Combat 18 and the State: Part One

Introduction

The aim of this short article is to try and shed a bit more light on the question of Combat 18 and the involvement of the state. Any topic like this is, by necessity, going to require a significant amount of speculation. (MI5 are hardly forthcoming about their activities after all). But I’ve tried to keep that speculation sober and careful. Still though, any article like this should be treated with caution, regardless of who’s writing it.

Combat 18

It’s assumed that most people reading this have an understanding of who Combat 18 are. But in brief, they’re a (now largely defunct in my view) group of supposed Nazi hard men. Originally a BNP stewarding group founded in 1992, to protect the BNP from attacks from their antifascist opponents, they were quickly proscribed by the BNP leader John Tyndall in 1993. This followed C18 attacking senior members of the BNP Tony Lecomber and Eddie Butler earlier in the year.

The group’s name is a reference to the initials of Adolf Hitler, AH.

This article only looks at the original British group; I am not qualified to talk about their Canadian, German etc. affiliates. Although I briefly touch on the latter when relevant.

Combat 18: Myth versus Reality

The media portrayal of Combat 18 is well known. A group of Nazi paramilitaries, unstoppable and terrifying. We still see that today in the rather breathless Wikipedia entry on the group.

Combat 18 members have been suspected of being involved in the deaths of numerous immigrants, non-whites, a German politician and other C18 members.

The weasel words “suspected” do a lot of heavy lifting here. The involvement in C18 members in murdering each other is confirmed and I shall return to that later. The murder of the German politician Walter Lübcke is also definite, although this is 2019 so far later than the period we’re looking at. And there seems to be some confusion around exactly how involved the murderer Stephan Ernst was in Combat 18. He is said to have “links”, which could mean anything from active membership to C18 literature. But he is also said to have links with the AFD and NPD. For now, I would assume that Ernst was an individual actor who was part of the German far right mileiu in general, although I reserve the right to modify that if more information comes to light.

Interestingly, one reason it is hard to check these claims is that the BBC article linked to in the Wiki article does not mention them at all.

The view of militant anti fascists on the ground at the time is rather different. While willing to attack some soft targets like SWP paper sellers or elderly immigrants (and the nastiness of these attacks should not be dismissed), Combat 18 were not seen as particuarly terrifying by Anti Fascist Action. In fact, they were quickly christened Combat 16 (Combat Arthur Fowler) because of the gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

In the words of AFA’s house organ Fighting Talk (issue 16, March 1997)

Notwithstanding the fact that the C18 group came into existence as a direct result of an AFA offensive against the BNP in the early 1990s, it is recognised in militant anti-fascist circles that they are essentially a propaganda group who have done very little. Instead they choose to rely for their public notoriety on the media. Their celebrity is not as a result of them being “talented self-propagandists”. The reality is that the media are spoon fed all the ‘sexy’ stories by the same organisation, who on the back of the hysteria generated (still) hope to goad/ manipulate the security services and courts into proscribing the group.

It is a simple statement of fact that when Combat 18 came up against Anti Fascist Action or major Anti Fascist Action component Red Action C18 invariably got the worse of the clashes. When faced with a competent physical opposition, they simply didn’t live up to the hype.

The Combat 18 letterbomb campaign of the 1996 New Year should be understood in this context. In my view, it was a sign of frustration and impotence from C18, not the sign of a Nazi group with high morale. Still, this particular incident is relevant and I shall return to it.

Combat 18 and the State

This is what I will be focusing on for the body of the article. There were and are consistent allegations that Combat 18 had state links from all sides of the political spectrum.

I shall look at some of these allegations, but it’s worth remembering some terminology issues.

This is obviously especially pertinent in this time of the Spycops inquiry but that framework only gives us a small amount of the full picture.

The inquiry itself seems to be omitting things you’d expect to be there. We are expected to believe that the Troops Out Movement was of interest to the state (which it obviously was) but only Mark Jenner was deployed to take an active interest in Red Action. This despite Red Action’s overt support for the IRA, including one of its members being convicted of bombing Harrods on behalf of the IRA! This is obviously entirely unbelievable.

