Future Trends: Far-Right Terrorism in the UK – A Major Threat?

Future Trends: Far-Right Terrorism in the UK – A Major Threat?

Since the late 1990s, the threat to UK security from far-right terrorism has been considered to have been of minor concern compared to Islamist or Northern Ireland-related terror. However, within the past few years there has been a growth in concern about rising levels of far-right extremism. With the ideology spreading via the internet amongst a young audience, is it possible that far-right terrorism could become the major domestic threat to UK security?

It has been noted that in recent years there has been a disturbing increase in the frequency and intensity of far-right terrorism, both in the West in general and in the UK specifically. This has led to debate on the nature and extent of the threat and questions on whether far-right terrorism may overtake Islamist terrorism as the greatest internal security threat that the UK and other Western countries face. Ken McCallum, Director-General of MI5, has warned that right-wing extremism has developed into a serious issue for the UK, and Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu has stated that this issue continues to grow rapidly.

Current Threats

Islamist terrorism currently remains the most pertinent threat to the UK’s domestic security, with the majority of the domestic security forces’ focus centred on that threat. Around three quarters of terrorist prisoners in the UK are categorised as Islamist extremists and Islamist groups or individuals were behind 19 of the 27 terrorist plots that were stopped from coming to fruition in the past three years. 

The remaining 8 plots were all perpetrated by far-right extremists, making them now the second-biggest ‘terrorist’ threat that domestic security forces face. This was not the case five years ago, and other statistics point to the increasing prevalence of far-right extremism amongst the terrorism landscape. Last year the number of far-right terrorist convictions rose by over a third. Whilst Islamist extremists do make up the largest number of terrorist prisoners, that number has been largely static in the past few years, meaning far-right convictions have increased as a proportion to now-record levels. This is reflective of a pan-Western trend, with the Global Terrorism Survey reporting a 250 per cent increase in far-right terrorist attacks across Europe, North America and Australasia since 2014.

The most pressing statistic concerns the rising influence of far-right ideology on the young. The number of under 18s associated with right-wing extremism referred to the PREVENT program has been rising – both in absolute and relative terms – since 2015 and now is roughly equal to the number of referrals for Islamist radicalisation. Of all those referred, around a quarter of the most concerning cases are taken into the Channel process, of which the largest group now are far-right extremists (making up 43 per cent of referrals, compared to Islamist extremists at 30 per cent). It is the increasing prevalence of far-right extremism amongst the young that is of particular concern to AC Neil Basu, who noted that 10 out of the 12 under 18s who were convicted on terrorism charges last year were linked to the far-right. There are concerns that the rapidity of the ideology’s growth amongst the youth will mean far-right extremism will relatively soon outstrip Islamist extremism to emerge as the major domestic security threat to the UK.

Long-Term Trends

There are a number of underlying causes and factors that may suggest that far-right extremism will continue to grow until it becomes the major threat. This is already the case in the US, where far-right terrorists account for a majority of both attacks and fatalities. The threat from far-right extremism is emerging too as the major domestic security threat in Germany, and the number of carried out attacks suggest that the UK is the next most at-risk country.

There are several underlying factors that suggest the rise of far-right terrorism may continue. Firstly, existing societal and economic factors are being exacerbated by the global pandemic. Economic stagnation and loss of employment opportunities provide fertile recruiting grounds for far-right extremists. Additionally, COVID-related isolation may help push people into radicalisation via the internet. These two factors are more likely to drive the growth of far-right rather than Islamist extremism, where recruitment is more often carried out via personal connections and driven by foreign policy.

Secondly, and of major concern to counter-terrorism professionals, is the growing ability of far-right groups to coalesce and organise. Organisation into groups and cells is what helps propel radicalised individuals into carrying out terrorist action, providing target identification, planning support, technical expertise and supplies. Islamist terrorism at its most devastating has been characterised by semi-organised structures with a single unifying purpose, like that of Al-Qaeda and ISIL. These do not yet exist in Europe but Ken McCallum has warned that “bitty, but meaningful international connectivity” has begun to emerge, in a way that was not present a few years ago. 

That having been said, there are also reasons to think that far-right terrorism may not develop into the major threat. Large ideological schisms exist within the far-right milieu (such as disagreements over anti-Semitism, capitalism, and violent vs democratic action) that keep far-right activity fractured. Far-right groups also tend to disintegrate due to infighting at a higher rate than Islamist groups do. Additionally, law enforcement may find far-right groups easier to infiltrate and monitor, as there would not be any linguistic or cultural barriers to surmount.


The vulnerability of a young demographic to far-right ideology is worrying, and it is highly likely that against a backdrop of populism and economic stagnation right-wing extremism will continue to grow in Europe and in the UK. However, it is unlikely that the threat from far-right terrorism will outstrip Islamist-related terror. Far-right terrorism is likely to persist in the form of ‘lone-wolf’ attacks, with there existing too many barriers to collective purpose and action.

However, UK domestic security professionals should be wary of a single, unifying purpose emerging amongst the far-right milieu. This is already happening to an extent in the US via the growth of the QAnon conspiracy, and with anti-migrant rhetoric in Germany. Emergence of single purpose would mean groups and individuals would not have to extensively integrate, but would feel compelled to act and to cause violence. In this circumstance far-right terrorism could approach the scale of Islamist terror felt in the West over the past two decades.

Categories: Europe, Insights

About Author