Counter-terrorism officials and the police are increasingly concerned about the development of the UK anti-vaccination movement towards violent extremism and the formation of US-style militias.
Boris Johnson is among those receiving direct security updates on individuals willing to “undermine national health security”.
The movement’s more extreme elements are recruiting and strategizing via encrypted social media messaging app Telegram, with a UK anti-vaccination channel calling for “men of integrity” who are “fighting for our children’s future”.
Anti-vaccination opponents have targeted numerous schools and recently stormed a Covid testing site. They were led by Britain’s most visible activist Piers Corbyn, who later urged people to burn down MPs’ offices supporting the new restrictions.
Health experts warn their false claims have had an impact on the vaccination programme, with England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty blaming “misinformation” for the vaccine’s hesitation.
Government organizations now mobilized to oversee the anti-vaccination movement include the Interior Ministry’s Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) and its Research, Information and Communications Unit (Ricu), which deals with public issues security, including counter-terrorism.
Also tasked with documenting the Anti-Vaxx threat is the Home Office’s Counter-Extremism Analysis and Insight (CEAI) program, whose work informs strategic and operational decisions, as does its Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU) and Counter-Disinformation Unit, which is part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Recent intelligence assessments describe the anti-vaccination movement as an alleged conveyor belt providing fresh recruits to extremist groups, including racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist organizations.
“It’s a growing problem and is being monitored at the highest level,” the Whitehall source said. “No. 10 is among those who receive the reports directly: the Prime Minister sees them in his inbox. The consensus is that we didn’t win [the disinformation war] as clean as we have to do next time.”
Of paramount importance is the UK anti-vaccination plotters going offline as UK-based group Alpha Men Assemble (AMA) organizes military training to prepare for a so-called “war” against the government and its Covid policies .
Recent posts from the AMA’s official Telegram channel, which has 7,000 subscribers, encourages members to employ anti-surveillance techniques by using “burner phones” and advises people to “communicate offline” using CB and ham radios.
Other posts the Observer has seen promise supporters that “at every AMA meeting you will learn self-defense” with “professional men” and be encouraged to “acquire.” [sic] a black uniform”.
Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think tank that studies extremism, said the AMA shared many similarities with anti-government militias in the US and it was clear they hoped to find one to create a kind of paramilitary force.
Stewart Rhodes, leader of an extremist US militia, has been charged with seditious conspiracy over the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP
Last Thursday, the leader of a US extremist militia, the oath keeper, was charged with seditious conspiracy over the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
The AMA is also openly seeking British veterans, an approach that overlaps with US militia activities. Telegram messages suggest a number of ex-service workers have already joined. One, referring to a scene from the dystopian film The Matrix, calls himself a “red pilled Veteran”. Another says: “I’m English. Ex-RAF. My mission statement was a ‘force for good’. I believed in that.”
Another group, Veterans 4 Freedom, which is said to have around 200 members, has been holding Telegram conversations relating to a violent riot that has included attacks on vaccination centers.
Milo Comerford, Head of Research and Policy at ISD, added: “Governments across Europe and North America are grappling with the growing prominence of a range of ideologically eclectic movements emerging at the nexus of Covid conspiracy and extremism.
“Traditional paradigms of counter-extremism policy are focused on threats from organized groups with clear political goals. However, these loose online conspiracy movements pose a much more “hybrid” challenge, not only to public safety but also to rights and democratic institutions.”
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which briefs UK officials on the evolving anti-vaccination threat, said: “We are seeing the convergence of anti-vaccination into other fringe movements.
“They’re adopting what they’ve learned about marketing strategies and communications as they’ve searched for new markets and how to converge their audiences and hybridize their ideologies, much like the ‘great reset’ replaced QAnon than the cohesive conspiracy narrative for fringe elements.”
Comerford cited recent data from Prevent, the UK government’s counter-extremism programme, showing that one of the UK’s fastest growing extremism challenges are “mixed, unclear and unstable” (MUU) threats, ideological drivers of extremist violence beyond the traditional categories of far-right and Islamist extremism.
Ahmed added that the prominence of figures such as Piers Corbyn at UK anti-vaxxer and anti-lockdown rallies alongside far-right supporters articulated the coming together of traditionally opposed ideologies.
Despite their attempts to quash online coronavirus disinformation, Whitehall officials are dismayed that prominent anti-vaccination activists are still being hosted and reaching out on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Telegram almost 1.5 million People. The most popular use the name of David Icke, a high-profile British conspiracy theorist who is promoting the false belief that the coronavirus is being spread through 5G.
Internationally, protests and demonstrations against corona lockdowns, so-called health passports and vaccination mandates have turned violent.
Across Europe, an anti-vaccination ecosystem has fueled real-world violence. In Italy, anti-vaccination groups have teamed up with far-right gangs to plan a bomb attack. Last month, German police foiled a conspiracy in which violent anti-vaccination extremists allegedly targeted a high-profile politician.
The Home Office has been contacted for comment.