It’s also worth remembering that the inquiry only covers police officers. Informants, paid or otherwise, are not covered. And that is the meat of a lot of the allegations about Combat 18.

Finally and importantly, it doesn’t even begin to look at what MI5 were up to in the same period. It would have largely been MI5 at the time; although it is possible that MI6 had an interest in Combat 18’s links with Northern Ireland loyalists and other international dimensions.

Fascist Allegations Against Combat 18

The far right were accusing Combat 18 of having state links from very early on. In 1995 an anonymous far right pamphlet attacking Combat 18 was put out. In it was a very interesting question about main C18 men the Sargent Brothers:

whether Charlie and Steve Sargent are MI5 agents or just poisonous shit-stirrers and completely fucking stupid can be argued about

Nick Griffin of the BNP also made similar allegations. Specifically in his trial for inciting racial hatred in 1998 (where he was found guilty) he contrasted the action against him with the lack of meaningful action against Combat 18 for articles of a much more violent nature. While it goes without saying that Griffin is our enemy, this would still seem to be a very strong point.

Anti Fascist Allegations Against Combat 18

Anti Fascist Action also raised the possibility of MI5 links (Fighting Talk, March 1997)

It is possible that C18 was set up by British Intelligence as a ‘honey trap’ -to attract and identify the potentially most violent fascists and monitor their links with similar Nazi ‘terror’ groups around the world. It is also true that since the end of the Cold War MI5 are keen to identify ‘terrorist’ threats to maintain -and expand- their influence

By 2001 their view had firmed up somewhat (Fighting Talk, May 2001) stating:

It is likely that C18, from its inception, was a honey trap for extremist elements active in the fascist movement and that the State had assets at leadership level in the organisation, Steve Sargent in particular. The security services would have built a profile of the organisation, including any split offs like the NSM, and an assessment of their potential for employing political violence in Britain.

C18 were not kept on a tight leash. Action was taken with regards to racist material produced by the organisation, possibly as a result of heavy lobbying. However, C18 were allowed to publish extremist material including hit lists and bomb making instructions without any sanction being applied by the State. Was this part of the honey trap?

Press Allegations Against Combat 18

Somewhat unusually for this kind of issue, allegations of Special Branch (although not MI5!) involvement in Combat 18 has made it into the mainstream press.

An early example was in the World in Action documentary “The Terror Squad” (April 1993). While the details given are thin, drawing entirely on the word of a serving anonymous police officer, the documentary explicitly claims that Charlie Sargent is a police informer.

An Observer article by Henry Macdonald (5th April 1998) goes into far more detail with its allegations. It suggests that Sargent was not only an informer, but one that got paid for his work and that there was a deliberate policy to leave their crimes unpunished. It goes onto suggest that the reason for this was to gather intelligence for Special Branch on the Ulster Defence Association.

Searchlight Allegations Against Combat 18

Serious caution is urged here. While nominally an anti fascist magazine, Searchlight are known to have state links of their own, including their publisher Gerry Gable directly providing information on leftists to the security services. See Lobster 24 for evidence, including the full text of the infamous “Gable memorandum”. However, the other side of this is that in can be assumed that Searchlight are “in the know” about MI5 attitudes, so this is very notable:

The reasons for MI5 wanting to establish a “honey trap” on the far right are understandable and possibly justifiable at the time Combat 18 were created. Stella Rimington had just taken over as Director of MI5. With the job came the responsibility for watching Ulster Loyalist paramilitaries, in mainland Britain, whom Special Branch had neglected in recent years. It was in these years that sections of the Loyalist UDA and UVF, and their respective killer squads, had started to cooperate with fascists in Britain. Clearly MI5 needed to know the extent of such joint operations. So Combat 18 came into existence.

(Searchlight, April 1995)

This needs careful handling to take Searchlight’s agenda into account. Seasoned state watchers will notice the implicit criticism of Special Branch, playing into the traditional rivalry between them and MI5. I would surmise that there is at least an element of truth here, in that it outlines a definite MI5 interest in C18 and their reasons and justifications why. What I think is less trustworthy is the lack of any real criticism of MI5 strategy here, or examination of what they were willing to let MI5 get away with.

