.
By Nick Lowles
The police are in a celebratory mood, and rightly so. Jack Renshaw is beginning a lengthy prison sentence for plotting to murder a Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, and making threats to kill DC Victoria Henderson. Others have been found guilty of membership of a proscribed terrorist group, National Action.
These men, who formed the core leadership of National Action, will now spend many years in prison.
But the truth is that it could have been so very different. The police were oblivious to the plot, which was perhaps only days away from being carried out, and some of those who were convicted for membership of National Action, including Christopher Lythgoe, the group’s leader, were totally unknown to the authorities.
If it had not been for HOPE not hate, we could have been talking about the murder of a Labour MP and a police officer.
Of course, it is impossible for the authorities to know of every single plot and every extremist. The security services have long said, quite accurately, that the public has to be prepared for the fact that some terrorist attacks will succeed. But the police and security service failures in this case pose significant questions about the policing of far-right terror.
I have long argued that the authorities have not taken far-right terrorism seriously enough. While I totally recognise that the principle terrorist threat in recent years has come from Islamist-inspired individuals and groups, the authorities have failed to appreciate that the far right also poses a threat and one that has been growing for some time.
HOPE not hate has identified over 50 far-right activists and sympathisers who went on to be convicted of terrorism or some similarly serious and violent crimes between 2000 and 2016. These range from David Copeland, the 1999 London nailbomber who killed three and wounded hundreds of others, to Ian Davidson, who in 2010 became the first Briton to be convicted for producing a chemical weapon after he was caught with a jar of ricin.
In 2008 Martyn Gilleard was sentenced to 16 years for making bombs with which he was plotting to kill Jews and Muslims, and in 2013 Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian student living in Birmingham, was given a life sentence for the murder of 88-year-old Mohammed Saleem and for planting three bombs outside mosques in the Black Country.
And let us not forget nazi fanatic Thomas Mair, who killed Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, days before the EU referendum.
The rate of convictions has increased in recent years. In 2017, 28 far-right extremists were arrested or convicted of terror-related charges. They included Darren Osborne, who was given a life sentence for driving a van into worshippers in Finsbury Park and killing one; Ethan Stables, who plotted to attack a gay pride event in Barrow; and Connor Ward, who was found with an array of bomb-making parts and a list of local mosques.
Sadly, the authorities have been too slow to appreciate this growing far-right threat. They have understandably been focused on the Islamist-inspired threat. Partly, this is the consequence of focusing on Islamist terrorism whilst at the same time police resources have been severely stretched due to years of cuts and austerity. But the fundamental problem has been one of mindset.
For years the dominant view within the higher echelons of MI5 was that the far-right threat only existed in the minds of “weak politically correct liberal politicians” trying to please voters. Far-right groups were dismissed as “hooligans” and irrelevant.
This view totally ignored the violent rhetoric that had become dominant within the British far right since the early 1990s when groups like Combat 18 adopted the violent, terrorist and anti-State approach that was common in the USA.
The authorities have also been slow to understand today’s British far right. This includes almost universal belief across Britain’s far right that a civil war between Islam and the West is coming; the collapse of the British National Party, which convinced young party members that there was no parliamentary road to fascism; and the growing online reach of the far right.
For many of today’s far-right extremists, there is a resigned acceptance of an inevitable “clash” with Islam. For others, it is something that is actively encouraged — believing that through a civil war Islam will be defeated and Muslims ultimately expelled from Europe. Each Islamist terrorist incident reinforces this view, drawing in greater numbers of supporters enabled by the growing reach of hate online and those anti-Muslim activists who actively amplify its message across social media.
Our latest State of Hate report, which is the most comprehensive annual account of the state of Britain’s far right, reveals that three of the five far-right activists and supporter with the biggest online reach in the world are British.
With such confrontational rhetoric, should we really be surprised when some far-right activists move towards terrorism?
The authorities have been far too slow to understand this evolving threat. The government’s 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy totally ignored anti-Muslim hatred, which is now the key driver of support for the far-right. After the Westminster terrorist attack in March 2017 the police boasted that the far right had not been successful in exploiting the incident after English Defence League and Britain First demos only attracted a couple of hundred people each. The authorities appeared totally oblivious to the fact that Paul Joseph Watson, the London-based editor of the US conspiracy site InfoWars, was the most mentioned person on Twitter in the UK that day with his anti-Muslim rants. They also seemed to ignore a video made at the scene of the attack by Stephen Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), which was watched millions of times on different social media platforms.
Sadly, it seems that it took the combined impact of the 2016 murder of Labour MP Jo Cox and Darren Osborne’s 2017 attack outside Finsbury Park Mosque to really wake the authorities up.
The National Action trial has exposed serious police intelligence failures. If National Action was considered a serious enough threat to be banned by the Home Secretary in December 2016, then why were its leading activists not monitored afterwards?
