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Policing terror

How police and intelligence blunders almost allowed an MP to be killed.

by Nick Lowles

The police are in a celebratory mood, and rightly so. Jack Renshaw is beginning a lengthy prison sentence for plotting to murder a Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, and making threats to kill DC Victoria Henderson. Others have been found guilty of membership of a proscribed terrorist group, National Action.

These men, who formed the core leadership of National Action, will now spend many years in prison.

But the truth is that it could have been so very different. The police were oblivious to the plot, which was perhaps only days away from being carried out, and some of those who were convicted for membership of National Action, including Christopher Lythgoe, the group’s leader, were totally unknown to the authorities.

If it had not been for HOPE not hate, we could have been talking about the murder of a Labour MP and a police officer.

Of course, it is impossible for the authorities to know of every single plot and every extremist. The security services have long said, quite accurately, that the public has to be prepared for the fact that some terrorist attacks will succeed. But the police and security service failures in this case pose significant questions about the policing of far-right terror.

A blind spot

I have long argued that the authorities have not taken far-right terrorism seriously enough. While I totally recognise that the principle terrorist threat in recent years has come from Islamist-inspired individuals and groups, the authorities have failed to appreciate that the far right also poses a threat and one that has been growing for some time.

HOPE not hate has identified over 50 far-right activists and sympathisers who went on to be convicted of terrorism or some similarly serious and violent crimes between 2000 and 2016. These range from David Copeland, the 1999 London nailbomber who killed three and wounded hundreds of others, to Ian Davidson, who in 2010 became the first Briton to be convicted for producing a chemical weapon after he was caught with a jar of ricin.

In 2008 Martyn Gilleard was sentenced to 16 years for making bombs with which he was plotting to kill Jews and Muslims, and in 2013 Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian student living in Birmingham, was given a life sentence for the murder of 88-year-old Mohammed Saleem and for planting three bombs outside mosques in the Black Country.

And let us not forget nazi fanatic Thomas Mair, who killed Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, days before the EU referendum.

The rate of convictions has increased in recent years. In 2017, 28 far-right extremists were arrested or convicted of terror-related charges. They included Darren Osborne, who was given a life sentence for driving a van into worshippers in Finsbury Park and killing one; Ethan Stables, who plotted to attack a gay pride event in Barrow; and Connor Ward, who was found with an array of bomb-making parts and a list of local mosques.

Sadly, the authorities have been too slow to appreciate this growing far-right threat. They have understandably been focused on the Islamist-inspired threat. Partly, this is the consequence of focusing on Islamist terrorism whilst at the same time police resources have been severely stretched due to years of cuts and austerity. But the fundamental problem has been one of mindset.

For years the dominant view within the higher echelons of MI5 was that the far-right threat only existed in the minds of “weak politically correct liberal politicians” trying to please voters. Far-right groups were dismissed as “hooligans” and irrelevant.

This view totally ignored the violent rhetoric that had become dominant within the British far right since the early 1990s when groups like Combat 18 adopted the violent, terrorist and anti-State approach that was common in the USA.

The authorities have also been slow to understand today’s British far right. This includes almost universal belief across Britain’s far right that a civil war between Islam and the West is coming; the collapse of the British National Party, which convinced young party members that there was no parliamentary road to fascism; and the growing online reach of the far right.

For many of today’s far-right extremists, there is a resigned acceptance of an inevitable “clash” with Islam. For others, it is something that is actively encouraged — believing that through a civil war Islam will be defeated and Muslims ultimately expelled from Europe. Each Islamist terrorist incident reinforces this view, drawing in greater numbers of supporters enabled by the growing reach of hate online and those anti-Muslim activists who actively amplify its message across social media.

Our latest State of Hate report, which is the most comprehensive annual account of the state of Britain’s far right, reveals that three of the five far-right activists and supporter with the biggest online reach in the world are British.

With such confrontational rhetoric, should we really be surprised when some far-right activists move towards terrorism?

The authorities have been far too slow to understand this evolving threat. The government’s 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy totally ignored anti-Muslim hatred, which is now the key driver of support for the far-right. After the Westminster terrorist attack in March 2017 the police boasted that the far right had not been successful in exploiting the incident after English Defence League and Britain First demos only attracted a couple of hundred people each. The authorities appeared totally oblivious to the fact that Paul Joseph Watson, the London-based editor of the US conspiracy site InfoWars, was the most mentioned person on Twitter in the UK that day with his anti-Muslim rants. They also seemed to ignore a video made at the scene of the attack by Stephen Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), which was watched millions of times on different social media platforms.

Sadly, it seems that it took the combined impact of the 2016 murder of Labour MP Jo Cox and Darren Osborne’s 2017 attack outside Finsbury Park Mosque to really wake the authorities up.

Writing on the wall

National Action alias group Scottish Dawn demonstrating. some are carrying yellow flags with the Scottish Dawn symbol which strangely resembles a chicken's footprint
National Action alias group Scottish Dawn. Courtesy of BBC.

The National Action trial has exposed serious police intelligence failures. If National Action was considered a serious enough threat to be banned by the Home Secretary in December 2016, then why were its leading activists not monitored afterwards?

National Action re-organised into cells shortly before the ban, circulated documents in the days immediately after about how the group was going to continue underground, and reinvented itself using other names. And all this happened without the police seemingly being aware of it.

Worse still, when the Home Secretary banned National Action the police and security services appeared to have no idea of who the leader of the group was. In fact, he was totally unknown to them until HOPE not hate provided evidence of the plot to kill Rosie Cooper and DC Victoria Henderson.

