Anders Breivik: An Extremist or Terrorist?

By Arthur Hayes

Dr Robert Lambert, an academic at St Andrews University’s prestigious Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, has recently published an article in which he describes Anders Breivik as a “far right terrorist”. Lambert was previously in the globally renowned Metropolitan Police Special Branch. This proclamation by Lambert on the Breivik case raises an interesting question: aside from being a convicted criminal, would he have been labelled an extremist or terrorist if he had been British and committed his crimes in London instead of Oslo? 

One wonders whether Lambert is right. By examining open source material from the main policing, security and  prosecuting agencies, this article will examine how the extreme right wing (XRW) are defined and perceived. Crucially it will also suggest that existing definitions and perceptions need to be revised in the light of the Breivik conviction.

There have been a steady number of people who engage in political violence to support their right wing political beliefs in the UK. An August 2012 Guardian article states that  “in recent years, at least 17 individuals who committed or planned acts of violence ... and who were linked to the far right, have been imprisoned”.  

The British government openly acknowledges that while the XRW presents a genuine threat, the gravest terrorist risk to public safety still comes from al Qaeda-inspired activity. The June 2011 Prevent strategy document, published by the British government states clearly that XRW terrorism in the UK has been much less widespread, systematic or organised than terrorism associated with al Qaeda.  The same document states that eight per cent of the 1120 people that have been referred to the Channel programme …  were referred because of concerns around right-wing violent extremism.  

If we accept that the XRW does present some kind of genuine and residual violent capacity in the UK, how do the main institutional bodies charged with tackling such political violence distinguish between terrorism and domestic extremism?

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is the independent authority responsible for prosecuting criminal cases - including those related to terrorism and extremism - that have been investigated by the police in England and Wales.  The Terrorism Act 2000 provides a legal basis for defining terrorism in England and Wales. Extremism does not have a similar legal specification; however, the CPS website describes extremism as “the demonstration of unacceptable behaviour by using any means or medium to express views which: foment, justify or glorify terrorist violence in furtherance of particular beliefs; and seek to provoke others to terrorist acts”.

Lawyers therefore have a specific description of what constitutes terrorism in English and Welsh law, but things are much less clear when dealing with extremism. This lack of legal clarity on extremism presents challenges to the police services in England and Wales that are responsible for enforcing the law and protecting the public.

Although there are multiple mostly regional police services in England and Wales, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is national in scope. ACPO is in essence responsible for the operational running of the police. A sub section of the organisation called ACPO-TAM deals with terrorism and related matters. The ACPO-TAM website provides more detail about the legal position on extremism. It states, “There is no equivalent legal definition for domestic extremism. This is because the crimes committed by those considered a domestic extremist already exist in common law or statute. The term is generally used to describe the activity of individuals or groups carrying out criminal acts of direct action to further their protest campaign”.

It seems the police regard domestic extremism as being linked to direct action in furtherance of a protest campaign. Unlike with the CPS, ACPO-TAM makes no mention of unacceptable behaviour, views or terrorism. ACPO-TAM, perhaps considering the reality of policing does state that  “crime and public disorder linked to extreme left or right wing political campaigns is also considered domestic extremism”.  

The UK’s national security service MI5 has the lead in all matters of national security, including counter terrorism and domestic extremism. Its website describes its responsibilities in the domestic extremism sphere and adds that domestic extremism “generally refers to the activity of individuals or campaign groups that carry out criminal acts of direct action in furtherance of a campaign”. So according to the UK’s domestic security service the essential components to domestic extremism are that criminal acts of direct action in furtherance of a campaign must be present.

Using the CPS definition Breivik could most certainly be labelled a domestic extremist. Breivik’s murderous outrage was direct action, but was he furthering a protest campaign? I would argue that Breivik had not indulged in a previous sustained political campaign in an attempt to highlight his views, and therefore according to ACPO-TAM and the UK domestic security service could not be regarded as a domestic extremist; although I would agree with him being labelled a terrorist under English and Welsh law.

The lack of a jointly agreed clarification within the culture and mind-set of the agencies that are perhaps best placed to have an input into the world of so called domestic extremism within England and Wales is potentially problematic. It could be interpreted that domestic extremism is given lower priority than proper terrorism i.e. al Qaeda. As Lambert asserts, in the UK government and police have cast the English Defence League (EDL) as more of a public order or social cohesion problem than a counter-terrorist issue.

The suggestion that there is an implied league of threat from political violence is probably partially explained by historical tradition and decades of manipulation of terrorist violence by politicians. But Lambert is quite correct when he argues that,  “it is also necessary to tackle far right terrorism and political violence as effectively as any other kind”. Failure to do so and maintenance of the existing mind-set could cause operational seepage. It could also endanger public safety by underestimating the threat posed by those who ought to be assessed and regarded as being involved in acts of terrorism. 


Arthur Hayes is a Senior Counter-Terrorism Officer with over 20 years’ experience. He has taken part in major counter-terrorism operations and intelligence gathering against a diverse range of targets, including Irish Republicans, Middle Eastern and domestic Islamic extremists.  


16 September 2012


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