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Far-right groups could exploit Brexit atmosphere, says counter-terror chief

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21: A police officer is seen between the flags and placards outside the Houses of Parliament as the week begins on January 21, 2019 in London, England. British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to attempt to convince Conservative Brexiteers and DUP MPs to back her current withdrawal deal by resolving Irish backstop concerns. Her attempts to reach a cross-party agreement last week were thwarted after the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn insisted on the removal of leaving the European Union with "no deal" as an option in the negotations on how to proceed with Brexit, before he would talk to the Government. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

LONDON — The divisive atmosphere surrounding Brexit could be exploited by right-wing groups, the UK’s most senior counter-terrorism police chief has warned.

Neil Basu, the head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism operations, said his biggest concern about Brexit was its “potential to divide communities and set communities against each other.”

Amid this “febrile” atmosphere there was the possibility of a “far-right drift into extreme right-wing terrorism,” added Basu, speaking at the launch of a campaign on raising awareness of suspicious activity, the BBC reported.

Basu told reporters that after the 2016 referendum there was a rise in “hate crime,” “far-right rhetoric” and “growth of (far-right) organizations like National Action.”

He added that police were “concentrating very heavily” to ensure this “creeping” threat didn’t get a “foothold” in the country.

That said, far-right terror was still a “relatively small threat” compared to that posed by Islamist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS in recent years, he said.

Paul Jackson, a historian at the University of Northampton specializing in extreme-right ideologies, told CNN that while it is positive that the “threat from the far-right is being talked about more seriously,” tying that threat to just Brexit alone is “simplifying the issue.”

Jackson continued, the threat from the far-right had been “downplayed” compared to the threat of Islamic terror, but there is currently an instinct to “up-play” this threat in the context of Brexit, ignoring other factors.

“The far-right is opportunistic. In the 80s and 90s, groups like Combat 18 tried to infiltrate football hooliganism. The truth is, if it wasn’t Brexit it would have been something else. In the last few years groups like National Action and Britain First have latched onto subjects like Asian grooming gangs and mass-migration. Brexit is just the latest thing that makes their ideology relevant.”

Rise in hate crime

Four far-right extremist plots and 14 Islamist terror plots were foiled in the last two years, according to Basu.

While Basu said there was no intelligence indicating a rise in terror attacks in the wake of Brexit, he was nonetheless concerned about a rise in hate crime.

Indeed earlier this month, dozens of lawmakers wrote to London’s Met Police chief Cressida Dick about a growing “ugly element of individuals with strong far-right and extreme right connections,” verbally attacking MPs and journalists outside Westminster.

It followed widely shared footage of Conservative MP Anna Soubry being called a “Nazi” and “fascist” by a group of thugs as she walked into parliament. During the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, Labour MP Jo Coxwas fatally shot and stabbed by a man with extreme right-wing views.

As for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, Basu warned it would leave the UK in a “very bad place.”

“For counter-terrorism we have a lot of bilateral relationships, it is a devolved power for countries, it is not an EU power, so we are confident that my counterparts in those 27 countries want to exchange information with us and we are working very hard to make sure we put that in place,” he said.

“But nevertheless, to leave without… being able to exchange data or biometrics on people who might be criminals or terrorists would be a very bad place for this country, and for Europe, to be,” he said.

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