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Is far-right extremism more of a threat than radical Islam?

The Week logo The Week 15/12/2018 Elliott Goat
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For the first time ever, a similar proportion of people at risk of being drawn into terrorism in the UK have received support for concerns relating to far-right extremism as radical Islam. 

It comes as official figures showed the number of people referred to the government’s flagship counter-terrorism Prevent programme over concerns about far-right activity has risen by a third in a year.

In the twelve months to March 2018, 1,312 individuals were referred to Prevent, an increase of 36% on the previous year.

Concerns related to Islamist extremism still make up the highest proportion at 44% or 3,197.

However, this year was the first a similar percentage of individuals received support from the “at-risk” Channel scheme for concerns related to Islamist and right-wing extremism.

Of the 394 individuals who received Channel support, 45% were referred for concerns related to Islamist extremism and 44% for concerns related to right-wing extremism.

What is behind the rise?

The rise in the far-right will inevitably been analysed through the prism of Brexit, with anti-immigrant rhetoric and reports of racially aggravated violence surging since the vote two-and-a-half years ago.

Officials say the number of suspected far-right extremists had been rising since 2015, amid increasing awareness of the threat posed by groups like banned neo-Nazi group National Action and publicity around the likes of Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League.

Experts also believe the increase in referrals could be down to increased sharing and posting of far-right material online.

There is growing concern this could disproportionately affect teenagers. Last month it emerged that under-18s were the only age group to see a rise in terror-related arrests compared with last year, figures that “will raise new concerns about extremism among the young fuelled by social media”, says the Daily Telegraph.

“The number of young people getting involved with terrorism surged with Isis who were particularly effective at using social media to radicalise them,” Richard Walton, a former head of counter terrorism with the Met Police told the paper.

"We are also seeing an increase in right-wing extremism in part fuelled by Islamist terrorist attacks in London and Manchester in 2017,” he said.

It follows the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by white supremacist Thomas Mair and the attack near Finsbury Park Mosque by Darren Osborne, who had been influenced by far-right groups.

Is there a connection?

While recent far-right terrorist attacks have caused police and security forces to rethink their monitoring and de-radicalisation strategies, The Independent says “awareness has been growing over the link between Islamist and far-right extremism”, with the head of UK counterterror policing recently warning MPs that both ideologies were “feeding each other”.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Neil Basu said: “The overriding threat to the UK remains from those inspired by Isis and the resurgent al-Qaeda, but our operations reflect a much broader range of dangerous ideologies, including very disturbingly rising extreme right-wing activity.”

In a bid to tackle the growing raise in violent far-right extremism, the Home Office has been recruiting more far-right “intervention providers” for Prevent to cope with the increased workload, including former neo-Nazis who can use their experience to help people earlier in the radicalisation process turn away.

What is Prevent?

“While police and ministers say it forms a crucial plank of anti-terror efforts, Prevent has repeatedly come under fire, with critics labelling it heavy-handed and ‘toxic’,” says the Daily Mail.

The Guardian has described it as “divisive”, and some communities, such as those that are predominantly Muslim, feel disproportionately and unfairly targeted.

In 2015, public bodies were placed under a statutory duty to stop people being drawn into terrorism; a move that some argue effectively forces teachers and doctors to inform on students and patients.

The past year, though, has seen a step-change in the priority given to far-right extremism by the security services, “with MI5 taking an intelligence lead on investigations that were previously led to police”, says the Independent.

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