Far-right extremist Pavlo Lapshyn has today been imprisoned for murdering a Muslim man and attempting to bomb mosques. The incident highlights that violent Islamists are not the only ones willing to murder in advance of a political ideology.
There is a tendency in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to equate international terrorism with Islamist terrorism. This week’s conviction of Pavlo Lapshyn highlighted how the right-wing has also internationalised. A sometimes overlooked threat, Lapshyn’s activity in Birmingham highlights how the extreme right wing (XRW in security parlance) has also become less predictable and internationally footloose. The case shows how the full range of counter-terrorism actors and tools need to be deployed to respond to the threat posed by extreme political violence and race hate actors. The extreme right wing is not someone else’s problem and needs a coherent response.
Prioritisation of the Far Right
The rationale behind the lower prioritisation of far-right terrorism is long-standing. Individuals featured in cases often appear of limited capability and in some instance may be ‘low functioning’ individuals. As the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC noted in July 2013 with regard to the extreme right wing threat; Political views are often overlaid with mental health issues, personality disorder, criminality and social isolation: this should dictate caution in the use of terrorism-specific powers.
In one sense security actors may need to be creative rather than cautious with the use of legislation in tackling the extreme right wing threat. It is fair to say many extreme right wing cases do not meet the threshold for investigation under terrorism legislation. However, many such actors have a fascination with firearms; and UK police forces have a solid track record in prosecuting these people under the Firearms Acts as well as using racially aggravated public order legislation when appropriate. Moreover in 2012 there were five arrests under terrorism legislation in relation to extreme right wing activity and one 15-year-old, Gary Walton, was charged and convicted of two TA 2000 section 58 offences.
Aside from a couple of exceptions,whilst they may have had the intent to conduct large scale terrorist campaigns leading to much loss of life, extreme right wing subjects have had neither the capability or ‘knowledge networks’ of Islamist extremists. Often lone operators, many extreme right wing actors have been interdicted prior to being able to conduct terrorist acts thanks to attracting the attention of authorities through poor operational security or through criminal activity: Martyn Gilleard, was identified after an investigation into paedophilic material, and Terence Gavan’s ‘bomb and weapons factory’ was uncovered subsequent to an investigation into illegal firearms. Both cases highlight the nexus between criminality and the far right as well as the lack of operational competence of some of those drawn to right-wing ideology.
Having said this, the Gilleard and Gavan cases potentially suggest that the authorities are reliant on lucky breaks rather than in-depth strategic understanding to tackle the threat. This may be changing. As David Anderson’s report notes: ‘Following the Breivik incident, MI5 in conjunction with the police National Domestic Extremist Unit [NDEU] has assessed and prioritised the XRW threat in such a way as to improve their understanding of it.’
This review is timely. And the extreme right wing threat is real and sustained. We forget at our peril that the UK has suffered from effective and lethal home grown far right terrorists. Most prominently, in April 1999 David Copeland launched a one-man terror campaign involving nail bombs placed London locations symbolising British diversity, killing 3 and injuring 139. Since then, numerous individuals have been arrested at early, incipient stages of attack planning. The 2010 Prevent review noted at least 17 people serving prison sentences in the UK for terrorism related offences who are known to be linked to far-right groups, though none of these groups are proscribed. Pavlo Lapshyn is the first to successfully conduct a murderous campaign of this nature in the UK since David Copeland, the London Nail Bomber. Within a European context, Lapshyn comes in the wake of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who in July 2011 killed 77 and injured 319 in a one-man terror wave in Norway.
Ideologically speaking, both Breivik and Lapshyn draw from the far-right narrative that blames foreigners and particularly Muslims for many of Europe’s current troubles. But in reflecting the complexity of this newly emergent right-leaning threat, one sees that both chose very different targets with the same objective of sewing societal discord. In Breivik’s case, he chose to target the government and the ruling political party, killing a cross-section of Norwegian society affiliated with the then ruling Labour Party. Lapshyn instead selected a random Muslim individual in Small Heath, Birmingham and left explosive devices near mosques in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Tipton. Potentially strategic targeting versus opportunistic targeting and both expressing themselves in ways that are very hard to predict.
It is fair to say Lapshyn does not fit the template of a UK based extreme right wing terrorist. Unlike other far-right activists in the UK, he was gainfully employed as a student on a government supported scholarship. He had only arrived in the UK five days prior to conducting his initial attack against Mr Mohammed Saleem and was not apparently overtly racist or in contact with far-right groups. There is little about his profile that would have immediately attracted security and intelligence agencies’ attention. A lone actor, it took considerable time for officers to piece together Lapshyn’s movements and ultimately identify him. Security conscious Lapshyn reportedly asked arresting officers ‘How did you find me? Was it the CCTV? ‘
The lone actor phenomenon is typical of the far right, where a premium is placed ideologically on individuals gathering weaponry and preparing for a race war. Initially borne from the thinking of individuals like Ulius Amoss and Louis Beam, the principle behind lone actor terrorism in a right-wing context is a survivalist response to an overwhelming invading force. Individuals are encouraged to undertake activity by themselves and using their own wits and direction, rather than rely on others.
All of which makes the already difficult job of intelligence agencies even harder. From individuals who do not disclose their intentions and avoid indicative activity, targeting locations and people in a randomised fashion, unpredictability is the only predictable feature of competent extreme right lone actor terrorists.
Developing a Richer International Picture
However, in both of the Breivik and Lapshyn cases, there is some evidence of preceding indicators. Breivik had attempted to purchase chemicals online from Poland that set off an intelligence tripwire in Norway, while Lapshyn seems to have previously encountered authorities in Ukraine after an explosion in his flat. By themselves these incidents may not have been enough of a trigger to cross the threshold to warrant investigation, but they demonstrate that these individuals are not completely off the radar. Both men crossed European borders, offering a further possible tripwire, suggesting that European authorities might want to better coordinate their activities in countering the right wing.
A key lesson to be drawn from the incident is that Islamist terrorists are not the only ones to cross borders and conduct successful terrorist incidents. It remains to be seen whether Lapshyn’s case is merely an outlier or the start of a trend (or perhaps the start of a pattern of outliers?). Nonetheless given the increasing traction across Europe of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim narratives that himself and Breivik ascribed to, it would not unsurprising if this is a phenomenon that European police, security and intelligence agencies find themselves facing with increasing frequency. And while the acts themselves may appear random, the cumulative strategic objective of exacerbating social tensions does have the potential to undermine stability and security.
Senior Associate Fellow