Scotland can help grapple with the threat of extreme right terrorism
Scotland has a role to play in developing strategies to combat terrorism, a leading academic in the field has said.
That’s because threats are becoming more diffuse and increasingly likely to be committed by lone actors as a result of social isolation.
Dr Tim Wilson, director of Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence based at St Andrews University, warns that terrorism linked to extreme right ideology was “the one to watch” in terms of likely threats. “There's been a couple of incidents and court cases over the last few years that do suggest a minor but steady kind of drip-drip of fairly inadequate, often lone, actors who seem to be attracted to that,” he adds.
That may have got worse over the last two years due to both the pandemic and “wild conspiracy theories, turbocharged by Trump's shenanigans” in the United States.
“Scotland might have quite an interesting role to play in developing appropriate either preventative or responsive measures to this kind of radicalisation, especially where it's linked to social isolation,” Wilson said.
But part of the problem in responding to terrorism of this type is the difficulty in defining and therefore identifying it. Wilson explains: “When does the extreme right become the far right, become robust conservatism, become moderate conservatism? They all kind of shade together… Some of these extreme right attitudes are reminiscent of views, albeit in much more decaffeinated form, that are held much more widely across society, which have to be part of legitimate politics, whatever one’s personal views.”
The internet, he says, has made it even harder because the battle against terrorism means being able to identify who is “just mouthing off about whatever frustrations they have in their life” and who is likely to act on those frustrations. “With the shift towards an online world, we find it a lot harder to draw the clear dividing lines between hate speech, hate crimes, and terrorism – it’s much more blurry.”
The internet has also made it easier to find like-minded people, which can often lead to radicalisation – such as within the so-called Incel (involuntary celibate) community. One of the most notable Incel-related terrorism incidents was Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old man who killed six people in California in 2014 before ultimately turning the gun on himself. Rodger had penned a manifesto in which is spoke about killing men who he was jealous of and killing women “for the crime of depriving me of sex”.
Closer to home, 22-year-old Gabrielle Friel was found guilty under the Terrorism Act for possessing weapons which he variously hid in his home, the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and a community justice social work centre. While he denied being an Incel himself – and the jury found the charge he was motivated by that ideology was not proven – Friel admitted to having empathy for Rodger.
“What we’ve seen – and this isn't just a Scottish thing but I think it is evidenced in Scotland as well, quite strikingly – is one of the effects of a rise on internet culture in which people link up on chat rooms get crazy ideas to imitate, is it becomes much more diffuse,” Wilson says.
That means it can “come out of some fairly unlikely places”. While historically terrorism has been considered an “urban phenomenon,” the world is now beginning to see threats emerge elsewhere. In 2018, Connor Ward was convicted of planning attacks on mosques in Banff, while in 2019, Sam Imrie was convicted for plotting an attack on the Fife Islamic Centre in Glenrothes. “It's not what you think of as the place where something is going to happen,” says Wilson.
Indeed, it was the recognition of the more diffuse nature of modern-day terrorism which led the UK Government to introduce the Prevent strategy in 2011 as part of a new counter-terrorism strategy. Wilson says: “The big shift in my lifetime is away from a reactive response to terrorism, towards something that's genuinely pre-emptive – that the police and a wider and wider range of actors, be it NHS, schools, probation officers, whoever it is, should somehow be on the lookout for signs of right radicalisation and trying to head things off.”
But, he says, the 2015 update to Prevent contains an “interesting ambiguity” for Scotland – because it specifically refers to “opposition to fundamental British values”.
“Does that really work in Scotland?” Wilson wonders. “It’s very, very striking that Prevent isn't and has never been applied to Northern Ireland, because if you actually applied the Prevent duty rigorously in Northern Ireland, you'd have to arrest half of Falls Road on a Saturday night for singing rebel songs. Scotland is more ambivalent, of course, but it points out the problem of a London-centric, one size fits all approach.”
“There’s not a huge divergence in what we're trying to prevent – people planting bombs or doing horrendous things – but is that intrinsically British, not just democratic, whatever you think the political unit should be?”
Aside from threats from the extreme right, Wilson also points to an “interesting potential for spillover of Northern Irish difficulties” – particularly with Brexit and arguments about the Protocol at the moment – as well as the independence debate causing problems.
“A few punches thrown into George Square in Glasgow in 2014 is pretty remarkably restrained for the intensity of emotion on both sides about that debate, but it's not impossible to imagine, on either side, tempers getting pretty frayed and potentially some sort of splinter groups developing,” he said.
But he later adds: “On the other hand, Scotland is very fortunate in that that kind of tradition of political violence or nationalist separatist violence is often quite hard to get going. The contrast with Northern Ireland is very striking there, in that there just isn't that sort of heroic subculture that glorifies a violent freedom struggle. I think it would take quite a lot to get it going, but these are all potential scenarios that are at least worth being aware of.”