May 24, 2022 - 1:15pm

Earlier this week, the Guardian ran a report on the government’s counter-terrorism programme, the Prevent strategy, titled “Anti-terrorism programme must keep focus on far right, say experts”. It was based on experts’ concern over the anticipated direction of the strategy review, which, according to leaked documents, reportedly recommends “a crackdown on Islamist extremism rather than the threat of the far right”. 

The expert deferred to in the Guardian article on Prevent is called Lewys Brace, who apparently advises the government on extremism. Brace, who I’ve never heard of, said that Shawcross’s anticipated recommendations did not “reflect what’s going on at all, in any way. Mixed ideologies is where it’s all heading.”  

The article then makes a perfunctory reference to the Manchester Arena attack, where Salman Abedi, an ISIS-inspired suicide bomber, murdered 22 people. On Sunday, events were held throughout Manchester to honour the memory of those who were killed and injured in that atrocity exactly five years ago. It then goes on to state that “since then, experts say, the terrorism landscape has evolved significantly,” as was illustrated by the Plymouth shooting. 

In some ways, Brace is right: The terrorism landscape certainly has changed. This is primarily to do with the final collapse of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq in March 2019: without it and all the resources and prestige that went with it, jihadi terrorism in the West has become more sporadic, amateurish and less deadly; and many western jihadi terrorists are now dead or in jail (at home or abroad). 

At the same time, far-Right attacks are on the rise, particularly in America. According to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of terror attacks and plots in the US in 2019 and over 90% between January 1 and May 8, 2020.  

But in Britain and Western Europe, the jihadi threat remains the predominant one. According to Tore Bjørgo and Jacob Aasland Ravndal, jihadi extremists in Western Europe killed 539 people in 17 deadly attacks between 2001 and 2016, while Right-wing extremists killed 179 people in 85 deadly attacks in the same period. (Anders Breivik was responsible for 77 of the 179 murders.) 

This picture hasn’t markedly changed in the interim. Just ask MI5: of the 43,000 individuals on the spy-agency’s terror-related watchlist, the vast majority are jihadi-affiliated. Yet The Guardian and Brace would have us believe otherwise by pretending that Jake Davison was an incel terrorist instead of a deeply disturbed individual whose motives were more personal than political (his first target was his mother), and by conveniently neglecting to mention actual terrorist attacks that were recently committed by jihadi-inspired terrorists, (i.e. the murder of the Conservative MP David Amess and the Reading terror attack).

While it’s true that the number of far-right Prevent referrals now exceeds those for Islamist radicalisation, it’s not clear whether this is a result of an increase in far-Right sentiment or a greater sensitivity to it on the part of those making and managing the referrals. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.  

There has also been a significant rise in the number of far-Right terrorism convictions. But this is largely the result of a concerted effort on the part of the authorities to aggressively enforce the dissemination and possession instruments of British terrorism legislation (it is a terrorism offence to watch, download or disseminate material that promotes or glorifies terrorism). Many of those who have fallen afoul of this legislation are young people, often neuro-divergent, with far-Right views. There has also been an uptick in far-Right plots, many of which also involve young people and the contentious use of undercover counter-terrorism cops.  

In other words, there is a strong sense in which the far-Right threat in the UK is manufactured and driven by a desire on the part of the authorities not to protect the public, but to signal that they’re virtuous and equitable and not targeting Muslims. If Shawcross is going to critique this dangerous form of political pandering, and warn against “securitizing” vast numbers of people who don’t hold fast to the dogmas of the credentialed elites, then this is to be saluted. 

Of course Guardian-verified violent extremism experts would beg to differ, insisting, like their New York Times-verified American counterparts, that the most dangerous terrorism threats emanate from the “mainstreaming” of white-supremacy and other white-adjacent toxins. That is, in spite of the fact that most terrorists revile and want to destroy the mainstream. If this is what amounts to an expert opinion, then Shawcross would have done well to ignore it.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.