Behind enemy lines

For 33 years, Gerry Gable has been a spymaster, working not against a foreign power but for the cause of anti-Fascism in Britain. Searchlight, the magazine he edits, recruits men and women, including his own wife, to infiltrate neo-Nazi groups such as Combat 18. Ken Hyder tells the story of a secret war. Photographs by David Hoffman

Ken Hyder
Saturday 22 February 1997 00:02 GMT

It's a quiet Sunday, and the lads are having an afternoon drink in a pub in Bethnal Green, in London's East End. They have an arrangement with the landlord that once the locals drift off, he locks them in and they can get down to serious business.They are a mean-looking bunch. Close- cropped, tattooed, aged between 20 and 40, they are the hard men of Britain's most notorious and brutal neo-Nazi group, Combat 18, whose name comes from the position of Hitler's initials in the alphabet.

Tim Grant fits right in. But then he has to - his very life depends on it. He is 40 years old, an ex-squaddie who knows how to handle himself, but maybe not against 80 Nazi thugs, were they to find out who he really is.

He listens to the banter about sorting out niggers and queers, making a mental note of anything that sounds specific. He is not interested in the drug-dealing going on in the corner, but when he hears mention of guns, he feels a tightening in his guts and has to concentrate on appearing casual.

Grant (not his real name) has done seven years in the army, but going undercover among Combat 18 activists is the most dangerous mission he has ever undertaken. If he is discovered, he knows that it will be more than a bloody nose; it will be a full knee-capping treatment at least - possibly a lot, lot worse. Many of the activists are Loyalist supporters, and he knows that some of them have done time for running guns to the UDA and the UVF.

Later in the afternoon, a man arrives in a van with the latest issue of Combat 18's magazine, straight from a Sussex printers. As the magazines are passed around, with their boastful articles about attacks and hit lists, half a dozen of the heavies discuss a plan to attack a pub in Camden where a band with an anti-racist following is due to play.

Through all this, Grant sits quietly. He recalls an earlier punch-up involving another band at a gig in King's Cross that ended with fans being treated in hospital. He puts on a show of enthusiasm, drinking and joking, but knows he has to speak to his controlling intelligence officer as soon as possible.

So the next day, in a cafe in Soho, Grant meets a man called Gerry Gable, orders a double espresso and tells him about the planned punch-up. Gable is pleased. Thirty years' experience running agents inside Britain's far- right political parties has paid off again. A phone call to the licensee of the pub and to the police, and another potentially violent confrontation is averted.

Gerry Gable is not an MI5 intelligence officer, nor does he work for the Special Branch. He masterminds an alternative spy operation: he edits the anti-Fascist magazine Searchlight, which is not only a magazine for anti-racists, but also required reading for the far right. It's where members of the British National Party catch up on the dirt about their rivals in other far-right groups, and also what's really going on within their own party. It aims to bring the activities of the far right to the attention of the public and the police, and it plays a part in disrupting Nazi events such as rallies and skinhead gigs.

The people at Searchlight believe that their work is more important now than ever. The far right has largely abandoned the demo and the ballot box, and instead has formed itself into cells committed to targeted violence. They compile their own hit lists of individuals.

What makes Searchlight so authoritative is its experience, its remarkable files of 30,000 named individuals, and its thousands of photographs of neo-Nazis collected over the past 35 years. That intelligence has been accumulated through the work of agents brave enough to risk the kind of baseball-bat treatment meted out to Asians and blacks. Each agent then passes on information to one of several handlers, chief of whom is the 60-year-old Gable.

There are satisfactions in this, but also dangers. Gable's whitewashed semi in a London suburb may look like thousands of others, but he has a direct line to the local police station, and in the porch is a small, infrared closed-circuit TV camera. Gerry and his wife Sonia are used to living under siege and to receiving hate-mail. Three or four letters a week threaten to burn his house down. One card, sent from Auschwitz, said: "Wish you were here." He gets around 30 abusive phone calls each week, including threats from Combat 18 whenever England are playing football away from home.

