The growing far right terror threat

The violent far right is part of a complicated landscape, one in which increasing numbers of young people are being sent to prison, say Patrik…

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Chapter : The growing far right terror threat

The violent far right is part of a complicated landscape, one in which increasing numbers of young people are being sent to prison, say Patrik Hermansson and Nick Lowles.

The threat of far-right terrorism remains high in the UK. There were 18 far right sympathisers convicted of terror-related offences in 2021, a 50% increase on the previous year. This comes as the number of referrals to the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism programme relating to far-right extremism exceeded those for Islamist radicalisation for the first time.

While there were no serious terrorist attacks carried out by far-right extremists last year, this probably owes more to early interventions by the authorities rather than a lack of seriousness and intent.

In what is now a clear police tactic, far-right activists are being arrested and networks disrupted at a far earlier stage than might have been the case in the past. With more and more far-right sympathisers being caught and convicted with possession of material useful for a terrorist act, Counter-Terrorism Police (CTU) clearly believe this early intervention prevents more serious plots developing.

The combination of the police and security services taking the far-right threat more seriously, this process of early intervention – combined with the growing threat itself – has seen 76 far-right extremists convicted under terrorism legislation since the beginning of 2017. This compares to just 15 in the previous five years.

The age of those being convicted is getting ever younger, too. The average age of those convicted since 2017 is just 28. There have also been 18 teenagers convicted during this period. In the 2012-2016 period, the average age was 31 and there were just two teenagers.

Several other patterns can be seen among the cases over the last year. Many convictions relate to the Telegram chat app, which has emerged as an important organising platform for the terror-advocating far right in recent years. While many arrests relate to relatively minor terror-related crimes that might not have been prosecuted under terror legislation a decade ago, a growing focus on improvised weaponry is a worrying and potentially deadly trend.

National Action (NA), the group proscribed at the end of 2016, still makes itself felt. Among those convicted last year was NA co-founder, Ben Raymond, who was given an eight-year sentence in December. He became the 17th person convicted of membership of the group, whose former spokesperson once planned to murder an MP (before being exposed by HOPE not hate and sentenced to life in prison). Proscription of the far-right terror group continues to lead to arrests and convictions years after its breakup.

Benjamin Hannam, a Metropolitan Police officer, was found guilty for membership in NA in April. Andrew Dymock, who led the NA splinter group Sonnenkrieg Division, was also convicted on 15 offences and jailed for seven years in July.

Benjamin Hannam

Telegram remains central

Telegram continues to be at the centre of the terror-advocating far right. The platform’s extremely lax moderation practices, relative anonymity, combined with social media-like features, have made it attractive across the far right. And over the last years, it has been used extensively by far-right terror groups.

There have been multiple arrests and convictions in the last year relating to Telegram. Three members of The British Hand, a terror-advocating group that sprung up on the platform in the summer of 2020 (and was exposed by HOPE not hate in the same autumn) were convicted in 2021. Another case is Ben John, who used the platform to access terror material.

Michael Nugent, 38, was also convicted in 2021 after being caught sharing explosives and firearms manuals in extreme-right online chat groups on Telegram.

The Feuerkrieg Division was the first nazi group originating on Telegram to be proscribed in the UK in 2020, and in February this year the first prosecution on the basis of membership in the organisation took place.

As long as Telegram fails to decisively take action against fascist groups on its platform, it will likely remain the app of choice for the movement. Because of its social media features and good support for video, it functions as an outreach and recruitment platform as well as an organising and private communication platform for many extremists.

The platform has dramatically lowered the barrier of entry to fascist and terror-advocating groups, too. The multitude of chatrooms focused on fascism and normalisation of extreme language, to a large part driven by a perceived sense that it was a secure platform has inevitably led many to cross the line into activities that can be prosecuted under terror legislation. Naivety, combined with rapid radicalisation, explains some of the arrests of young, far-right supporters using the platform. Combined with an increasing focus on Telegram and far-right terrorism more broadly, this has driven up the number of arrests.

This does not mean that these groups do not present a real threat. They provide spaces for radicalisation, and the groups help motivate individuals to take action. Matthew Cronjager is a clear example in point. As a member of The British Hand, the 18-year-old took part in a chat group that traded in extreme and violent anti-Muslim rhetoric. He later started his own fascist Telegram group and was eventually convicted for plotting to kill an Asian classmate.

Matthew Cronjager

The movement has increasingly taken notice and begun to look for alternatives to Telegram. However, many move back onto Telegram because of its user friendliness and the existing network that is active on the platform. Instead, many groups have begun to make background checks harsher and more extensive in an attempt to stave off both police and anti-fascist infiltrators. 

Improvised weapons

Attempts at constructing weapons rather than acquiring industrial-made counterparts is a growing and potentially deadly trend. Matthew Cronjager had plotted to shoot a classmate using a 3D printed weapon. Additionally, an ongoing trial of three men from West Yorkshire who belonged to a Telegram group called “Oaken Hearth”, glorified nazi terrorists and had begun 3D printing parts of a gun. The group also experimented with other kinds of homemade weapons, including producing napalm.