National Action re-organised into cells shortly before the ban, circulated documents in the days immediately after about how the group was going to continue underground, and reinvented itself using other names. And all this happened without the police seemingly being aware of it.
Worse still, when the Home Secretary banned National Action the police and security services appeared to have no idea of who the leader of the group was. In fact, he was totally unknown to them until HOPE not hate provided evidence of the plot to kill Rosie Cooper and DC Victoria Henderson.
On 5 July 2017, a day after we reported Renshaw’s plot to the authorities, I sat through a presentation at the Home Office to the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, of which I am an independent member, by a senior Metropolitan Police officer, at which he boasted how the proscribing of National Action had broken up the group.
In truth, the authorities should have been alert to the dangers from National Action and its followers long before the ban. NA was, after all, quite open about its intentions. Its leaders would regularly talk about race war and the need to confront the system at public rallies. Jack Renshaw, often surrounded by police, gave speeches in Blackpool and Rochdale, where he called Jewish people “vermin” who had to be exterminated. Their followers posted the most disgustingly offensive and violent images and slogans on social media, for example glorifying the murder of Jo Cox and vilifying in the most horrendous terms Labour MP Luciana Berger.
Some of National Action’s supporters had already begun to put the violent rhetoric into action. Zack Davies, who was given a life sentence for attempting to behead a Sikh man in 2015 believing he was a Muslim, in a racially-motivated revenge attack for the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, was connected to National Action.
In 2017, a 16-year-old from Bradford was convicted of making a pipe bomb. The court heard how he had been encouraged in his actions by National Action activists. Ethan Stables, who planned to attack a gay pride event with a machete, had also reached out to National Action.
The rhetoric, the imagery and the violence of the group’s supporters should have triggered a much earlier intervention from the authorities.
With a 30% increase in young people with far-right views being reported to the Government’s anti-terror programme, there is now a growing awareness of the severity of the threat posed by the far right. In February 2018, the retiring head of counter-terrorism policing, Mark Rowley, warned that the threat of far-right terrorism was “significant and concerning.”
Driven by the direct intervention of the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd following the murder of Jo Cox, combined with a response to the Finsbury Park attack last year, there is now a serious determination to understand and tackle the threat of far-right violence and terrorism from the police and the Home Office.
While this has to be recognised and applauded, there is still much to be done.
The last two years has been stressful and even traumatic, not least for our informant Robbie Mullen, who has had his whole life turned upside down. He had to walk out of his job, leave his home and go into hiding. He has not been able to get another job due to be flagged up on a terrorist watch list and has lived with the constant fear of being hunted down by his former friends from National Action.
His situation was not helped by the attitude of the police, who initially tried to exert pressure on him to leave HOPE not hate and go into their custody. In front of a Thompson’s solicitor, who we instructed to represent Robbie, police officers from London bad-mouthed HOPE not hate and told him not to trust us.
On the day of the National Action arrests related to the information Robbie had supplied, a police officer arrived at Robbie’s home to issue him with an Osman warning, explaining that there was a credible and serious threat to his life. They then left. Disoriented and confused, it was left to HOPE not hate to pick him up a few hours later and move him to a safe location.
He never returned home.
We too came under huge pressure from Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC) in London. It was as if they resented us having the information ahead of them.
At first, and perhaps understandably, the police wanted to talk to Robbie so they could arrest and prosecute Renshaw. However, HOPE not hate had a duty of care to him and we insisted on an immunity agreement, whereby he would not get prosecuted for what he told them. The police initially rejected this offer and insisted that we pass him over to be interviewed immediately.
In mid-July I received a phone call from a Detective Sergeant at CTC who told me that we were “out of our depth” and we needed to just pass our source over to them. He also added, in what I took as a threat, “of course, as I’m sure you know, that by handling a source from within a proscribed terrorist group you have broken the law under the Terrorism Act.”
When I asked him for a contact number, he replied that he was not allowed to talk to journalists and he had no interest in speaking to me again – unless it was for me to hand over the name of our source.
HOPE not hate took legal opinion and the news was not good. We were informed that under the Terrorism Act there was no protection for journalists and their sources. With no cover, we were advised that it was only a matter of time before we had to hand over the name of our source or leave ourselves open to potential prosecution.
HOPE not hate’s Matthew Collins and I met to discuss our options. We could either hand over Robbie without a deal or continue to hold out in the hope of a deal – even if it meant legal consequences for the pair of us.
We decided to hold out. We had made a promise to Robbie that we would protect him and given the sacrifices he was making, we believed it was the least we could do. Calculating that the media and political fallout from our arrest would dissuade the authorities from moving against us, we stood our ground.
We were eventually offered a deal and Robbie made his full statement to the police. I was given a personal apology for our treatment by the Counter-Terrorism’s Head of Operations North West and from then on all our contact with the police was directly with North West Counter Terrorism Unit and Lancashire Police. They were courteous, professional and good. The results of our work together has led directly to the imprisonment of leading National Action members and, more importantly, saved the lives of Rosie Cooper MP and DC Victoria Henderson.
