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The rise of the far-right terrorist: Reconceptualising risk in probation practice

Kerry Ellis Devitt, KSS CRC Research Unit – first published in Probation Quarterly Issue 10

A new research unit at Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC is currently involved in research exploring Prevent characteristics. Kerry Ellis Devitt, Probation Practice Researcher, sets the context and considers the implications for probation work.

The probation service holds a great deal of responsibility for both managing and safeguarding people’s lives. The cornerstone of the service is its calculations of risk. What is an individual’s risk of reoffending? What is the risk of that person being reconvicted? And to what extent does this person pose a risk of harm to the public? (Ministry of Justice, 2009). Though largely this risk of harm is focused on the threat to society in rather individualised ways linked to particular offending patterns, (i.e. risk of harm to a particular person; risk of harm to a business etc.) the service, and its front-line staff, must also be aware of an individual’s risk of more widespread and devastating harm – that represented by the threat of terrorism. But where is probation focusing its gaze when it comes to identifying such risk?


Probation practice and the responsibility to Prevent

Along with education providers, faith leaders, health workers and social care staff, the probation service has been tasked with a responsibility for countering the threat of terror. This responsibility comes in the form of adherence to Prevent, the strand of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, which focuses on ‘safeguard[ing] and support[ing] vulnerable people to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism’ (Home Office, 2018a, para. 99). In practical terms, Prevent, introduced as a statutory duty through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, requires the wider community to take action in identifying those deemed to be at risk of radicalisation.

The implementation of Prevent has comprised widespread training across various community sectors. Within this, case studies are being used which depict both Islamist radicalisation and extreme right-wing radicalisation because, as the literature tells us, ‘there is no single socio-demographic profile of a terrorist in the UK’ (Home Office, 2018a, para. 103). However, though that is the wisdom, what is the reality?

The problem of bias

Over the past two decades, terrorism in the UK has been firmly placed in the camp of Islamic extremism. The threat has been indelibly cemented as ‘other’, stemming from people and groups outside of British borders. Whilst a number of attackers in recent years have been found to be nationals of the countries which they have targeted (for example, Salman Ramadan Abedi, responsible for the Manchester bombings, and Khalid Masood, responsible for the Westminster attacks), their links to international terrorist organisations have secured their place as ‘outsiders’.

At the same time, the face of terrorism has been driven through a number of prescriptive narratives. Since the 9/11 attacks, western society has been hard-wired to see the threat of terror placed within a particular demographic. A simple image search on Google, for example, throws up image after image of men with beards and brown skin, armed and dressed in combat wear, usually pictured in locations far removed from anything most of us born and raised in the UK have experienced or understand. And accompanying this visual reminder of what a terrorist ‘looks like’, we are sold the dangers of a specific ideological position – one that adheres to regressive policies on how lives should be lived and is scaffolded by anti-west propaganda.

The problem in all this is that in attuning ourselves so finely to this notion, we fail to notice what is happening elsewhere.


Hate crime and the rise of the far-right

The growing support for far-right politics has been noted as a concerning trend in the UK and other European countries (Aisch, Pearce & Rousseau, 2017; Chakelian, 2017). And alongside this, has been an apparent rise in hate-related violence.

In October, the Home Office released their annual hate crime statistics. Though it was reported that incidents of hate crime had more than doubled since 2012/2013, particularly for religious hate crime, this was mainly attributed to ‘improvements in crime recording’ (Home Office, 2018b:7). However, what couldn’t be attributed to improved practice was the link between this and certain social and political events. Indeed, the report documented peaks in hate crime incidents following the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015, and even more so after the EU Referendum and the terrorist attacks of 2017. Furthermore, data pertaining to 2017/2018 showed that amongst the most likely victims were people with Asian/Muslim backgrounds. In 2017/2018, 0.6% of people identifying as Muslim experienced hate crime compared with 0.1% of people identifying as Christian, and 0.4% of those from Asian backgrounds, compared with 0.1% of those from white backgrounds (Home Office, 2018b).

Adding to this, the UK has also seen several incidents of far-right related terrorism. In 2016 came the murder of Jo Cox by Thomas Mair. In 2017, Darren Osbourne drove a van into Muslim worshippers in Finsbury Park. And in February 2018, Ethan Stables was arrested for plotting an attack at an LGBT event in Cumbria. All three were white-British and shown to have been directly influenced by the ideology of far-right groups such as the National Front, the English Defence League and Britain First.


