What does the proscription of the Sonnenkrieg Division and the System Resistance Network mean for efforts to counter the Radical Right?

Far right group National Action joined the Scottish Defence League demonstration against immigration outside the City Chambers in Edinburgh in March 2016 © Deadline News/Shutterstock

In late February, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, laid an order in Parliament to make membership of two extreme right-wing groups illegal in the U.K.. Proscription renders membership of a group illegal in the U.K. and anyone found to be a member of or offering support to the groups could now face up to ten years behind bars.

The order proscribes the Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD) and recognises the System Resistance Network as an alias of the already proscribed group, National Action. National Action was the first extreme right wing organisation to be proscribed back in December 2016, and since then we’ve seen a string of high profile trials of individuals charged with the offence of membership of this Neo-Nazi organisation, including a member of the British Army. This, coupled with the sharp increases of referrals of an extreme right-wing nature to the U.K.’s Counter Terrorism programme, Prevent, has led to the police lead for Counter Terrorism, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, to state that the threat from right-wing terrorism was his “fastest growing problem”.

But what does proscription mean? Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the Home Secretary may proscribe an organisation if s/he believes it is concerned in terrorism, and it is proportionate to do so. For the purposes of the Act, this means that the organisation:

  • commits or participates in acts of terrorism;
  • prepares for terrorism;
  • promotes or encourages terrorism (including the unlawful glorification of terrorism); or
  • is otherwise concerned in terrorism.

Given the clear step-change we’ve seen not necessarily in relation to significant growth in numbers of extreme right-wing offenders, but certainly regarding the increasing level of their ambition to mount terror attacks, its only right that proscription legislation is being brought to bear in this area. It is an important tool in our Counter Terrorism armoury and provides us with a means of prosecuting individuals who are joining terrorist organisations. Its right that they are disrupted from what could be harmful trajectories into committing more violent terrorism offences.

But it is just one tool. The biggest deficit in this area of counter terrorism is in how we engage with – and challenge the themes that sit underneath – the narratives of these groups. The most recent version of CONTEST states that the first objective of Prevent is to “tackle the causes of radicalisation and respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism”. And yet, as I have set out in my recently released book on how the Prevent Strategy has been applied to radical right extremism in the U.K., there is very little evidence of how we are challenging extreme right-wing ideologies. This remains a huge gap in our response to right-wing terrorism across the country and highlights a range of policy deficiencies that traverse the way we build integrated communities, our responses to hate crime and extremism, and how we counter-terrorism.

Prior to National Action’s proscription, the most high-profile discussions of extremist proscription in the U.K. related to the various iterations of the Islamist group Muslims Against Crusades. They had been engaged in a game of ‘cat-and-mouse’ with the Home Office for years, having subverted proscription legislation by continually changing their name. In late 2011, in response to the group’s planned poppy burning demonstration, the (then) Home Secretary Theresa May stated; “I am satisfied Muslims Against Crusades is simply another name for an organisation already proscribed under a number of names including Al Ghurabaa, The Saved Sect, Al-Muhajiroun and Islam4UK. The organisation was proscribed in 2006 for glorifying terrorism and we are clear it should not be able to continue these activities by simply changing its name”. This loophole was subsequently closed but it had led to significant criticisms of the effectiveness of proscription legislation in countering terrorism.

And there remain questions to be asked about how proscription legislation is applied in practice. For instance, in April 2018, groups of protestors carried PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) flags and banners during a demonstration in London, despite the PKK being a proscribed terrorist organisation since 2001, leading to criticism of the police for not using their powers. The door must swing both ways if the police are to foster confidence in the application of proscription legislation as without a parity of response, this risks further feeding the victim narrative peddled by members of the extreme right-wing who will highlight how this legislation is being proactively applied to groups to which they may subscribe, but not to others.

Significantly, last year the Counter Terrorism & Border Security Act 2019 brought into law an amendment to the existing terrorism offence of “Expressions of support for a proscribed organisation” which now states:

Section 12 of the Terrorism Act 2000:

(1A) A person commits an offence if the person —

(a) expresses an opinion or belief that is supportive of a proscribed organisation, and

(b) in doing so is reckless as to whether a person to whom the expression is directed will be encouraged to support a proscribed organisation.

This amendment removes the requirement for an “invitation” to support and replaces it with the much broader “expressions” of support. Furthermore, it removes the requirement of “intention” and replaces it with “recklessness”, lowering the threshold for the mental element of the offence. During the scrutiny of the Bill, concerns were expressed about how this amendment could interfere with an individual’s right to freedom of expression as protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was suggested that further detail should be provided “to clarify what expressions of support would or would not be caught by this offence and to ensure that the offence does not risk criminalising unintended debates that it would not be proportionate or necessary to curtail”.

I predict that this will lead to a greater number of proscription offences being made out as the new wording captures a far wider range of conduct. So far there has been less furore about right-wing extremists being tried for proscription offences than was the case for Islamist groups. In each instance, where an individual has been convicted of being a member of a proscribed right-wing terror group, there have not been calls for judicial review based upon perceived breaches of human rights. This is particularly salient when we consider the challenges to the application of proscription legislation to the various guises of Muslims Against Crusades which took place amidst the febrile atmosphere of perceived securitisation of U.K. state relationships with Muslim communities in the U.K. post 7/7.

In conclusion, however, I suspect this may change if proscription legislation is applied as amended and we start to see much greater numbers of young people convicted of terrorism offences for flying flags, holding banners and engaging in debate where they demonstrate their subscription to these banned groups. In the absence of effective community engagement through our integration agenda, coupled with insufficient challenge of extreme right-wing ideologies in the U.K. Prevent space, this could accelerate individuals engaging with extremism up the risk escalator into being convicted as terrorists where opportunities to intervene have been missed.

Dr Craig McCann is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Director at S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. Universal Ltd. See his profile here.

© Craig McCann. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).