While we can rightly celebrate the conclusion of the case, it is also important that we learn the lessons from it too. Policing far-right terrorism is being taken more seriously by the authorities but more still needs to be done. Handling intelligence and interacting with sources is not a game of one-upmanship or a power struggle. The police have a duty of care to those providing them with information, and if we are to win this struggle together, we can’t afford to alienate anyone or put them at risk along the way.
The story behind the nazi plot to kill an MP, and how it was foiled by HOPE not hate.
Robbie Mullen knew that if he relayed Jack Renshaw’s plans to kill Rosie Cooper MP to HOPE not hate’s Matthew Collins his life would change forever. He understood that we would have to immediately inform the authorities. His National Action colleagues would instantly consider him “a rat” and he would forever have to look over his shoulder for fear of retribution. He didn’t hesitate. He made the call, and a murder plot was foiled.
“Whatever happens to me in my life, I know that I have saved the life of an MP” Robbie would later reflect proudly.
No-one can prepare for such an eventuality like the one Robbie faced when Renshaw told his NA comrades about his terror plans. We talk through the risks with all our moles but until it happens it is an academic, even alien, conversation.
Over the following few weeks Robbie’s life changed forever. He was told to pack a bag and be prepared for the call telling him he had to be moved. When it came, on the morning of the arrest of six alleged National Action members resulting from his information he had provided to the authorities, he had only minutes to get himself together. He wasn’t just moving house, he was basically walking out of his previous life.
The police initially played hardball, refusing to offer him any guarantees of protection from prosecution in return for giving a statement that might implicate himself. He stood his ground. We stood our ground. It was a tense standoff during which we were all threatened with arrest. Eventually, after the intervention of the Attorney General, the police offered him immunity from prosecution.
This might have solved one problem, but for Robbie the biggest tests were still to come. They were more psychological and emotional. Alone, reflecting on what has been and uncertain to what the future would hold. The situation was only made worse by the fact that despite his agreement to give evidence, his name was flagged as an extremist on police data bases. That made it impossible for him to get a job.
The transition to civilian life has not been an easy one for Robbie. While he originally came to HOPE not hate in April 2017, a few months after the group was proscribed, because he was worried about the violent direction of the now underground group, years of involvement had given him a warped outlook on life. He still believed in many of the conspiracy theories he had been indoctrinated with while a member of NA. He was not used to being around people very different to himself.
It would take time for anyone who was a hardened member of an underground Nazi group to adjust to normal life. Robbie’s transition has been made even harder by the fact that he has had to keep his location and back story secret. But that he has come through it – or at least is navigating his way through it – has been a testament to an amazing young man he is.
Robbie’s story might be extreme but it reflects the difficulties many people have as they try to leave the far right behind.
Over the years HOPE not hate staff have helped dozens of people leave the far right. Every person is unique. Everyone has a different story and different problems. For some it is quite straightforward, for others it is a much more complicated journey. Many have associated problems, be it with violence, crime or the inability to maintain relationships. Some have guilt, some display anger. Others simply refuse to accept that they should apologise for their past.
Helping people leave the far right is a part of HOPE not hate’s work that receives very little attention, but it is a part of our mission. With more and more people drawn into the far right, it is also work we will need help to expand over the coming years.
Linked with this is our support for schools. We focus this work in areas our data suggests that young people will be susceptible to far right narratives.
Now that the National Action trial is over, Robbie will be working closely with our Director of Education, Owen, to produce materials to support teachers and students alike. This support will include a new video and lesson plans that use the National Action story to warn of the dangers of the far right. We will not moralise or telling young people what to think and not think. Our approach is to make use of the personal testimony of someone who got snared by the violent far right and the detrimental impact it has had on his life to show people what to avoid themselves.
Thousands of people are now being attracted to the far right. For many it is just a passing phase and leaving is fairly easy. But a growing number are getting more heavily involved. The increasingly violent and conspiratorial mindset that dominates the more hardline groups means it is not easy for people to leave once they have been sucked in. Our goal is to encourage people to walk away from these violent groups before they hurt people or even hurt themselves. That means we have to make the journey out of the far right as easy as possible. We have to provide the very real moral and emotional support that is essential to make escape possible.
Robbie Mullen might be an extreme case, but the difficulties and hurdles he has experienced acclimatising to ordinary life are the same difficulties and hurdles shared by many others we have experienced over the years.
In Robbie’s story, and in the journey he has taken, I feel an overwhelming sense of hope. His journey isn’t over yet, and will possibly include hurdles, and stumbles. But from a place that was very dark, Robbie has shown that people who are faced with a dramatic and hugely consequential choices, with support and a helping hand, can make choices that save lives – including, ultimately, their own.
Watch the FULL STORY featuring Matthew Collins and Robbie Mullen, our source inside National Action, as they talk candidly about how they foiled National Action’s murder plot, and how they smashed them along the way.
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