The UK’s armed forces are being trained how to spot signs of radicalisation in order to prevent personnel from being recruited by extremists such as neo-Nazi groups.
A freedom of information request has revealed that the army is working alongside police and Home Office counter-terrorism teams to prevent serving soldiers joining terror organisations.
Concerns were raised last year over links between the UK’s armed forces and far right groups after the conviction of Lance Corporal Mikko Vehvilainen, a white supremacist who was jailed for eight years.
The Afghan veteran was found guilty of belonging to National Action, the banned neo-Nazi terror group with an offshoot called Scottish Dawn, also now proscribed. Vehvilainen served with the Royal Anglian Regiment but was a self confessed racist who acted as a recruiter for National Action.
He was a key part of National Action’s strategy to grow its membership within the armed forces. Other National Action members also tried to join the Army but were rejected.
A photograph of soldiers posing alongside far-right activist Stephen Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, also prompted concerns last year. The army launched an investigation in October after the former English Defence League leader posted an image of himself surrounded by a group of men in camouflage uniform.
The government’s counter-extremism tsar, Sara Khan, criticised Lennon at the time, saying that his “attention-seeking is cover for divisive anti-Muslim hatred”.
She added then: “This is typical of the far right. They manipulate and exploit their way into the mainstream, often targeting the military and co-opting its symbols.”
Following these incidents, The Ferret asked the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for details of internal investigations following allegations that serving personnel had links to far right groups such as the Scottish Defence League, English Defence League, System Resistance Network, National Front and Britain First, among others.
In its reply, the MoD said that between 1 January 2017 and 1 January 2019 there were 6,613 new records added to a service police database called REDCAPS. The MoD would not say how many cases were related to alleged extremism, stating it would be too costly to search its database.
However, the MoD added that “the armed forces are working alongside Prevent teams within the Home Office and police to provide units with regional points of contact who are there to take the lead and provide advice.
“Prevent training is being developed for the units and key course are now being made aware of the action to take if they believe an individual is showing signs of radicalisation of any kind.
“The information/suspicions are reported to the civilian police in the first instance who will advise the unit of the follow-on actions. Each circumstance is likely to be different.”
The UK government’s Prevent policy is a key part of its counter-terrorism strategy and places a duty on public bodies such as councils, school and universities to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.
Prevent work is intended to deal with all kinds of terrorist threats to the UK. The most significant of these threats has been from Islamist terrorist organisations but far right groups are viewed as an increasing threat in the UK.
Following the recent attacks on mosques in New Zealand which left 50 people dead, the UK government said it is “perfectly possible” a far-right attack could happen in the UK.
Far right referrals to the Prevent programme have increased in recent years. Since 2012-13, the number of extreme right wing individuals receiving support via Prevent has increased almost 300 per cent, while the number of Islamist extremists has increased by 80 per cent.
The armed forces are now completing Home Office online training which raises awareness of Prevent and “highlights the signs and symptoms of vulnerabilities that are indicative of radicalisation”. Military units are also encouraged to engage with their local Prevent co-ordinators to provide group training.
Of the 7,318 referrals to the Prevent programme in 2017-18, 1,312 related to right-wing extremism.
A UK government source told The Ferret there have been very strong messages sent out to personnel about right wing extremism being at odds with the military’s values and standards.
The MoD said in its freedom of information reply that all service personnel are subject to vetting as part of the recruitment process which establishes any prior criminal convictions or links to extremist or proscribed organisations.
“Extremist ideologies are completely at odds with the core values and standards of the armed forces,” the MoD added.
Vehvilainen appeared in the Birmingham Crown Court dock at his trial in 2018 alongside fellow soldier Private Mark Barrett, who was also accused of membership of National Action.
Barrett was acquitted of being a member of the banned group, but jurors heard that he had a cardboard swastika openly displayed on his windowsill at Alexander Barracks in Cyprus.
The 25-year-old told police during interviews that his sketchbook doodles of the Nazi symbol and Second World War German tanks had been at the behest of “intimidating” Vehvilainen.
It is understood that Vehvilainen and Barrett, formerly of Kendrew Barracks, Cottesmore, Rutland, have since been thrown out of the army. Two other soldiers, both of whom knew Vehvilainen, faced criminal charges but were internally disciplined and remained in the army.
Last August, a right-wing extremist caught with a bomb-making kit in his Edinburgh flat was sentenced to 12 years in jail.
Peter Morgan was a member of the far right Scottish Defence League and when police raided his flat they found a Nazi flag, far-right literature and terrorist training manuals.
Morgan’s trial heard that he was “quite proud” to be part of the Scottish Defence League and travelled with others from the group to attend a white pride rally in Manchester in 2015.
He was photographed at the march with his hood up carrying a Scottish saltire flag and holding a “white pride worldwide” poster.
In January, a former Royal Marine living in Dundee was jailed for six years after being caught with a pipe bomb in his flat and equipment to make nine more devices.
Alan Peach was previously jailed for three years in 2012 after causing a blast at a Dundee tenement. There was no evidence he had links to far right groups.
Daniel Jones is a doctoral researcher at the University of Northampton focusing on British fascism and archivist for anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight. He said the military is viewed as fertile recruiting ground by the far right for several reasons.
“A lot has to do with the ideology that the far right likes to present, which is very much an existential threat to what they term as Britishness. I mean their view of what is British will be very different to you or I – that of a particular often racial supremacist, with a purity nature to it,” Jones said.
“So people who are trained to defend and gone through a military process where killing is an acceptable part of that, then it’s something that they can then prey upon using a language, and it’s often very coded and they’ll try it gently at first and simply talk about the defence of Britishness – and when people are interested they will probably go on and indoctrinate them into what their particular form of Britishness is.”
Jones added: “But this idea of threat, I think is something they feel they can use and then use that to gain access into highly trained and armed individuals – that will not only give them access to physical items but also enhance their credibility within the movement, within the broader far right movement, for having these people, but also provide training back to others.
“Part of it always will be this slightly Walter Mitty fantasist side of the far right – this race war is coming, they have quite a few novels and fantasies about this coming race war.”
Members of the armed forces must be alert to the dangers of white supremacist radicalisation. Carol Monaghan MP
Carol Monaghan MP, the SNPs’ Westminster armed forces spokesperson, said: “We expect our armed forces personnel to have the highest standards in terms of conduct and integrity and any suggestion of hard-right recruitment should be treated with the utmost seriousness.
“The armed forces community should reflect the diversity of our society and ongoing equality and diversity training is a vital element in this.
“It was deeply disturbing to view photos of young men in army uniforms posing with a known hard-right British Nationalist, however senior army officers were quick to acknowledge how inappropriate this was. I have had discussions with senior army representatives who are committed to being proactive in tackling any signs of radicalisation.
She continued: “Regardless of any criticism of Prevent, members of the armed forces must be alert to the dangers of white supremacist radicalisation. This should include a zero-tolerance approach to social media activities promoting right-wing terror groups, and strong leadership from senior officers in setting an appropriate example.”
A UK government spokesperson said: “No individual or group should be free to spread hate or incite violence. We are determined to tackle all forms of extremism and terrorism, challenge the poisonous narratives they promote and support communities.
“The MoD issued a new Prevent policy in March 2019 and police, MoD and the Home Office are working closely together to make sure that the right support is offered to people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism, including veterans and others with links to the military.”
Freedom of information response from the Ministry of Defence
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Post on 12 May 2019.