This is what his life is like. One morning, the Gables were clearing away the breakfast dishes and sitting down to open their mail when he felt a tingling sensation in his fingertips. Instantly, he knew the cause. It was the acid accelerant in the letter bomb he was holding. Very carefully, he put it down on the kitchen table, then he ushered Sonia out to the next room, where she phoned the police.

The bomb squad raced to the Gables' home and disarmed the packet. Gable said later: "They told me that if it had gone off, it would have turned the kitchen into a fireball, and we would probably have lost the baby Sonia was expecting in six weeks, because of the shock." Before any details of the bomb attempt appeared in the press, Searchlight moles inside Combat 18 heard a group of the leaders discussing the incident.

Gable says that the paranoia within C18 about being infiltrated is enormous, and consequently makes agents very vulnerable. After Searchlight collaborated on a number of TV documentaries exposing C18 members, several people thought to be their moles were beaten up - "the wrong people," he adds, "although at least one of the victims was working for the Special Branch."

Gable first became associated with Searchlight in 1963, but his commitment to fighting racism goes back further, to an incident at Easter in 1947, when he was 10 years old. His father was Christian, and although his mother was Jewish he didn't come from a strongly religious home. "But I had dark skin, and I think I looked Jewish." A schoolmaster at his Hackney primary school, a supporter of Oswald Mosley, told the class: "Easter is not just about Easter bunnies and eggs.It's a time when we remember that Jesus Christ was crucified by Jews. You're Jewish, aren't you Gable?" After school, Gable was chased home by classmates and stoned.

When he left school, he decided to get into journalism and became a tape- room boy at the Daily Worker. In the early Sixties, neo-Nazis became more open in their activities, and the anti-Fascists organised in reaction. Gable joined a group, including Conservatives, which set up Searchlight. Because it had very little money to pay staff, everyone was encouraged to do something on the side. For Gable, that meant a move into television, freelancing as a researcher for programmes such as World in Action. Eventually, he took a full-time job on The London Programme, still working for Searchlight in his spare time.

He and other handlers have picked up techniques by reading wartime espionage books and FBI training manuals.If you look at any Searchlight magazine, you'll see cryptic messages such as "Motorman - please contact us by usual channels. Your safety is in danger if you do not make urgent contact. We will take steps to secure your safety. Don't go to any meetings with your former friends without contacting us first."

It's just like the British wartime messages broadcast to the Resistance in occupied Europe, says Gable. "So we use coded messages. An agent will be given a safe number to ring in emergencies." A more usual route for communication might be for the agent to go to a certain place - maybe a cafe - and leave or pick up an envelope. "He or she will have to give a password to identify themselves. That's how we get most of our sensitive information - such as membership lists of far-right groups."

Many would have got out after five years or so, but Gable sticks with it. He was first married as a teenager and now has a large family of six children, including two-year-old Josh, and seven grandchildren. His partner for the past 17 years, 44-year-old Sonia, supports his work uncomplainingly. But then her own background is touched by anti-Semitism. Her father, a Czech Jew, escaped to Britain in 1939, just one step ahead of the Gestapo squad who were searching for him in Prague. In Britain he joined the army, and as a commissioned officer was recruited into the Special Operations Executive. He posed as a Nazi businessman in neutral Turkey. When she became a student at Imperial College in London, Sonia went to Searchlight to volunteer. She became one of Gable's agents, joining the National Front and the League of St George.

Because she spoke several languages, she was able to help translate correspondence between the League and foreign terrorists. An MI5 agent, also in the League, tried to persuade Sonia to work for them, but she stuck with Searchlight. After half a dozen years, however, some League members became suspicious. "She was introduced to a shadowy figure at a meeting. He was the hit man being shown who the target was. It was rather like a Mafia kiss of death. "Sonia wanted to stay and face them out," says her husband. "But it was too dangerous and I insisted she come out." Now she works more openly for Searchlight.

