Every era, and every region, has its own defining image of terror. In the 1970s, the word “terrorist” would conjure a mental picture of the angry young men of the IRA. Ask the woman on the Clapham omnibus what is meant by terror today and most will describe a young man of Middle Eastern or North African descent, alienated economically or socially from modern British life and embroiled in the dangerous ideology of radical Islamism. In short: a jihadi.

That image is wrong. Police figures show that white people have already overtaken Asian suspects as the single largest ethnic group arrested on suspicion of terror offences in Britain. The number of people referred to the government’s anti-radicalisation Prevent programme for far-right extremism has risen by more than a third in just one year.

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Now a former neo-Nazi has told The Independent that right-wing extremists in the UK are “wising up to the fact that they need to be more respectable” and attract the support of the middle classes. He warns they are targeting students and young professionals, preying on their fears over terrorism and Brexit.

His warning should be well heeded, but his concerns are not entirely new. The far right is already achieving a socioeconomic expansion of its ideology in two ways.

First, political groups such as Britain First have employed a savvy social media strategy, attracting followers by writing about topics close to the hearts of many people across all classes yet entirely unrelated to their ultimate political cause. A picture of a malnourished puppy with words such as “share this if you believe nobody in Britain should be able to get away with this” is an easy win – and it hooks naive web users in, only to be later exposed to other messages more troubling in their nature. Many of those sharing Britain First memes on Facebook would be unaware that the leader and deputy leader, Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, have been jailed for hate crimes.

Second, the far right is making good use of the popularity of the YouTube commentariat which, under the guise of traditional libertarianism, is using the freedom of online platforms to “say the unsayable”. This is attracting a huge audience which feels that modern party politics is no longer speaking to them.

The repertoire of these far-right YouTubers covers everything from anger at the power of “political elites” to dangers of feminism running against the “biological basis” of behavioural gender difference (science, of course, suggests there is no such thing). Much of it is the modern equivalent of racial supremacy and eugenics.

Figures such as the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson have lent this online movement a veneer of intellectual respectability, which is more appealing than the hooliganism of the English Defence League.

What is perhaps most troubling is the way this new movement is targeting ambitious and clever young people with so much potential to contribute positively to our society and economy. Youth and disaffection are a dangerous combination, especially where there is a sense of intellectual or ideological superiority. That is how religious extremism works, and political extremism tugs at the same inner insecurities.

As the head of UK counterterror has already made clear, far-right and Islamist extremism feed into one another.

Until now, it has been rather comforting to consider the right-wing rantings of Twitter’s keyboard bashers as nothing more than swivel-eyed lunacy. The threat from far-right extremism is no longer a matter of amusement. The intelligence and police services have responded meaningfully to the threat, but there is also an onus upon the liberal and moderate minded to highlight extreme viewpoints where they are heard and alert those who may fall victim to the clever tactics being used to corral their allegiances.

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