July 1, 2020

IntelBrief: The Rising Threat of Right Wing Extremism in the United Kingdom

Protesters walk past British police officers in central London as groups, including those from the far-right, gathered to counter-protest against anti-Racism demonstrators, Saturday, June 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
  • Far-right extremism remains the fastest growing security threat in the United Kingdom, especially when measured by terms of referrals to the British government’s counter-radicalization scheme, Prevent.
  • The British government, working with technology companies, has taken important steps to proscribe groups associated with the far-right, but more work needs to be done to combat the threat posed by lone actors, including those who remain active online.
  • Former MI5 Director Lord Evans of Weardale recently suggested a link between societal pressure on communities (including, for example, high levels of unemployment) and growing far-right extremism in the United Kingdom.
  • Given the impact that COVID-19 is likely to have on unemployment in the United Kingdom and internationally, further austerity could lead to yet another spike in the threat posed by far-right extremists, especially their ability to recruit.

In March 2020, Lord Evans of Weardale, former director general of the Security Service MI5, suggested that the challenge posed by right-wing extremism had shifted, morphing from one focusing on dissociated groups which ‘never quite managed to get their act together’ to a more organized threat. Metropolitan Police Service Assistant Commissioner, Neil Basu, also recently underscored that that the fastest growing threat to the United Kingdom is from far-right extremists, with seven of 22 thwarted terrorist plots since 2017 stemming from individuals motivated by far-right extremism. Referrals to Prevent, the country’s counter-radicalization program, focusing on far-right extremism doubled from 2016 to 2018, and are expected to rise even further. The Home Office revealed that the number of suspected far-right extremists being referred to the authorities nearly matched those for Islamist extremism, with a total of 1,389 referrals of far-right extremists in 2018-19, compared with 1,404 for suspected jihadists.

Lord Evans of Weardale also stated that social pressures on communities, as a result of austerity measures, were likely to exacerbate the threat of far-right extremism throughout the UK. The number of vacancies in the UK economy approximately halved in April 2020, a sign that UK unemployment will rise sharply over the course of the next several months. Links between high unemployment rates as a result of austerity measures, coupled with the unique set of challenges emanating from the far-right threat in the UK, need further review. The growing risk of increased unemployment bolstering far-right extremism means that the government must be vigilant against new manifestations of far-right extremism, whether these come from splinter groups, groups that have yet to be proscribed, or young individuals with a desire to commit so-called ‘white jihad.’

The first challenge for governments is understanding and effectively countering the threat posed by far-right extremists. In a similar vein to jihadist groups, sanctioned organizations such as National Action and Scottish Dawn continue to operate under splinters after being banned by the British government. Second, unlike jihadist groups, where extremist rhetoric tends to be framed in language against the West and its institutions, language used by far-right extremists and white supremacists often glorifies European countries – including Britain – and their supposed superiority. This is then conflated with monikers on immigration conspiracies, race relations, and disparagement of ethnic, racial, and religious minority groups. As a result, it is often more difficult to police such material, particularly when it is framed in the form of satire, online memes, or irony. In February 2020, the Home Office banned two far-right terrorist groups in the UK, making membership punishable by 10 years in prison. This included the proscription of Sonnenkrieg Division, which maintains links to the Atomwaffen Division, and recognizing System Resistance Network as an alias of the already proscribed group National Action. 

Social media companies in the UK are also taking some actions to counter the far-right. For example, Twitter banned Paul Golding, the leader of the fascist political organization Britain First, from its platform in December 2017, and in March 2018 Facebook banned Britain First for hateful conduct. In 2019, Facebook permanently banned the British National Party, and leader Nick Griffin, the English Defence League (EDL) and Paul Ray, a founding member of the EDL, Britain First and Paul Golding, Knights Templar and prominent spokesperson Jim Dowson, and National Front and its leader Tony Martin from the platform. While banned from Facebook, most of these individuals and organizations continue to maintain a largely unrestricted presence on Twitter and YouTube. From 2015-2019, 27.1% of offenders who shared offensive or hateful material online did so to promote a far-right ideology. As such, social media companies must continue taking actions to remove hateful content from their sites. Proscribing extreme right wing organizations has afforded the UK government more wide-ranging powers to prosecute those who commit crimes. However, police forces and social media platforms – where many of these groups continue to operate – will need to continue to work together to prevent threats from manifesting into violence in the real world. 


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