Nigel Bromage told The Independent that sentiments once associated with street movements like the English Defence League (EDL) are being spread to a wider audience by groups targeting middle-class students and professionals.
Mr Bromage, who mentors people as part of the government’s Prevent programme and runs a counter-extremism charity, has seen a change in the background of people seeking help in the past six months.
“This isn’t a working-class movement anymore,” he added. “We’ve seen a rise in people coming from middle-class backgrounds.
“They are well-educated, attended college or university and they’ve got involved in the right wing online mostly.
“The big thing now is that it could be anybody’s son or daughter who gets involved in this movement.”
He has recently worked with people from groups including the EDL and Britain First, but also newer organisations like pan-European white nationalists Generation Identity.
The group limits its own membership largely to 18 to 30-year-olds and conducts stickering campaigns and publicity stunts that are specifically aimed at universities.
As a recent blog on its UK site said: “Generation Identity has made a concerted effort to reach out to students through thought-provoking and eye-catching activism.”
Generation Identity’s activities, including study groups and handing food out to the homeless, are designed to expose a wide audience to its theory that white people are being “replaced” by ethnic minorities in Europe.
The group’s extreme call for a “Reconquista” of the continent is softened by its glossy propaganda, savvy social media presence and the carefully manicured appearance of its leaders.
Careful to maintain the image, members handed out leaflets telling attendees at a London protest earlier this year to be “well-groomed”, adding: “We want to present ourselves as an attractive and open youth movement.”
Mr Bromage said that while Generation Identity does not specifically advocate violence, its sanitised presentation of ethno-nationalism and calls for non-whites to be driven out of Europe “present a danger”.
“What a lot of these more populist organisations do is get people in who are angry and maybe have concerns about one issue,” he added.
“Once they’re involved they might get educated on other subjects and the next minute they’re feeling the host organisation doesn’t fulfil their beliefs, and then they move on to a more hardcore group.”
Another former neo-Nazi who works for Mr Bromage’s Small Steps charity said far-right extremists have “wised up to the fact they need to be more respectable”.
The man, who did not want to be named, warned at an extremism training session that groups were being emboldened by “populist politics” and exploiting public division around Brexit.
He singled out the EDL founder Tommy Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, as a key influencer through his massive Facebook following and international connections.
“What he has done is almost single-handedly rebrand the far right, remarket it and make it attractive again,” the man added. “He is radicalising a whole new generation.”
He said the focus on Muslims by Robinson and other “counter-jihaders” attracted people with terror concerns who may be put off by the overt racism and antisemitism of older groups.
Robinson has found a new platform in Ukip, whose leader Gerard Batten sparked a wave of high-profile resignations by appointing the EDL founder as an adviser and shifting the party to the right.
While the far-right British National Party and political organisation Britain First are considered a spent force, analysts are concerned their support base could be invigorated by emerging groups.
Research suggests that belief in Islamophobic myths, such as “no-go zones” is becoming widespread in the UK and that people feel tension is increasing between different political and demographic groups.
The past year has seen a step-change in the priority given to far-right extremism by the security services, with MI5 taking an intelligence lead on investigations that were previously left to police.
The Independent understands that a turning point came in the meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee that followed the Finsbury Park terror attack in June 2017.
When Theresa May asked for a security assessment of perpetrator Darren Osborne, who had ploughed a van into a Muslim crowd and killed one man, she was said to be surprised to be told MI5 had no information and he was not their responsibility.
Awareness has been growing over the link between Islamist and far-right extremism, with the head of UK counterterror policing recently warning MPs that both ideologies were “feeding each other”.
Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Neil Basu said: “We are seeing across Europe far-right activity increasing and there’s no doubt that crosses the border into the UK.”
White people have overtaken Asian suspects as the largest single ethnic group arrested on suspicion of terror offences in Britain, and the number of people referred to Prevent over suspected far-right extremism has rocketed by 36 per cent in a year.
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