How should we respond to extremists, who do not engage in terrorism, but who create a climate conducive to it, and are eroding democratic freedoms?
This has been one of the long-standing conundrums for the British Government since the 2005 London bombings and was best exemplified by hate preacher Anjem Choudary. For years he propagated support for a repressive, intolerant, theocratic caliphate, in contrast to Britain’s democratic rights, and played a key role in recruiting and radicalising others, many of whom went onto commit terrorism. The damage he did was profound and yet the authorities did not have the legal means to stop him. He was eventually convicted for a terrorism offence in 2016, but by then the damage he caused was irreversible. People were as incredulous then as we are today that such dangerous individuals are able to operate freely.
Our report ‘Operating with Impunity’ – published today- shows, extremists, whether Far Right, Islamist, Incels and others operating lawfully and gaining the upper hand.
The internet has a magnifying effect with children as young as 12 increasingly being drawn into extremist ideologies. Nearly 1 in 6 young people believe official accounts of the Holocaust to be lies. Hate crimes and terrorism are growing and extensive polling shows the public are worried and believe more needs to be done. Law enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies are frustrated at the lack of powers and operational capability inhibiting their capacity to bear down on persistent hateful extremists.
Such concerns are justified. There is a lack of criminal, civil and regulatory legislation designed to capture hateful extremism. Extremists mockingly steer around current legislation to glorify the murderous actions of terrorists such as ISIS leaders, the 9/11 hijackers or Brenton Tarrant who murdered 51 Muslims in 2019. Similarly, you can collect hundreds of the most violent extremist propaganda such as ISIS beheading videos; such lawfulness even shocked the Chief Coroner at the London Bridge Inquest. Furthermore, it is legal for neo-Nazis and Islamists to intentionally stir up racial hatred against Jews by promoting dangerous antisemitic conspiracy theories, viewed thousands of times online including by children, as long as they avoid being threatening, insulting or abusive. Such activity is a threat to democracy and creates a swelling radicalised pool for terrorists to recruit from.
Our report is littered with many shocking examples and despite our careers working in counter-extremism and counter-terrorism, we have been horrified by its ghastliness and volume. This is why we are calling on the Government to commit to devising a new legal and operational framework to counter the threat of hateful extremism.
Extremists operate with impunity because current laws such as hate crime and counter-terrorism are limited in scope, and not designed to capture hateful extremism. This includes activity which diminishes the democratic rights of others protected by Article 17 of Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998. Islamists recruit youngsters to support a repressive theocratic caliphate threatening to undermine our democracy; neo-Fascists radicalise people into believing non-white British citizens are a threat to Britain, engaged in a “white genocide.” The threatening language of implied violence is clear.
Previously poorly focused attempts to legislate by Government were aborted because of their failure to define ‘extremist’ activity or guarantee the protection of freedom of expression or religion. Such rights must be protected. We have a narrower definition of ‘hateful extremism” and have set out safeguards to protect lawful freedom of expression which includes the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric and the heretical. This can be achieved by setting a high legal bar based on: intent, evidence of serious or persistent behaviour, promoting a supremacist ideology, and activity that creates a climate conducive to terrorism, hate crime and violence or contravenes Article 17.
The framework could include new powers for law enforcement agencies and regulators; banning groups who intentionally and persistently engage in hateful extremism; imposing conditions on individuals; or restricting production or possession of the most violent extremist material, with safeguards for journalists, academics and others. Government should also elevate hateful extremism as a priority threat in the ‘Online Harms Bill’ ensuring a robust response.
Hateful extremism is a subversive threat to public safety and democracy and urgently requires a focussed and proportionate legal response. We are pleased to say both Tony Blair and David Cameron as well as senior faith leaders, civil society groups, free speech activists, and operational partners support our call for a legal and operational framework. Without such a framework we believe hateful extremism in our country will continue to escalate. It is imperative that we take action now.