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Banner image: The floral tribute to murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. Courtesy of Flikr/Garry Knight.

The Jo Cox Murder and the Role of Ideology in Violent Extremism

Commentary, 30 November 2016
International Security Studies, Tackling Extremism, UK, Terrorism, Europe
The murder of the Labour MP has highlighted the rise of neo-Nazi terrorism. The police, intelligence and security services are increasingly concerned – and with good reason.

The threat from far-right extremism has become an increasing concern for the policing, intelligence and security services in the UK. The murder in June of Labour MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair, as well as the 2013 murder in Britain of Muhammed Saleem by Ukrainian student Pavlo Lapshyn (who also attacked three mosques with improvised explosive devices), highlights this threat, which exists alongside that of violent Islamism.

A RUSI-led study showed that extreme right-wingers constituted a third of lone-actor terrorists in Europe over the last fifteen years. In addition, the Global Terrorism Index 2015 estimated that across the West violent Islamists accounted for only 20% of deaths from lone-actor attacks, with the others being attributed to ‘a mixture of right wing extremists, nationalists, anti-government elements, other types of political extremism and supremacism’. While most of these are small-scale or unsuccessful, extreme right-wingers can and have mounted mass-casualty attacks, notably in the US in 1995 and Norway in 2011.

The conviction in November of neo-Nazi Mair for Cox’s murder, which occurred just a few days before the 23 June referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU, has made apparent the dangerous and multifaceted reality of far-right extremism and terrorism. As aspects of the political mood in the UK become more desensitised to anti-immigration arguments as well as anti-European and anti-Islam discourses, it is within these spaces that some feel compelled to transform their political and ideological beliefs into violent extremism.

However, the resurgence of the far-right is not just a major threat to security. They promote a certain ethno-national identity and an associated politics of memory that is both myopic and inward-looking. And particular to that is the idea of Englishness as an identity trumping and surpassing that of Britishness; the former is presented as a distinct ethnic category whereas the latter is seen as a cultural and legal category. This tendency creates huge obstacles to the promotion of social cohesion and tolerance in society.

Perhaps the most interesting issue here is the role of ideology. There are suggestions to indicate that Mair was inspired by David Copeland, who mounted three terrorist attacks, including the fatal bombing in April 1999 of the Admiral Duncan, a Soho pub popular with the gay community. Mair bought books on explosives and right-wing ideology two weeks after the pub bombing and Copeland’s arrest. Mair also kept a press cutting about the case of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who murdered dozens of people (mostly teenagers and young adults) in and around Oslo in 2011.

The association between the different perpetrators here is a specific ideology, one that promotes anti-Muslim sentiment, but is also against Marxism, feminism, same-gender relationships and multiculturalism.

Sentencing Mair to a whole-life sentence, High Court Judge Mr Justice Wilkie said:

There is no doubt that this murder was done for the purpose of advancing a political, racial and ideological cause, namely that of violent white supremacism and exclusive nationalism most associated with Nazism and its modern forms.

The point being made here is that far-right extremist ideology and extremist violence are tantamount to terrorism.

And, in the wake of this verdict, some MPs are now demanding that ‘Britain First’ – an outfit to which Jo Cox’s murderer repeatedly referred during his trial – be classified as an extremist organisation under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

However, the reality remains that efforts to fight extremism have not yet taken into full consideration the threat from far-right groups. Jo Cox’s murder shows that the threat from far-right violent extremism is real.

Moreover, there is an online and offline community of right-wing ideologues who have created an ‘echo chamber’ of their views with a global reach. The same can be said of Islamist groups and this is regarded as a major component of radicalisation.

One lesson that can be drawn from the Jo Cox murder case and the trial’s verdict is on the role of ideology in processes of radicalisation.

In relation to the threat from Islamists, ideology is seen as central to violent decision-making processes. However, research suggests that it matters less than is often claimed, or that is more relevant only in the latter stages of transforming a vulnerable young person into a capable terrorist.

When it comes to far-right extremism, there is a tendency to underplay the role of ideology. This approach now needs to be altered, to reflect recent developments to patterns of violent extremism, increasingly witnessed in Europe and North America in recent periods.

For it is vital not to let the necessary attention paid to radical Islamism impede the wider work required to restrict all forms of violent extremism. 

Banner image: The floral tribute to murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. Courtesy of Flikr/Garry Knight.

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