England's Far Right

Tuesday 16 October 2012

In towns and cities across England, there are small pockets of men who are filled with seething rage. Threatening acts of violence, they pose for photographs holding guns and discuss potential targets on Internet forums. Despite what you might think, these men are not Islamic jihadists who sympathise with the terror group al-Qaida. They are “white nationalists” – extreme right-wing neo-Nazis who are growing increasingly bold and volatile.

Since 2010, far-right groups in the UK have become more and more fragmented. The British National Party (BNP) had enjoyed a small growth in popularity in the years prior to 2010. But the birth of the anti-Islamism organisation the English Defence League (EDL) in 2009 gradually drew many away from the BNP and towards grassroots street protest. Today, both the BNP and the EDL are in decline – though not because those on the extreme right have changed their views. The BNP now accepts black and Asian members, and the EDL has formed a “Jewish division.” For many on the hard right, who are devoutly racist and anti-Semitic, that is intolerable. As a result, small factions are choosing to take matters into their own hands.

“They are turning not to a popular Islamophobia so much as to real neo-Nazi extreme right wing,” says Dr Paul Jackson, director of the University of Northampton’s radicalism and new media unit. “Because the main EDL social movement itself has really lost its momentum, it has increasingly created the opportunity for these new groups to develop in localised pockets.”

Calling themselves names like the Infidels and the Combined Ex Forces, the splinter groups frequently exhibit hatred of anyone non-white – particularly Asians. Based across England, with hubs in Liverpool and Greater Manchester, some members have strong ties to the neo-Nazi National Front, which became notorious in the 1970s for demanding that all “coloured immigrants” be shipped out of Britain.

In previous decades other extreme far-right collectives, like the so-called Aryan Strike Force or Combat 18, have perpetrated and plotted acts of violence. However, the Internet has helped the latest incarnations of these far-right groups spread their ideas and build networks in new ways, according to Dr Jackson. “Disaffected people are vulnerable to it,” he says. “It’s so easily available online and can have quite a strong impact.”

One of the most active groups in England is the North West faction of the Infidels. The shadowy group says it is made up of “right-wing patriots, loyalists, and nationalists” who will “stand with anyone willing to fight the enemies of Britain and for the right of its indigenous people.” The Infidels say they are against “the Islamic takeover of parts of the UK,” multiculturalism, immigration and “the militant left.”

A Facebook page created by members of the Liverpool and Wirral branch of the Infidels displays a clear commitment to violence. The page, “liked” by more than 500 people, contains warnings about impending “civil unrest” alongside images of petrol bombs and men wielding rifles. Last month the group posted an image of the Houses of Parliament exploding in flames below the message “one day you lot will pay!” The group has also posted the home addresses of people apparently deemed legitimate targets for future vigilante attacks, such as, in one case, two Asian Rochdale councillors.

Last year, the government helped launch a campaign called Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks (MAMA), designed to encourage the reporting of hate crimes. Fiyaz Mughal, the campaign’s director, says he has recently witnessed an “unbelievable” increase in anti-Muslim sentiment.

“It’s shocking because we’ve started to see over the last six months in particular is people being more violent in their threats online,” Mughal says. “It’s moving towards a much more violent and extreme outcome.”

MAMA is receiving anything between ten and 25 reports of anti-Muslim extremism every day, with specific “cluster points” in Glasgow, West Yorkshire, West Midlands, Luton, Greater Manchester, and Derbyshire. The organisation says it has managed to get seven people convicted for spreading hatred online, with other cases involving EDL sympathisers in Luton ongoing. But according to Mughal, the police are still sometimes behind the curve when it comes to the far-right threat – with their resources focused more heavily on looking for potential terrorists among radical Islamist groups.

Despite that criticism, the government insists it is focused on tackling right-wing extremism. “The government condemns extremism in all its forms,” a Home Office spokesperson says. “There is no place for violence, criminality and disorder in our society and police have a range of powers to tackle it.”

The threat of serious far-right violence is certainly genuine. This was affirmed tragically in Norway on 22 July last year, when Anders Breivik launched a rampage that resulted in the deaths of 77 people. Breivik justified his massacre by blaming multiculturalism and politicians who had allowed high-levels of immigration. Among some members of the extreme-right in England, Breivik is seen as a hero – a soldier who performed an act of war they would like to see repeated elsewhere.

Last month, Walsall-based kickboxer Darren Clifft started a petition to free Breivik from prison, describing the convicted killer’s massacre as “self defence” and “inspirational.” 23-year-old Clifft, who is affiliated with the Infidels, posted pictures of himself doing a Nazi salute while wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit (see image above). In May he wrote that he had been dreaming about becoming a suicide bomber, in one post on Facebook writing: “I've had these dreams about blowing people up for weeks.”

In other cases, EDL members have posed in photographs wielding guns and threatening bomb attacks. In April, Kenny Holden, a 30-year-old man from South Shields, warned that he was going to set off a “pipe bomb” in an Asian area of the city. He said that if he could obtain a gun, he was ready to go on a shooting spree “Olso style” – an apparent reference to Breivik. Holden was later arrested and charged with two counts of sending offensive or menacing messages.

The controversy, however, is not only consigned to a fringe element of the far right. Prominent EDL supporter Michael Wood, who last year co-founded the British Freedom Party in a bid to challenge the BNP, caused upset following comments made about Breivik. In the aftermath of the massacre, he wrote on Twitter: “Couldn't care less that #Breivik went radio rental on leftist youths. He knew they would grow up to betray Norway #EDL."

What did Wood mean exactly? “Breivik was a Frankenstein borne out of Scandinavian liberal attitudes towards mass immigration and the integration of Muslim migrants,” he says in an interview conducted by email. “What his attack has done, is forced Norwegians to rethink the course they're taking and to question whether Breivik has a point about immigration and the future that awaits Norway – in my view he is right on several points. So when I say that I don't care, I mean that it is not my responsibility to apologise for Anders Breivik, it is the EU and the Norwegian leftists who should apologise.”

The viewpoint held by Wood is one shared by many of those on the far right. The position is that Breivik was somehow forced into his act of mass violence by the multiculturalism espoused by liberal politicians. On the far-right Internet forum StormFront, UK-based users commented after Breivik’s attacks that his victims, some of whom were as young as 14, were “not innocent” because they were political activists who would eventually go on to “encourage more and more Islamists into their country.” One user, named NickGrifford, wrote: “Many will suffer before the end, but the many have brought it upon themselves.”

Given this level of sympathy for Breivik’s actions, the obvious question is whether a single “lone wolf” attack from a far-right fanaticist is possible on British shores. The heightening anti-Muslim sentiment, paired with the growth of a number of factions seemingly willing to perpetrate acts of violence, mean it is alarmingly difficult to rule out.

“Although we haven’t seen any major terrorist attacks from the far-right yet, part of the thing about social media is that it enables them to encourage and communicate with each other – to engineer things to happen,” says Matthew Collins, a researcher for Hope Not Hate, a campaign group that monitors far-right extremism. “Some of these groups – they’re little more than racist drug gangs. And that’s exactly what makes them so dangerous.”