Shortly after that, they got married. But even with an understanding wife, 30 years is a long time to be one of the main targets of Nazi boot boys. Gable says he sticks with it because he wants to make some contribution to society, but he also admits to enjoying the intrigue and the intellectual challenge of running agents - and, you suspect, beating the Special Branch at its own spying game.

A lot of information comes from the far right itself. Just as drugs squad detectives hear from dealers grassing on other dealers, the far right is split by constantly changing rivalries. At the moment, there is violence between the British National Party and Combat 18, which was set up as the BNP's boot-boy wing but then fell out with the BNP, which said it was giving them a bad name. C18 claimed the BNP had gone soft, trying to woo voters by appearing respectable. It is common for members of a faction to ring up Gable and dish the dirt on political rivals - sometimes for money, which Searchlight pays up, but often for free.

Since they often get precise details of Nazi meetings before rank-and- file members, Searchlight gets calls from the Special Branch, especially outside London. In Germany, Graeme Atkinson runs the European network, with volunteers in most countries. This allows them to follow the international activities of British Nazis.

Their most successful spy was Ray Hill, who joined Colin Jordan's National Socialist Movement in the Sixties. He became a local organiser in the Midlands and rapidly rose to national prominence; in fact, he became deputy leader of its successor, the British Movement. In his book, The Other Face of Terror, Hill described what it was like being a spy in a Nazi party. He wrote: "You begin to understand the deep and lasting relationship which, at any rate according to the books, develops between a `spy' and his or her controller.

"There are times when you feel you might go crazy if you did not have one person in the world with whom you could talk freely of your true feelings without having to watch every word or be constantly on guard against letting slip the odd remark that would bury you."

Hill regularly fed Searchlight with high-grade intelligence from deep inside the Nazi hierarchy. Among his coups, he foiled a plot to bomb the Notting Hill Carnival and use snipers on roofs overlooking the route. They would open fire after the bomb exploded, and people in the street would think they were being fired on by police.

The other category of spy is the committed anti-Fascist who volunteers to go underground. Often, it's just for one meeting, to sit at the back of a hall and observe; for larger purposes, the agent is trained in deep cover. "The thing to guard against is getting too keen," says Gable."We don't want them to be too enthusiastic and get noticed for it. It's better if they merge into the mainstream."

Once inside, spies make themselves useful. In voluntary groups such as political parties, people who do the donkey-work - being membership secretary, or a part-time office worker - become invaluable. It's the technique that MI5 agent Harry Newton deployed to devastating effect within CND. Like MI5, Searchlight recruits agents at universities, using spotters - often lecturers - to tip off the office about likely students. Then someone is sent to approach them. If they are doing a history course, they may be encouraged to make contact with revisionist historians, or they may just join one of the university's right-wing associations.

One of the difficulties these agents face is what to do when the targets are running riot. Gable's guidelines to keep them out of trouble emphasise that it's best not to be on the spot when violence takes place, but that's not always avoidable.

In September 1993, Brian Fleming, as he called himself, was doing well in a Midlands branch of the BNP. He was 25, big and close-cropped. There had been a lot of run-ins with anti-racist demonstrators in London's East End, where BNP newspaper-sellers gathered every Sunday. His mob travelled south to show their strength and support.

"On the minibus," he says, "we were all singing and working ourselves up into a frenzy. It was my first real action. They were a mean lot, and I started to worry about what they would do if they found out who I really was. As it happened, I got beaten up by my own side. We were standing in line in Brick Lane when a bunch of anti-racists stormed through the police lines. They got to me and stuck the boot in. I got a black eye and a bruised side before the BNP boys managed to rescue me." On the same day, a Nazi colleague named Simon Biggs slashed a young black man with a broken bottle. He was later jailed for four years.

