In May 2021, Netflix released a new true crime programme, Nail Bomber: Manhunt. The documentary focused on David Copeland, widely known as the London Nail Bomber. In sum, it told the story of a former British National Party member who in 1999 developed a bombing campaign in London that targeted Bangladeshi, black and gay communities. His attacks led to the deaths of three people, one a pregnant woman, and injured hundreds more.
The Nail Bomber programme got many things right. Notably, it placed the voices and experiences of those impacted by the three nail bombs centrally in its re-telling of the story. It was fascinating to hear accounts from those caught up in aspects of the bombing campaign, first-hand. Sometimes – amidst the furore of right-wing lone actor terror attacks – these perspectives can be forgotten, and the programme gave space to listen to these experiences. These included frustration that the police were not doing more, as well as sheer incredulity at finding oneself at the centre of a terrorist attack. What would you do if you found a ticking bomb in a bag, for example?
It was also fascinating to hear from Hope not Hate’s current Chief Executive Officer, Nick Lowles, who highlighted the role of anti-fascists in developing understanding the nature of the attack as events unfolded. The antifascist group he (formerly) worked for, Searchlight, was often ahead of the game in terms of assessing the situation, and their unique intelligence gathering, including an undercover informer called ‘Arthur’, was a central aspect of uncovering Copeland as the individual responsible for the attacks. However, while fellow antifascist Gerry Gable was repeatedly featured in film clips, it seemed remis that he wasn’t directly interviewed in the documentary. Gable’s perspective would have added more depth and detail to the role of antifascism in helping foil the bombing campaign.
There was also important identification of police failings (in terms of the operation itself around the attacks). For example, the documentary draws out an underlying attitude among the police authorities that had not taken the extreme right seriously as a potential incubator of terrorism. The issue became one the police clearly took seriously as soon as the attacks unfolded, how could they not? However, the lack of preparation for the potential of such violence to emanate from the extreme right, and the failure to take this issue seriously as a threat to public safety prior to Copeland’s first bomb, meant the police were playing catchup with Copeland. One senses this lack of understanding of the extreme right and its connection to ideologically motivate violence is still an issue to this day in some quarters, though many within the police and other state security agencies also now know much better.
The programme was limited in its engagement with academic voices as well. There is no end of experts (not least at CARR) who are able to comment on the ways the case reflects many typical aspects of the wider lone actor phenomenon. For example, Copeland’s longer-term psychological instabilities as well as triggering events (such as sadistic dreams that he had been reincarnated as an SS officer), his ongoing and sustained relationship with the extreme right, and his use of the internet to plan his attack could all have been examined in much greater depth.
The programme – though – was revealing in terms of exploring his mental health, highlighting how his legal defence claims that he was not mentally stable were in fact false. However, here too Nail Bomber: Manhunt could have gone much further to highlight how Copeland’s case reveals a common misunderstand regarding the drivers of extreme-right violence. Mental health issues alone rarely explain why those linked to the milieu become violent.
In sum, as someone who teaches students and practitioners about the extreme right, Nail Bomber: Manhunt seemed a missed opportunity to say more about the nature and dynamics of extreme-right violence. In an era where true crime dramas explore every detail of cases, from multiple angles, this standalone programme seemed surprisingly brief. A short series could have used this case as the hub for a much wider exploration of a critical issue and the animating causes behind it.
While care is needed not to sensationalise such violence in television depictions, its nature and dynamics also need to be widely understood in order to mitigate it in the future. One of the most robust defences against extreme-right violence is a knowledgeable and concerned public. Netflix’s documentary could have done better in helping educate people about Copeland’s attack, and the nature of extreme-right violence.
Dr Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and a Senior Lecturer in History, University of Northampton. His areas of expertise are Neo-Nazis, Anti-Fascism, History, Ideology, Terrorism. See full profile here.
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