A royal commission will inquire into the attacks on two mosques in New Zealand last month that killed 50 people, its prime minister has confirmed. The inquiry will consider whether security and intelligence services could have done more to monitor right-wing extremists. 

Joshua Rozenberg

Joshua Rozenberg

New Zealand is not the only country grappling with extremism. But deciding what role the law should play is far from easy. 

‘Just because extremism is a word, that does not mean that it is a useful legal concept,’ Lord Anderson of Ipswich KBE QC said just three days after the shootings. The former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, still better known as David Anderson, has long been critical of government attempts to criminalise extremist activity. He told me in November 2016 that – of all the secret papers he had seen in his six years as terrorism reviewer – an early draft of the counter-extremism bill announced in the Queen’s speech in 2016 (and previously in 2015) was the one that had alarmed him the most. 

‘I think there’s a very strong risk it will be counter-productive,’ he said of the planned legislation. Instead of introducing new criminal laws requiring prosecutors to prove extremism allegations beyond reasonable doubt, the bill would have allowed ministers to make banning orders on merely the balance of probabilities. Any breach of these orders could have resulted in imprisonment. Perhaps as a result of Anderson’s advice, nothing more was heard of the bill. Instead, the government set up a commission for countering extremism, led by Sara Khan. 

For years, extremism has been seen as an entry point to jihadi terrorism. But there may be wider lessons. ‘Experts are currently looking at whether an equivalent pathway exists from the Tommy Robinson far right to the neo-Nazi extreme right-wing,’ Anderson said in a Middle Temple lecture last month. 

He welcomed Khan’s counter-extremism commission and serves on its advisory board. As well as gathering evidence on the links between extremist Islamists and the banned jihadi network Al-Muhajiroun, the commission is also studying links between far-right extremists and the proscribed neo-Nazi group National Action. 

Although members of National Action have now been imprisoned, the UK’s law enforcement agencies were slow to recognise the implications of listing it as a terrorist organisation at the end of 2016. It was only in November 2018 that the task of assessing the threat from far-right organisations was transferred from the police to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which is based within MI5.

New Zealand is not the only country grappling with extremism. But deciding what role the law should play is far from easy

This posed problems, Anderson disclosed in a recent BBC interview, because police files were not compatible with security service systems. And there were practical differences between extremist groups: those on the far right were more likely to have records of domestic violence and to have an interest in weapons. But what MI5 analysts were learning about one group they could transfer to the other, deepening their understanding of both. 

Operationally, the involvement of MI5 alongside the police is already making a difference to tackling far-right terrorism, as it is now properly called. ‘They are finding similarities – perhaps more than they expected – with Islamist terrorism, in terms of how lone actors behave, radicalisation techniques, links with international groups and so on,’ Anderson said. ‘It is giving better access to surveillance techniques, to data and to analytical capability.’ 

Although it is clearly right to punish those who support or take part in terrorist acts, it is much more difficult for the law to deal with extremism – and to decide where one shades into the other. The problem is one of definition: we all think we can recognise extremism when we see it, but we find it much harder to say what it is. 

According to the government, ‘extremism is the vocal or active opposition to our shared values. These include democracy and the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance of other faiths and beliefs.’ There is a curiously specific addition to this general definition in the government’s 2015 counter-extremism strategy: ‘We also consider calling for the death of our armed forces either in the UK or overseas to be extremism.’ 

But as Anderson observed in his 2015 annual report, ‘if it becomes a function of the state to identify which individuals are engaged in, or exposed to, a broad range of “extremist activity”, it will become legitimate for the state to scrutinise (and the citizen to inform upon) the exercise of core democratic freedoms by large numbers of law-abiding people’. 

As ever, the way forward is easy to state, harder to implement. MI5 must step up its monitoring of far-right extremists while in no way diminishing its surveillance of Islamist extremists: neither justifies nor compensates for the other. 

And while the law must not tell us what to think, it should certainly punish those who turn extremist thoughts into terrorist action.