The changing face of terrorism

In September, data held by the Home Office revealed that for the first time since 2001, people with a white ethnic appearance have overtaken people with an Asian ethnic appearance in terms of arrests for terrorist-related activity (Home Office, 2018c). Of these arrests in the year ending June 2018, 67% (234 cases) were for international terrorism and 21% (75 cases) for domestic[1]. This marks a drop of 34% from the previous year for the former and a rise of 23% for the latter.

And what of ideological influence? Drawing on the same data set, figures for 2018 showed that 178 of those in custody for terrorist offences identified with Islamist extremist ideology, compared with 28 who identified with extreme right-wing ideology, and 12 as ‘Other’ ideology. Though the pendulum still swings heavily towards Islamist extremism, it is important to consider these figures in context. As Figure 1 shows, the proportion of those in prison for terrorist offences due to extreme-right beliefs saw a notable spike in 2018, whilst those in prison for Islamic extremism has seen a relative decline. Indeed in 2016, Islamic extremism accounted for 94% of all terrorist related activity. In 2017 that figure dropped to 90.7% and at the end of June 2018 the figure was at 81.6%.


[1] International terrorism refers to terrorist activity by an individual or group (regardless of nationality) linked or motivated to terrorist groups outside the UK. Domestic terrorism refers to terrorist activity with no links to Northern Ireland or International terrorism.


Figure 1: Number of persons in custody for terrorism-related offences, by ideology, 31 June 2013 to 31 June 2018

Source: Home Office. (2018c). Operation of police powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 and subsequent legislation: Arrests, outcomes, and stop and search, Great Britain, quarterly update to June 2018 (Statistical Bulletin 19/18).


And finally, gender. Though instances of women being linked to terrorism have notably risen over the past decade (4.6% of all arrests in 2008 compared with 11.4% in 2018), the vast majority of such crimes, as with other serious crimes, are still committed by men.

In 2018, women accounted for just 5.4% of all those charged for terrorism-related activity and 4.3% of all those convicted (Home Office, 2018c).


What does this mean for probation?

Trends such as these speak clearly of the need to start reconfiguring what risk looks like. Though the data still supports the profile of the Asian man, who is a proponent of Islamic extremism and is most likely to be connected to international terrorist groups, we are also looking at a white man, who is a proponent of far-right extremism, and who is connected to domestic terrorist groups.

Prevent must not be understood as a tool to counter Islamic extremism. It is a strategy that has been developed to counter all forms of radicalisation. This understanding is of paramount importance and, for probation, this means ensuring its frontline staff are not just trained in Prevent protocol but are aware, and working against, any unconscious biases that might be present.

As McIntosh (2013:78) notes in her paper exploring the nationalistic underbelly of Norwegian society following the terrorist acts of Anders Breivik:


“If Norwegian society is to move forward from this tragedy, it will likely involve a reconceptualization of who is at risk in this current age of terror and what that risk looks like”.


And it is this exact task that is now called for within British society.

For more information on this project and others, contact and/or



Aisch, G., Pearce. A. & and Rousseau, B. (2017, October 23). How Far Is Europe Swinging to the Right? The New York Times. Retrieved from: html

Chakelian, A. (2017, March 8). Rise of the nationalists: a guide to Europe’s far-right parties. New Statesmen. Retrieved from: www.

Home Office. (2018a). CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism. Retrieved from: CCS0218929798-1_CONTEST_3.0_WEB.pdf

Home Office. (2018b). Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2017/18 (Statistical Bulletin 20/18). Retrieved from: attachment_data/file/748598/hate-crime-1718- hosb2018.pdf

Home Office. (2018c). Operation of police powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 and subsequent legislation: Arrests, outcomes, and stop and search, Great Britain, quarterly update to June 2018 (Statistical Bulletin 19/18). Retrieved from:

McIntosh, L. (2013). Before and after: terror, extremism and the not-so-new Norway. African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 7(1), 70-80.

Ministry of Justice. (2009). Public Protection Manual: Chapter 9 Risk of Harm. Retrieved from: