Thousands of Britons are regularly using online forums that espouse rightwing extremism, as experts say the UK is facing a new wave of anti-Muslim hatred.
An indicator of the evolving challenge is MI5’s recent move to wrest control over investigating far right plots that “cross the statutory threshold to be considered terrorism” from the police. The security services are currently investigating potential contact between the Christchurch gunman and UK rightwing extremists.
Analysis by the anti-fascist charity Hope not Hate indicates that huge numbers of Britons are among the global audience of far-right forums such as the white supremacist website Stormfront, which spread extremist ideology.
Sara Khan, the UK’s lead commissioner for countering extremism, has pointed to a fresh surge of UK-based far-right activists who she says are “organised, professional and actively attempting to recruit”.
Khan, who has visited 14 UK towns and cities as she prepares a report on extremism for the home secretary, said: “I have heard deep concern about the far right and its devastating impact on individuals, communities and our democracy.” A “frightening amount of legal extremist content online” was fuelling far-right activism, she added.
The security services, having placed the threat from rightwing extremist ideology alongside Islamist and Northern-Ireland related terrorism, have said they are investigating “very sharp high-end cases” in relation to the far right.
So far, though, they have not revealed how many of the 700 or so live terror plots and 20,000 individuals classified as “closed subjects of concern” – people who have previously been investigated and may pose a future threat – are related to rightwing extremism.
MI5 has said, however, that the volume of far-right cases is “absolutely dwarfed by the number of Islamist cases”.
The government’s latest assessment of efforts to counter terrorism sheds interesting light on the evolving far-right threat. It says that until 2014 extreme rightwing activity was confined to “small, established groups with an older membership, which promoted anti-immigration and white supremacist views but presented a very low risk to national security”.
Four extreme rightwing terror plots were foiled in the year to June 2018, fuelling disquiet over online forums and their ability to disseminate extremist ideology.
Joe Mulhall, a researcher for Hope not Hate, said the global audience for chatrooms and messaging sites that effectively and quickly spread hate speech ran into the hundreds of thousands. “We know that because we can look at the forums through which these people engage and see they have hundreds of thousands of people on them,” he said.
Messages left on an online gaming server in December illustrated the issue. Neo-Nazis from Europe and the US used pseudonyms to exchange racist views and glorified violence. Some of the chat logs involved members of the Atomwaffen Division, a US group that encourages terrorism, along with correspondence about the creation of a new far-right British group called the Sonnenkrieg Division.
Latest figures documenting cases referred to the UK government’s counter-extremism programme corroborate the increased activity of the far right. In the year to March 2018, 1,312 individuals were referred to Prevent, an increase of 36% on the previous year, and accounting for almost a fifth of all referrals. For the first time, a similar percentage of individuals received support from the Channel scheme, which helps people at risk of being drawn into terrorism, over concerns related to Islamist and rightwing extremism.