The threat from far-right terrorism is growing and getting “more organised and more sophisticated” by the day, a leading counter-terrorist officer has said.
The warning by Chief Superintendent Matt Ward, who heads one of the country’s dedicated counter-terrorism units, follows the latest convictions of members of neo-Nazi terrorist group National Action, which was outlawed by the Government in 2016.
The prosecutions are part of a drive to dismantle what Mr Ward called the “insidious” organisation, which used a slick social media operation and hands-on shock tactics and activism to push the idea of “race war” and violent extremism.
Among its ranks was serving British soldier Mikko Vehvilainen, of Sennybridge Camp, Powys, Wales, who had served in Afghanistan, and so-called ethical hacker Joel Wilmore, 24, of Bramhall Moor Lane, Stockport.
National Action was banned in December 2016 by then home secretary Amber Rudd, who called it “a racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic organisation, which stirs up hatred, glorifies violence and promotes a vile ideology”.
One of the triggers for the ban was National Action members’ vocal online support for the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox.
Although her killer, Thomas Mair, had no links to the group, his words at his first court appearance – “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” – became the motto of the organisation’s now-defunct website.
He added: “It’s a risk that has been growing now for a number of years.”
His comments echo those of Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, who last month told MPs that, of 17 terror attacks stopped by security services since March last year, four were extreme right-wing.
Mr Ward said: “We have always had far-right ideologies within the UK but I think what we’ve seen over recent years, they’ve become much more organised.
“So they’ve come together, they’re more organised, more sophisticated, there’s a greater sense of ideology and a greater determination to actually go out there and cause significant harm.
“They’re very dangerous and they continue to grow and, from a counter-terrorism policing point of view, we are devoting more and more resources, time and effort to be able to tackle them.”
They carried out noisy, high-profile demonstrations such as the “Battle of Liverpool” wearing skull-faced masks, and plastered university campuses with stickers reading “White Jihad”, and “Britain is ours, the rest must go”.
Although small and never more than 100 members strong, it had an organised leadership structure, organising regular “socials” in pubs, operating clandestine chat groups, and transport for members to and from demos.
It targeted universities to recruit young people – mainly males – and also members of the armed forces.
A member of National Action, pre-ban, Jack Coulson was convicted, then aged 17, at Leeds Crown Court, of making a pipe bomb in his bedroom.
He had posted a picture online calling Mair a “hero”, adding: “We need more people like him to butcher the race traitors.”
The group were also connected to a plot to kill Labour MP Rosie Cooper, which was only uncovered when a disillusioned member tipped off anti-racism group Hope Not Hate.
At the Old Bailey earlier this year, the group’s leader, Christopher Lythgoe, was cleared of encouraging the plot by a known associate, but convicted of being a National Action member.
Sentencing him to eight years in jail, Mr Justice Jay described him in court as “a fully fledged neo-Nazi with deep-seated racism and anti-Semitism”.
He added that Lythgoe “did nothing to stop or discourage” the plot to kill Ms Cooper.
Mr Ward said: “We’ve been able to dismantle one terrorist cell operating in the Midlands.
“It doesn’t mean there won’t be others, and it doesn’t mean they won’t adopt different names and identities going forward.
“National Action – the Midlands chapter – is no more.
“National Action – the ideology, neo-Nazism, those seeking violent extremism – that’s still prevalent, and we have to remain vigilant as both police and communities in being able to tackle that.”