One of the U.K.’s most senior counter-terrorism police officers is warning of the growing threat of far-right extremists, saying that they have become a matter of “real concern.”
Mark Rowley, the assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, said on Monday that the threat from right-wing extremists was “more significant and more challenging than perhaps the public debate gives it credit for.” He added that far-right groups have become increasingly organized in a manner not previously seen in the U.K. Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, has also been given an increased role in responding to right-wing extremism.
According to Rowley, there have four disrupted right-wing terror plots in the last year. One of them involved a white supremacist who planned to use an axe and a machete to attack a gay pride event at a pub in North West England. In another of the plots, a neo-Nazi bought a machete with the intention of murdering Rosie Cooper, a Member of Parliament for the Labour party. A third of referrals to Prevent, the British government’s anti-radicalization program, are now for individuals suspected of engaging in far-right terrorism.
Over the last year, a series of events have forced British security services to re-focus their attention on right-wing extremism. Earlier in February, far-right extremist Darren Osborne was imprisoned for life for driving a van into a crowd of Muslims outside a mosque in north London last June, leaving one dead and 12 injured. Last September, four British Army soldiers were arrested for being part of the neo-Nazi group National Action, a group labeled as a proscribed terrorist organization by the British government.
“[National Action] rejects democracy, is hostile to the British state and seeks to divide society by implicitly endorsing violence against ethnic minorities and perceived ‘race traitors,'” government officials wrote in a report. The group also openly celebrated the June 2016 assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox by far-right extremist Thomas Mair.
Rowley said that the online notoriety and attention far-right figures like Tommy Robinson, the founder and former leader of the English Defense League (EDL), have garnered allows them to spread their extremist propaganda and stoke tensions. “Such figures represented no more than the extreme margins of the communities they claim to speak for,” Rowley said. “Yet they have been given prominence and a platform to espouse their dangerous disinformation and propaganda.”
In November, President Trump played a part in helping to espouse that propaganda by re-tweeting three anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of the far-right group Britain First. British politicians condemned the tweets before Trump begrudgingly apologized, saying he knew “nothing” about them.
Rowley said that social media companies have a responsibility to help combat extremism by designing their platforms in a way that will not allow propaganda or misinformation to spread so easily.
“They can exert a massive amount of control both on the day-to-day management of it, and I think more in the future about how they design their platforms and their operating systems and their products,” he said. “[They] shouldn’t simply be designed for maximizing profit, they should be designed with a parallel objective around public safety.”