Our personal prejudices are blinding us to the rise of far-right terrorism

Islamists count for 38 per cent of lone wolf terror attacks. But far-right extremists are catching up. 

NS

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Terrorism is not an objective fact. It's a judgement call. And labels are fluid. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, or so the dictum goes. Nelson Mandela himself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, but he remained on the United States Terrorist Watch List until 2008.

The legal definition outlined in section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is deliberately broad. This is done in order to reflect the changing landscape of terrorism and the myriad ways it can take shape.

As such, three conditions need to be met for an act of be considered terrorism in the UK:

  • The threat or use of serious violence, serious damage to property, endangerment of life, risking the health or safety of the public or interfere or disrupt an electronic system (subsection 2).
  • The use or threat of action is terrorism if designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public or a section of the public (subsection 1 (b)).
  • The action or threat of action must be made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause (subsection 1 (c)).

Additionally, section 3 of the Terrorism Act states that

The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.

So an act may still be considered an act of terror even if it was not designed to influence the government or the public, as long as a firearm or explosives are involved.  

Hate crime can be an act of terrorism

The subjectivity of terrorism is even more apparent where terrorism legislation overlaps with hate-crime legislation.

Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the use of serious violence to intimidate a section of the public in order to promote a racial cause would qualify as terrorism. 

And yet, in practice, there appears to be no overlap. 

Events associated with the far-right are overwhelmingly considered simply to be hate crimes, even when they neatly fall under the legal definition of terrorism. 

For example, not only are mosques throughout the UK routinely vandalised, and worshippers harassed, but attempts to set fire or even to bomb mosques have almost become commonplace. 

In 2013, a far-right extremist murdered elderly Muslim Mohammed Saleem as he was walking home from prayers (his grieving family are pictured above). In 2014, a man with clear links to the far-right was jailed after police found a large cache of weapons in his room, including a nailbomb. When interviewed by police he admitted he had made the bomb because he was bored and did not like immigrants. In his diary, he had written that he would drag every immigrant to hell. He was charged and convicted under the Explosives Substances Act as the Crown Prosecution Service judged that it was never his intention to activate the device. 

So how come this isn't treated as terrorism?

The obsession making us blind

When it comes to the decision to arrest, charge and prosecute, and under which law to do so, a common sense for the feel of the law comes to play. But this common sense assumes a certain construction of terrorism. When two events fall under the same legal definition of terrorism, but only one is considered to be worthy of unleashing the powers connected with terrorism legislation, we see a very selective interpretation of what terrorism is. 

As such, it should not be surprising that you would be hard-pressed to find information about these events in the mainstream media, or the Government reacting to them. But replace the word immigrant for infidel, and there would not have been the same silence.

Instead, there is an obsessive focus on the threat from Islamic extremism, even when evidence has shown that the threat from far-right extremism is on the rise. 

Some experts have spoken out. In 2014, an anonymous Home Office official argued that the British far-right was as much of a threat as the so called Islamic State. This echoed a 2013 statement by James Brokenshire, a Home Office minister at the time, highlighting the need to focus on right-wing extremism in the UK. And a 2016 report from security thinktank Royal United Services Institute found that while 38 per cent of lone-wolf terror attacks in Europe were linked to Islamic extremism, 33 per cent were connected to right-wing extremism. From the 72 attacks that were deemed successful, only 8 per cent could be attributed to Islamic extremism. Right-wing terrorist attacks constituted less total executed attacks, but almost 50% of deaths.

Far-right extremism in this country has been allowed to grow alongside a toxic rhetoric surrounding immigration. What accounts for this blindness, if not prejudice? If extremism remains consistently framed as a problem of a single community, not a societal problem, it will continue to fester, and risk destroying our society from within.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.