WASHINGTON - When British police first visited 41-year-old Steven Bishop at his home in the ethnically-diverse London suburb of Thornton Heath he told them he was planning a fireworks display.
But officers, who had been alerted by one of Bishop’s co-workers who feared his colleague was making a bomb, examined the fireworks and discovered they had been tampered with.
Last month, Bishop, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, pleaded guilty to terror charges, including planning an attack on a nearby mosque in revenge — as he saw it — for the 2017 Manchester Arena suicide bombing by a radical Islamist that left 23 dead and 139 wounded, half of them children.
From Germany to Britain, alarm is rising across Europe about the terror threat from fringe far-right groups and their supporters. Analysts and intelligence officials say the groups are studying the tactics of jihadist factions, like the Islamic State terror group, and copying their bomb-making methods and social-media propaganda techniques, using YouTube and messaging platforms to radicalize others.
This week, German authorities said the number of far-right extremists and fringe groups has jumped by 50 percent over the past two years.
In Britain, intelligence agencies are now being drafted to help police tackle the far-right terror threat with authorities saying four attacks have been foiled since 2017. The country’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Center, which is coordinated by Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5, has been tasked to assess the threat posed by militant right-wing terrorism.
Britain’s interior minister, Sajid Javid, told reporters last month, “The marked shift in the nature of extreme right-wing activity, and in the organization of such groups and their reach, from being small groups mainly focused on promoting anti-immigration views and white supremacy to actual engagement in terrorist activity, has resulted in this aspect of the threat presenting a higher risk to national security than it previously has.”
The alarm in London, Berlin and other European capitals has jumped since the live-streamed shootings in April at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, which left 50 dead and 50 wounded. It emerged after the massacre that the 28-year-old assailant had ties to so-called Identitarian (white nationalist) groups in Europe, having sent donations to France’s far-right anti-immigrant movement Génération Identaire and to an Austrian affiliate.
In an analysis of far-right extremist activity, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, warned that monitoring far-right militants with violence in mind is becoming increasingly challenging and labor-intensive. Traditional extremist groups have fragmented into even more shadowy and secretive factions. The potential for ‘lone-wolf’ attacks has increased dramatically, the agency warned.
“They are developing in different currents and spectra of the right-wing extremist scene, but also on the fringe or entirely outside of organized right-wing extremist tableaus,” the report said. Online surveillance must be increased to try to keep tabs and head off attacks in the early stages of planning, the agency counseled.
The overall assessment of the threat from right-wing terrorism and violence has changed dramatically. Until two years ago, analysts were reporting that the number of deadly incidents perpetrated by far-right militants had declined considerably between 1990 to 2015, although they noted that that in most Western democracies, the number of deadly attacks motivated by far-right beliefs was higher than those motivated by Islamism, including in the United States.
Writing in the academic journal Perspectives on Terrorism in 2016, Jacob Aasland Ravndal, a Norwegian analyst of militant activism and political violence, noted the decline was puzzling given that the conditions commonly assumed to stimulate such violence were plentiful. “These conditions include increased immigration, enhanced support to radical right parties, Islamist terrorism, and booming youth unemployment rates,” he wrote.
But intelligence officials across the Continent now say jihadists and the far-right militants are feeding each other, using similar methods to radicalize people quickly and to inspire loners to carry out copy-cat attacks. A London court heard last year how Darren Osborne, who drove a van into pedestrians in the capital’s Finsbury Park neighborhood near a mosque, had been radicalized in a matter of weeks. Osborne was cited by the Christchurch attacker as an inspiration.
“Evolving technologies and increasing exploitation of social media for the purpose of spreading terrorist material and radicalizing others poses a particularly difficult challenge,” Javid told reporters in London last month. Analysts say social media can indeed help turn political extremists into violent ones and the fear is that the trajectory may be shifting and that right-wing motivated violence may be heading back up.
Researchers at the University of Maryland, who compile the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism database (START) on terrorist attacks in North America, Western Europe and Oceania say “a spate of right-wing terrorist attacks broke out after a lull in the early-to-mid 2000s, just as social media began to gain popularity.”