Extreme belonging and insider threat: What can we learn from the case of neo-Nazi police officer Benjamin Hannam?

The Hannam case comes little over two years after a Swastika was found scrawled on a wall in a secure area of a London police station

Matt Dryden
Friday 30 April 2021 16:40
<p>‘The reasons why extremists may choose to join the police extends beyond the pursuit of identity, meaning and belonging’</p>

‘The reasons why extremists may choose to join the police extends beyond the pursuit of identity, meaning and belonging’

Benjamin Hannam, 22, has become the first UK police officer to be convicted of terrorism offences – namely membership of the proscribed far-right terrorist organisation National Action. But what social and psychological factors link Hannam’s recruitment first to a far-right terrorist group, and then the police?

I have previously written about the influence of existing social bonds on an individual’s participation in terrorist activity — including how those with friends or family already involved in a group or movement are more susceptible to becoming involved themselves.

However, the reverse of this process is also commonly observed; whereby an individual’s need for identity, meaning and belonging directly influences their participation in terrorist activity or pursuit of group membership.

The need for identity, meaning and belonging — just one of a number of “engagement factors” for terrorist involvement — is better illustrated by the concept of “unfreezing”.

This describes how individuals disconnected from relationships or other support structures become “easy prey” for a group that “offers” friendship and security — grateful for involvement and desperate for acceptance, the person becomes increasingly susceptible to new ideas and actions.

Hannam’s own account of his involvement with National Action clearly evidences his pursuit of identity, in which he recalls first being attracted to the “look and aesthetic of fascism".

Clothing – whether Nazi uniform or contemporary far-right “hate clothing” – often appeals to those with a weak or insecure sense of personal identity. This same process is likely to have influenced Hannam’s subsequent pursuit of police employment: being attracted by the uniform and the sense of collective identity it provides. 

Hannam’s pursuit of meaning is also evidenced as a reason for his terrorist involvement. He said: “The long term [reason] was the social isolation and the short term thing was 4chan … I didn’t just want to sit at home playing video games all day, I felt so lonely.” This process is better understood by the application of the “quest for significance” theory, which states that the need for personal significance (the desire to matter, to “be someone”, and to have meaning in one’s life) often influences an individual’s decision to become involved in terrorism.

It is entirely plausible that Hannam was attracted to police employment for the same reasons — seeking meaning in work described by police recruitment material as playing a vital role and making a real difference

Finally, evidencing his pursuit of belonging, Hannam declared: “At the time I was struggling to meet friends, my interests were always vastly different from everyone else’s”Dissatisfaction or disillusionment with current status can make an individual more receptive to new influences — and, when combined with the perceived social benefits of being accepted into a group — the susceptibility to becoming involved in terrorism increases significantly. The way police recruitment materials identify successful recruits as members of the “police family” likely appealed greatly to Hannam’s desire to belong. 

However, the reasons why extremists may choose to join the police extends beyond the pursuit of identity, meaning and belonging.

Hannam is believed to have remained an active member of National Action until at least three months after submitting his police application — making it unlikely that his decision to join the police represented either the cessation of National Action activity (disengagement), or the disavowal of his extremist beliefs (deradicalisation).

This, combined with the emergence of information suggesting his role in the group included recruitment activities, heightens fears that his motives for joining the police may have been to embed himself as a far-right terrorist recruiter, where he could access sensitive information and potentially even weaponry.  

The Hannam case comes little over two years after a Swastika was found scrawled on a wall in a secure area of a London police station. The individual responsible was never identified and is therefore assumed to remain at large within police ranks. Taken together, these cases raise legitimate concerns both of the presence of a wider far-right problem within policing, and that of a credible insider threat. 

This issue is not exclusive to policing. In November 2018, British army Lance Corporal Mikko Vehvilainen , 33, was jailed after using his position as an army trainer to recruit fellow soldiers, also for the proscribed far-right terrorist group, National Action. Disturbingly, messages between Vehvilainen and his co-defendant claim that his army camp contained a number of other soldiers who either shared his neo-Nazi ideology, or who were sympathetic to his beliefs.  

Though it would be disingenuous to suggest the presence of a systemic far-right “problem” within UK police or military institutions – their infiltration will undoubtedly remain a key strategic objective of extremists and terrorist groups of all stripes.

However, there is hope for rooting out those extreme-of-mind or with malintent during vetting procedures. Whether a product of ego, territoriality, or internet-culture muscle-memory; extremists often feel compelled to document their “journey” online — as the Hannam case illustrates.

And, like a modern-day Hansel and Gretel (whose forest is now the internet) extremists will always drop breadcrumbs. The authorities must follow the breadcrumbs.

Matt Dryden is an independent analyst on radicalisation and terrorism, and a former PREVENT officer and police investigator

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