Overlapping hatreds

Some forms of extreme violence can be difficult to categorise. Danyal Hussein was convicted last October for the murder of two women in Wembley the year previously. Hussein did not support the far right, but his murder was motivated by satanism and misogyny. The teenage murderer had signed a contract in blood with “the mighty king Lucifuge Rofocale”, in exchange for sacrificing “only women” every six months.

The double murder was at least partially inspired by an American satanist and, at one point, Temple ov Blood supporter, Matthew Lawrence (aka E.A. Koetting).

The leader of the Temple ov Blood, an American chapter of the nazi-occult group, the Order of Nine Angles, was in direct contact with Andrew Dymock, the British leader of the Sonnenkreig Division, who was also convicted last year.

Improvised weapons have attracted attention from violent far-right groups in the UK and Europe in the last years because access to industrial weapons is challenging. The most notable example is Stephan Balliet, who attacked a synagogue and a Turkish restaurant and killed two people in Halle, Germany in 2019. The attacker explicitly aimed to “Prove the viability of improvised weapons”, according to a letter released before his attack.

While construction of functional weapons remains relatively difficult, even if one has access to a 3D printer, it still requires knowledge of materials and how to assemble the pieces and access to, or skills to make, ammunition. However, instruction manuals – and in the case of 3D printing schematics compatible with commercial 3D printers – for building firearms as well as explosives are being constantly improved and becoming easier to access than ever before.

Telegram, again, has become an important platform for distributing these manuals. The platform has channels explicitly focused on distributing weapons manuals and schematic files for 3D printers. In the case of printing, these channels are often not explicitly far-right, but rather run by libertarian-leaning US organisations that hold gun ownership as an essential right. However, on this side of the Atlantic, they have come to be shared extensively by the fascist far right.

Ben Styles, currently on trial related to building a machine gun in his garage in Leamington Spa, allegedly had manuals to convert blank bullets (which can be bought legally) into functioning live ammunition. Styles was also active on Telegram and had allegedly sent messages in support of the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand and written: “I hope the holocaust is real next time”.

Separately, older weapons manuals are circulating that describe how to build weapons rather than 3D print them. An especially popular variant is the “Luty”, a submachine gun that can be constructed by easily accessible components. It was designed by English anti-gun control activist Philip Luty in the 1990s. Balliet, the shooter in Halle in 2019, used a Luty.

Easy access, combined with ever-increasing violent rhetoric in far-right Telegram groups, has helped spread the idea of improvised weapons in the far right. It is important to understand that these are not always shared with the explicit intent of the receiver using them, but rather as a way to demonstrate extremeness and elicit a reaction from others in the group. However, the effect is that these manuals are more and more readily available across Telegram, also in chats that are not explicitly terror advocating.

Extremism in the Forces

A worry development last year was the conviction of a serving Metropolitan Police officer, Benjamin Hannam, who was convicted of membership in National Action (NA) in April. Hannam joined the police in 2018, despite two years of involvement in NA and a successor group, NS131, and after his school teacher had reported him for racism. Despite all that, Hannam passed the police vetting system.

HOPE not hate criticised the Met for allowing Hannam to join the force in the first place. Not only was the vetting system quite outdated, as Hannam was only asked if he had been in the British National Party, but the fact that he was unknown to the police despite being active for so long should be a major cause for concern. The Met defended the vetting system, but admitted that it could never be 100% correct.

However, while Hannam’s case was the most extreme, it was only the most high profile of a growing number of men in uniform caught with far-right links. An investigation by The Guardian last year found 16 serving soldiers had been referred to Prevent over the previous couple of years because of their alleged links to far-right activity.

In 2018, lance corporal Mikko Vehvilainen was convicted for being a member of the of National Action. He was one of four soldiers arrested.

The following year, HOPE not hate revealed that two naval personnel, including one who was due to work on a Trident nuclear submarine, were active members of the far-right group Generation Identity. Despite the Navy promising to take action, HOPE not hate learnt that both remained in post two years later.

Looking ahead

The violent far right is part of a growing and more complicated landscape, also involving related movements like anti-vaccine activism and violent misogyny – sometimes linked to the incel (involuntary celibate) movement online, which at times has overlapped with the far right but is motivated primarily by extreme, and sometimes conspiracy theory-minded, misogyny. The shooter who took five people’s lives in Keyham, Plymouth, in August 2021 had expressed incel-related views.

While it is positive that far-right terrorism is increasingly taken as a serious threat by police and legislators in the UK, we cannot simply rely on arrests, convictions and legislation against hate and violence.

Arrests do not seem to have seriously deterred far-right terrorism, either, especially among young people, and while prison sentences take likely violent individuals off the streets, more needs to be done to turn them away from the ideology and, most importantly, to dissuade them from going there in the first place.

More work needs to be done to understand and discourage people from being drawn into violent ideologies. This is a task that likely requires civil society, local community and state to all do their part – as well of course as tech companies themselves.


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