A man who drove a van into a crowd of people in Finsbury Park, London, early on the morning of 19 June appears to have been motivated by racism and xenophobia. With one person dead and ten others injured, this is the largest terrorist attack of this kind in the UK in several years.
It follows a series of signs over the past couple of years that the threat of far-right terrorism and violence is growing in much of Europe. However, the threat appears to be highly diffuse in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, with little organisation or coordination among right-wing extremists in terms of plotting and mounting attacks.
The incident occurred at around 0020hrs on 19 June, when people were leaving Finsbury Park Mosque. The available information from the police and eyewitnesses indicates that the perpetrator specifically targeted the crowd because of their religion. Police have said that he seems to have acted alone. The attack has attracted a large amount of commentary, both positive and negative, on far-right and white-nationalist web pages that we monitor. But we have not seen any claim of responsibility. Nor are we aware of any formal groups operating in the UK that might seek to mount such an attack.
The tactics of the attack on 19 June are unusual for right-wing terrorism, but clearly suggest imitation of recent Islamist terrorist attacks in which assailants have used vehicles as weapons. The vast majority of far-right violence that we have recorded in the UK and other European countries over the past couple of years have been relatively small and crude.
Typical incidents have been arson, physical assaults and less commonly targeted killings. The targets have tended to be ethnic or religious minorities, community centres, mosques, synagogues, and refugee accommodation. But discussions we have monitored on far-right websites indicate that media organisations are also potential targets for such violence, as they are frequently subject to expressions of hostility.
We have seen nothing to suggest that far-right extremists intent on violence are organised into formal groups. Instead it appears that individuals or small gangs are responsible for most attacks, which have predominantly been acts of arson or physical assaults. As Europol noted in a report published in June, the right-wing extremist scene in the region is ‘fragmented, lacking consistent leadership and organisation, and suffering from internal conflict‘.
A lack of usable data on the incidence of right-wing terrorism in Europe also makes it difficult to assess the threat with a high degree of confidence. The authorities often record as hate crimes attacks that we would define as terrorism, with many incidents going unreported because they are small in scale and impact. Nevertheless, police data on hate crimes is a useful indicator of the overall trend in far-right wing violence, with most Western European countries recording increases over the past few years. In the UK from 2013 to 2015 there was a 29.2% increase for example. Most of these cases were either non-violent or small physical assaults.
There have been signs that there is a growing threat of larger-scale attacks in Europe such as the one on 19 June. One example of this was a foiled far-right plot in Germany, in which three men planned a shooting against several politicians in April. And as we have previously assessed, far-right extremists appear to have become more emboldened over the past couple of years. The growth in more mainstream public support for nationalistic, racist or xenophobic politics appears to have given right-wing extremists who are intent on violence a perceived legitimacy to their actions.
Image: Police at the scene of a far-right terrorist attack in London on 19 June 2017; Getty Images