Gable says the Fascist threat is stronger now than at any time in the past 30 years. When the National Front was formed in 1967, it had 4,000 members, but by the early Seventies it had risen to 17,500. Now there are only around 3000 far-right activists, half of in the C18/National Socialist Alliance. But at the forthcoming general election, the BNP - assisted by a huge donation from an American source - will be trying to field 50 candidates, which would give them the right to a party political broadcast.

"Failure in this election would encourage a more violent route in future," he warns."One of the most sinister developments in the past five years has been another American import - `leaderless resistance'. They are organised into underground cells, suited for what they regard as a revolutionary resistance against British democracy. They are proud to be Nazis. They think of themselves as being behind the enemy lines in a country run by what they call the `Zionist Occupation Government' - or Zog for short.The C18/National Socialist Alliance is not a membership organisation. They don't want to get caught by being members of a group. Instead, they form small cells and go about their business."

People on hit lists have been attacked in the street or fire-bombed in London, Leeds, Derby and South Wales. The latest focus of attack has been mixed-race couples. In October 1993, three BNP supporters saw Kenneth Harris in an Ilford garage forecourt. Harris, who is black, was with his white girlfriend. Laurie Ridley, Vincent Ribbans and Edward Duggan attacked him and drove over him in his own car. Ridley was jailed for five years, and the others for three years each, but the Attorney General appealed against the leniency of the sentences and each got another two years.

By having agents deep inside C18, Searchlight was able to monitor their moves to control football violence. Between autumn 1992 and summer1993, C18 leaders held a number of meetings with football hooligan gangs, including Chelsea Headhunters, Arsenal Gooners and gangs linked with Millwall, Oxford and Reading. In August 1994, after an attack on an anti-racist meeting of Chelsea supporters at the Finborough Arms, four people were taken to hospital. Later, a C18 magazine boasted: "These scumbags really got a taste of White Power as they were systematically smashed with tables, cut with beer glasses, and basically kicked to fuck."

C18 hard men carried out the attack while Chelsea Headhunters stood guard on the doors. When the C18 hit squad left, the Headhunters stopped anyone following. One of those injured was Ross Fraser. He was later followed by C18 to a Chelsea away game in Prague, where they lunged at him with a chisel. C18 referred to the incident as "a failed assassination attempt".

Searchlight intelligence on the planned disruption of the Dublin international a year ago was passed on to police officers at the National Criminal Intelligence Service. Gable does not believe more legislation is needed: "Judges do have the power to give these people a strong sentence for racist attacks. But the Attorney General - whose permission is needed for prosecutions on race-hate material - should adopt a more vigorous stance. He's far too inclined to let race-hate pamphleteers off the hook."

The far right are also using the hi-tech superhighway, not only disseminating propaganda via the Internet, but also communicating with other terrorist cells using encrypted messages. Their communications are coded in stages. Crack the first code and you get race-hate material. The next stage gives you the international hit lists of individuals worthy of attack. The final level will open the door to more specific e-mail messages between cells.

"We haven't gone all the way yet, but I think that the National Security Agency in the USA probably has," Gable admits. "And this is just one of the reasons why we must continue to be vigilant and monitor the activities of these people. There may be fewer Nazis operating in the open now, but those who are active are more determined and more resourceful than ever"

Spymaster: each week, Searchlight's Gerry Gable (above) gets around 30 abusive phone calls from neo-Nazis like the BNP members who gathered in Mile End (right), east London, after marching through a largely Bengali area in the run-up to the local elections in 1990

Infiltrating: racist rally (right), Smithfield, London 1981. Ray Hill (with white sweater) became deputy leader of the British Movement while working as a mole for SearchlightHate males: BNP and Combat 18 associate Simon Biggs (top); Eddie Whicker (above centre), part of a C18 bodyguard to a Derry Apprentice Boys' march in London in April 1995 Boot boys: National Front rally in Fulham, west London, on the day racists planned to bomb the 1981 Notting Hill carnival

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in