The suspected involvement of serving British soldiers in a foiled terrorist plot shows that the armed forces must remain vigilant in rooting out extremism in their ranks.
The arrest of five men, four of whom have been confirmed as serving members of the British Army, in connection with a thwarted neo-Nazi-inspired terrorist plot is a stark reminder of the current climate of hate in the UK. The would-be attackers were believed to be involved in the commission, preparation, and instigation of acts of terrorism, as well as being members of a proscribed organisation. These arrests demonstrate why the British authorities cannot afford to be complacent in the fight against all forms of extremism.
The men are believed to be associated with the far-right group National Action, which was proscribed in December 2016 by the UK home secretary, who described the group as “a racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic organisation which stirs up hatred, glorifies violence and promotes a vile ideology.” The group was previously involved in holding rallies and demonstrations at which participants gave Nazi salutes and displayed far-right slogans. National Action’s online propaganda material, disseminated via social media, frequently employs violent imagery and language, while members of the group even celebrated the murder of Jo Cox MP in June 2016.
The fact that this attack was being planned by serving members of the armed forces – people whom society charges to uphold the values, security, and integrity of the nation – is deeply concerning.
The UK Ministry of Defence has been categorical in its condemnation of such activity, with a spokesperson stating that “National Action is a proscribed organisation and its ideology is completely at odds with the values and ethos of the Armed Forces.” The statement added that “the Armed Forces have robust measures in place to ensure those exhibiting extremist views are neither tolerated nor permitted to serve.”
There have been similar cases elsewhere. In Germany, following the discovery of an alleged right-wing terror cell in the army’s ranks, around 275 soldiers were placed under investigation for suspected right-wing extremism. In the US, it was revealed that the leader of Vanguard America, the neo-Nazi group whose members also include James Fields, the man accused of killing a protester with his car in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, served in the US Marine Corps until earlier this year.
In the UK, there had been warnings from some organisations about the activities of National Action and how the group was seeking to gain traction among police and military circles. Paul Jackson from the University of Northampton, an expert on neo-Nazi extremism, said that National Action had adopted a “paramilitary style.” He added that such groups, including the English Defence League (EDL), had sought to align themselves with the military, particularly after the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in May 2013 and continued threats and plots targeting servicemen and -women.
Proscribing groups like National Action is an important step to curb their activities and impede their ability to operate openly. However, proscription cannot be seen as ‘mission accomplished.’ Such a view risks creating a false sense of security. The al-Muhajiroun Islamist group, which was initially banned over ten years ago, continues to operate as a series of small, informal networks across the UK. Most recently, Khurrum Butt, a known member of the al-Muhajiroun network, was involved in the London Bridge terror attack in June 2017.
As with other forms of extremism and terrorism, ideas form the basis on which acts of violence are perpetrated, be it under the banner of religious or nonreligious ideology. Unfortunately, the number of people who share these ideas is likely to exceed the number implicated in plots and other criminal activity, so the scale of the problem extends beyond the handful who are apprehended.
The recently thwarted plot is certainly not indicative of the British Army, in which the overwhelming majority of men and women serve their country with honour and distinction, in keeping with the values that the country holds dear. Observations of far-right extremist groups in the UK and abroad show that the military, both aesthetically and conceptually, is a source of inspiration and infiltration for groups like National Action.
The army must remain vigilant and proactive in stamping out hatred in its ranks. Just as schools and universities are charged with exercising a duty of care to ensure that young people do not fall into the clutches of extremists, whether Islamist or far-right, the same responsibility must fall on the shoulders of the armed forces. Social, economic, and political backgrounds and experiences can make some individuals more susceptible to extremist narratives than others. It is the responsibility of those entrusted with the care of recruits to imbue them with the principles and values of the armed forces and adopt a zero-tolerance policy to any form of extremism in the forces’ ranks. By doing so, the military can develop the resilience and confidence to guard against such overtures.