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London's nail bombs and the threat of far-right extremism

CEO of Hope not Hate, Nick Lowles, reflects on the 1999 nail bomb attacks as Netflix's documentary on the subject, Nail Bomber: Manhunt, is released.

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Nail Bomber: Manhunt is on Netflix from May 26 Nick Lowles is CEO of HOPE not Hate. @lowles_nick Image: Netflix

In 1999, 22-year-old David Copeland set off three nail bombs in London, killing three people and injuring over 200 others. His first bomb targeted the Black community in Brixton, the second the Muslim community in Brick Lane and the third targeted gay revellers in London’s Soho.

By their own admission, police initially had few clues as to the motive. The first line of enquiry looked at Irish Republicans, but after ruling that out they also contemplated a Yardie gang war. It was only after the second bombing that the police really zeroed in on the possibility that the perpetrator was a far-right extremist. 

One person who did immediately suspect a far-right motivation was a young man from London who was then infiltrating the British far right with the precise aim of exposing their extremism. ‘Arthur’ as he is now known, approached me in the summer of 1994 offering to infiltrate the far right. He was an active anti-fascist but he felt the most effective thing he could do was to get inside them and expose their activities. He joined the British National Party, the largest far-right group in Britain at the time, but also got involved in Combat 18 and other violent national socialist groups.

The authorities are now, finally, taking the threat of far-right terrorism more seriously

Over the next 10 years Arthur attended more than 400 meetings, rallies, leafleting sessions and socials, reporting back to me on everything he saw and heard.

He passed on their plans, their involvement in violent racist attacks and their desire for race war. Arthur immediately suspected far-right involvement. “Right away I was sure it was a racist, probably a Nazi, attack,” he later recalled. “To me it seemed so obvious.

“This is what Nazis in Britain had been talking about doing for years. Now someone or a group of people had actually gone and done it, they had gone into Brixton and detonated a bomb with the intention of killing and injuring innocent Black people. It was ethnic cleansing. It was race war. This is what they had dreamed of.”

Arthur had sat through meetings where race war was regularly discussed. He heard Combat 18 leaders encouraging audiences to go out and kill people. He picked up magazines and books fantasising about the white man’s armed uprising against ‘ZOG’ – the Zionist Occupation Government – that ruled the country. He attended a BNP rally in East London where the keynote speaker was William Pierce, the author of The Turner Diaries, the book that inspired Copeland and the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.

The fact that the police did not initially suspect the far right after Brixton sadly reflected their complete failure to understand the threat they posed. As far back as 1993, colleagues of mine addressed a hearing of the Home Affairs Select Committee to warn of the growing talk of terrorism.

Sadly, our warnings fell on deaf ears. Not only did the police not immediately consider a far-right motive for the first attack, but their lack of monitoring of neo-Nazi groups meant that they had no knowledge of David Copeland’s far-right activity. This is despite him being an active member of the British National Party and later a regional organiser for the National Socialist Movement, a C18 splinter group.

The nail bombs did little to change the mindset of the police. A recent head of MI5 dismissed the far right as “a bunch of drunken hooligans” who did not need their attention. In 2016 Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by Thomas Mair, another far-right activist who was inspired by the same American race war literature as David Copeland. Despite a two-decade involvement in the far right, he also was not known to the police.

The following year, HOPE not hate activists alerted the police to a Nazi plot to murder his local MP and a police officer. Not only were the police totally unaware of this – which was days away from happening – but they did not even believe that the group the perpetrator was aligned to, National Action, was still in existence after it had been proscribed the previous year.

The authorities are now, finally, taking the threat of far-right terrorism more seriously. Since the beginning of 2017, 62 far-right activists and sympathisers have been convicted under terrorism legislation, and the police are increasingly proactive in intervening.

While all this is welcome, it is also a shame that it took the murders of three people in London’s nail bombs in 1999 and the murder of Jo Cox in 2016 for the authorities to wake up to the threat.

Nail Bomber: Manhunt is on Netflix from May 26

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