THE TRUE STORY OF AN ANTI-FASCIST SPY WHO IDENTIFIED THE LONDON NAILBOMBER
Twenty-seven years ago this summer, a young man approached me with a quite extraordinary request. Simply put, he wanted to join the British National Party (BNP), then the UK’s most pre-eminent far-right movement, as a spy. He was a committed anti-fascist and had been active on demos and protests, but felt the best way he could fight the threat was from the inside.
Over the next decade this young man, who I’m going to call “Arthur”, operated at the heart of Britain’s far-right movements. He attended over 400 meetings, rallies and leafleting sessions, and gave us detailed reports of everyone he met, everything he saw and everything that was being planned.
And this is his story.
* * *
Back in 1994, I was working for the anti-fascist organisation Searchlight, which would later would morph into HOPE not hate. At Searchlight we specialised in running ‘sources’ inside fascist groups, but most of the people we dealt with had ‘turned’ – they had started off as fascists and nazis but over time, and for a variety of different reasons, decided what they were doing was wrong and came over to us.
What Arthur did was rare: very rare. There were others who went to the occasional far-right meeting or joined a group for a few weeks or even a few months, but to go inside for 10 years was quite remarkable. He never asked for money and was never interested in fame. In fact, one of the main reasons he doesn’t want his full name used is that he doesn’t want the embarrassment of work colleagues finding out and having to explain himself.
Arthur was in the far right during a particularly violent period. The nazi terror group Combat 18 (C18), which took the first and eighth letter of the alphabet, AH – to signify “Adolf Hitler” – was at its peak and the BNP was taking its “Rights for Whites” campaign to the doorsteps of the rapidly-changing east London. Almost every time he went out with his new nazi friends the discussion soon turned to talk of the racist violence they had committed, and the violence they wanted to commit.
Arthur travelled in cars with nazi thugs when they screamed racist abuse at Muslim or black women walking down the street. He attended house parties where his host would bring out papier-mâché moulds, made up to look like the faces of black people and filled with red paint, and then encourage his guests to stab them repeatedly. He attended meetings where the Holocaust was denied and mocked, skinhead gigs that erupted in violence, and rallies where C18 leaders would urge the audience to kill their opponents.
But Arthur was not a passive observer. He was an anti-fascist on a mission. He reported back everything he saw and armed with that information we set about undermining, destabilising and disrupting the far right. While we would write up his information in the pages of Searchlight magazine, which, in pre-internet days, was compulsory reading for every BNP member. Arthur would deliberately spread gossip, telling one person or group what another was saying in order to set off their paranoia and foment dissent. Just as importantly, he gave us a unique insight into the workings of the BNP and the types of people it attracted – something that is impossible to glean simply from reading their publications or academic articles.
There were times when we passed details of BNP meetings and activities over to anti-fascists, and their mobilisations would be cut short. Bookings would end up cancelled and fascists would literally be chased off the streets. On one occasion Arthur got caught up in these clashes and was struck on the head with a hammer wielded by an anti-fascist. On another occasion he was confronted with being “the mole”, but he stood his ground and nothing could be proved. Despite all this, and despite the real dangers he put himself in, Arthur carried on. He knew the risks, but he understood they were worth taking.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Arthur greatly contributed to the failure of the East London BNP to capitalise on its breakthrough council victory in Millwall, in September 1993. For the next few years many of the BNP’s attempts to organise were disrupted. Leafleting sessions were cut short, if they happened at all, for fear of anti-fascist resistance, and the drip-drip of information that appeared in the pages of Searchlight so undermined the BNP and created such a deep sense of paranoia that organisers came and went and entire branches collapsed.
But all that was about to be thrown into sharp relief one horrendous moment in spring 1999.
* * *
On Saturday 17 April 1999 a bomb exploded close to the tube station in Brixton, south London, injuring several people, including a young baby who had a three-inch nail embedded in her skull. A week later, another bomb exploded just off Brick Lane, in the heart of the East End and London’s Bangladeshi community.
Fear gripped the capital and many of London’s diverse communities were worried they would be next. Arthur, like many of us, suspected that the bomber was motivated by far-right ideology and helped us draw up lists of potential suspects. One of the names he jotted down was David Copeland, a young man he had met at several BNP events a couple of years before.
On the morning of Friday 30 April, the police issued a CCTV image of the man they believed was responsible for what were being called “the London nailbombings”. Arthur was at work when he saw the front page of the Evening Standard, which carried the image of a short man with a white baseball cap carrying a sports bag. Arthur looked, and looked again.
“David Copeland,” he said to himself.
Unfortunately, this identification could not stop the third, and most deadly, bomb, which went off a few hours later at the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, long-recognised as heart of the capital’s gay community. Three died, including a pregnant woman, and dozens were injured.
The following day, after Copeland had finally been arrested, Arthur attended a party at the home of one of his fellow east London BNP activists. “There was also an excitement in the air,” he was to later recall. “Some of the people there openly supporting the bombings and believing whoever had been arrested was only one member of a terrorist cell, and hoped that his comrades would attack another target that night.”
During the course of the evening there was intense speculation as to who would be targeted next, with people throwing out the names of the minorities they despised most. As the party came to close, one woman remarked sadly: “Well I’m sorry there were no more bombs tonight.”
This was the world that Arthur occupied for 10 years. A world where people uttered the most appalling racist bile and dreamed the most dreadful and violent things.
Arthur, understandably grew tired of this work and eventually called it a day and got on with his life. Years later, and a long time after we had lost touch, he reached out to me after I referenced him on a podcast about Robbie Mullen, a HOPE not hate informant within the proscribed terror group National Action; Robbie had bravely helped expose a plot by National Action’s former spokesperson to kill a Labour MP. While Arthur was grateful for the mention, he wanted to tell me that I was wrong to compare him to Robbie, feeling what Robbie had done was so much more courageous than anything he had attempted.
Twenty-seven years after Arthur walked into the coffee lounge at the then named Sherlock Holmes hotel, in London’s Baker Street, he remains as humble now as ever. This month he is featuring in a new Netflix documentary detailing the hunt for the London nailbomber. Now, he is finally emerging from the shadows to tell his story.
In preparation for the airing of the Netflix show, Arthur was interviewed by a national newspaper. Asked whether he considered himself a hero, he replied:
“I would like to describe myself as an anti-fascist, I started out as an activist with the Anti-Nazi League leafletting and canvassing against the British National Party and the National Front. Briefly I was involved with Anti-Fascist Action, who were a more militant group. Then it all turned ‘secret squirrel’ with me joining the BNP and pretending to hate black and Asian people and to believe that the Zionists ruled the World, so that I could gain the trust of these men and women and obtain information. But at the end of the day, I see myself as being an anti-fascist.
“As it happens, I’ve known nurses who helped care for the victims of both the Admiral Duncan bombing and the Manchester Arena bombing. I would say that they and their colleagues are the heroes and heroines, men and women dealing with the consequence of stupid, futile violence every day. Also, the people who were left injured or traumatised by David’s bomb in Soho or by the other idiot at the Ariana Grande concert, who have refused to let what happened destroy them, they are heroes too.”
Codename Arthur is a reminder of the dangers of the far right, the violence they enact, the world they would like to create and – given half a chance – the mayhem and terrorism many would like to cause. Just as importantly though, it is a tribute to Arthur and everything he accomplished over so many years for the cause of anti-fascism. By going undercover inside the BNP, Arthur helped disrupt them and this set them back many years in the capital. And, throughout it all, his bravery, humour and humility shone through.
Arthur is a total anti-fascist hero and this book is a tribute to him and the other people who continue to put themselves in harms way to record and expose the far right.