On 5 July 2017, a day after we reported Renshaw’s plot to the authorities, I sat through a presentation at the Home Office to the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, of which I am an independent member, by a senior Metropolitan Police officer, at which he boasted how the proscribing of National Action had broken up the group.

In truth, the authorities should have been alert to the dangers from National Action and its followers long before the ban. NA was, after all, quite open about its intentions. Its leaders would regularly talk about race war and the need to confront the system at public rallies. Jack Renshaw, often surrounded by police, gave speeches in Blackpool and Rochdale, where he called Jewish people “vermin” who had to be exterminated. Their followers posted the most disgustingly offensive and violent images and slogans on social media, for example glorifying the murder of Jo Cox and vilifying in the most horrendous terms Labour MP Luciana Berger.

Some of National Action’s supporters had already begun to put the violent rhetoric into action. Zack Davies, who was given a life sentence for attempting to behead a Sikh man in 2015 believing he was a Muslim, in a racially-motivated revenge attack for the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, was connected to National Action.

In 2017, a 16-year-old from Bradford was convicted of making a pipe bomb. The court heard how he had been encouraged in his actions by National Action activists. Ethan Stables, who planned to attack a gay pride event with a machete, had also reached out to National Action.

The rhetoric, the imagery and the violence of the group’s supporters should have triggered a much earlier intervention from the authorities.

Change in approach

With a 30% increase in young people with far-right views being reported to the Government’s anti-terror programme, there is now a growing awareness of the severity of the threat posed by the far right. In February 2018, the retiring head of counter-terrorism policing, Mark Rowley, warned that the threat of far-right terrorism was “significant and concerning.”

Driven by the direct intervention of the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd following the murder of Jo Cox, combined with a response to the Finsbury Park attack last year, there is now a serious determination to understand and tackle the threat of far-right violence and terrorism from the police and the Home Office.

While this has to be recognised and applauded, there is still much to be done.

A police officer stands in front of messages and tributes left near to where a van was driven at muslims in Finsbury Park, North London, 2017.
Tributes left outside the Finsbury Park mosque following the 2017 attack. Courtesy of Reuters/Kevin Coombs.

Attacking the messenger

The last two years has been stressful and even traumatic, not least for our informant Robbie Mullen, who has had his whole life turned upside down. He had to walk out of his job, leave his home and go into hiding. He has not been able to get another job due to be flagged up on a terrorist watch list and has lived with the constant fear of being hunted down by his former friends from National Action.

His situation was not helped by the attitude of the police, who initially tried to exert pressure on him to leave HOPE not hate and go into their custody. In front of a Thompson’s solicitor, who we instructed to represent Robbie, police officers from London bad-mouthed HOPE not hate and told him not to trust us.

On the day of the National Action arrests related to the information Robbie had supplied, a police officer arrived at Robbie’s home to issue him with an Osman warning, explaining that there was a credible and serious threat to his life. They then left. Disoriented and confused, it was left to HOPE not hate to pick him up a few hours later and move him to a safe location.

He never returned home.

We too came under huge pressure from Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC) in London. It was as if they resented us having the information ahead of them.

At first, and perhaps understandably, the police wanted to talk to Robbie so they could arrest and prosecute Renshaw. However, HOPE not hate had a duty of care to him and we insisted on an immunity agreement, whereby he would not get prosecuted for what he told them. The police initially rejected this offer and insisted that we pass him over to be interviewed immediately.

In mid-July I received a phone call from a Detective Sergeant at CTC who told me that we were “out of our depth” and we needed to just pass our source over to them. He also added, in what I took as a threat, “of course, as I’m sure you know, that by handling a source from within a proscribed terrorist group you have broken the law under the Terrorism Act.”

When I asked him for a contact number, he replied that he was not allowed to talk to journalists and he had no interest in speaking to me again – unless it was for me to hand over the name of our source.

HOPE not hate took legal opinion and the news was not good. We were informed that under the Terrorism Act there was no protection for journalists and their sources. With no cover, we were advised that it was only a matter of time before we had to hand over the name of our source or leave ourselves open to potential prosecution.

HOPE not hate’s Matthew Collins and I met to discuss our options. We could either hand over Robbie without a deal or continue to hold out in the hope of a deal – even if it meant legal consequences for the pair of us.

We decided to hold out. We had made a promise to Robbie that we would protect him and given the sacrifices he was making, we believed it was the least we could do. Calculating that the media and political fallout from our arrest would dissuade the authorities from moving against us, we stood our ground.

We were eventually offered a deal and Robbie made his full statement to the police. I was given a personal apology for our treatment by the Counter-Terrorism’s Head of Operations North West and from then on all our contact with the police was directly with North West Counter Terrorism Unit and Lancashire Police. They were courteous, professional and good. The results of our work together has led directly to the imprisonment of leading National Action members and, more importantly, saved the lives of Rosie Cooper MP and DC Victoria Henderson.

While we can rightly celebrate the conclusion of the case, it is also important that we learn the lessons from it too. Policing far-right terrorism is being taken more seriously by the authorities but more still needs to be done. Handling intelligence and interacting with sources is not a game of one-upmanship or a power struggle. The police have a duty of care to those providing them with information, and if we are to win this struggle together, we can’t afford to alienate anyone or put them at risk along the way.

The next National Action

Finishing off National Action was expensive, and the threat of the far right is not going away.

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