A look at some leading Combat 18 players

As you can see, the allegations of state involvement in Combat 18 have been numerous and come from many different, even opposing quarters. To try and look at the plausibility of these allegations, I’m going to look more closely at three major figures in Combat 18. The aforementioned Charlie Sargent, Sargent’s rival for Combat 18’s leadership Wilf Browning and the American Nazi Harold Covington, who was heavily involved in the setting up of Combat 18.

Charlie Sargent

Many of the allegations here have already been aired, but there’s one important jigsaw piece to add.

In reference to the court case, the Combat 18 Bulletin #44 (produced by the Browning faction) has this interesting detail to add.

Detective Inspector Tony Parr told the jury that Sargent’s court statement amounted to 200 pages! We only have access to his first 16 page statement and his second 7 page statement. Parr then went on to say that only 60 of the 200 pages were relevant to this case and the rest were about ‘other matters’. The Fat Grass! What’s in them?

We should of course remember that Browning has motivation to discredit Sargent, considering the power struggle for control of C18. But it’s still a rather damning question.

Wilf Browning

However, Wilf Browning has similar questions surrounding him. The first is a simple case of the “dog that didn’t bark”. Browning was the man behind the C18 magazine Strikeforce and it’s a remarkable document for all the wrong reasons. Browning openly praises and advocates bombing campaigns and even prints bomb making instructions! And yet I cannot find any evidence of even a cautionary slap on the wrist from the police, let alone the conspiracy and terrorism charges this surely invites. Why was Browning seemingly immune to criminal charges for this?

This would be big on its own, but Anti Fascist Action provide evidence that Browning was providing information to Searchlight Magazine at the very least. According to AFA (Fighting Talk 22, October 1999):

In Drowning Browning, a document produced by the Sargent camp, a Machiavellian plot unfolds, a story of double-cross and double double-cross. The story goes that Browning made contact with Searchlight to feed them disinformation, in a sanctioned operation. However it seems he may have been working to his own agenda, using his contact with Gerry Gable to undermine Charlie’s gaffership and enhance his own political profile.

Detail is given with regard to Browning’s code names, money changing hands, meetings with Gerry Gable etc. As we all know, the Devil mixes lies with truth and to separate the two out when reading through this material would be an impossible task. However one detail in the story rang a few bells in AFA’s collective memory. We are told that the venue for meetings between Wilf and Gerry was a hotel behind Euston Station. This provides some credibility for the story. Once upon a long time ago, AFA personnel would meet with Searchlight in order to exchange information. The venue; a quiet little hotel behind Euston Station. Needless to say, those arrangements have not been in place for some time.

This is circumstantial evidence, but it’s strong circumstantial evidence. I will not even pretend to be unbiased (as an ex member of AFA), but probably points towards them telling the truth here. It’s a simple matter of logic. Browning has strong motivation to avoid his dealings with Gable coming to light. Gable has motivation to keep it quiet as well, even if simply to avoid damaging Searchlight’s operational capacity. I cannot think of any reason why AFA would lie about this.

Harold Covington

One of the more notorious figures in the American Nazi movement, the now happily deceased Covington was involved in the early setting up of C18, while he was living in the UK. Covington should certainly be of interest to the state at least. In 1979, five anti fascist demonstrators were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party in what became known as the Greensboro Massacre. While Covington was not personally involved in the massacre his group were in attendance on his orders and he defended the actions of the killers.

Notably, there was a widespread belief on the American fascist right that Covington was a FBI informant, although solid details are difficult to come by. Further evidence there is welcome.

Conclusion the First

With the evidence we have available, I think we are safe to say that Combat 18 were infiltrated by the state at the highest levels. Special Branch involvement seems definite, MI5 involvement seems to be very probable. The only thing I’m not convinced of is that this was anything as official as a “honeytrap” from the start, although it may quickly have developed into one.

The evidence for Sargent being an informer, probably paid, seems overwhelming. Browning seems almost as likely; the evidence from AFA is crucial and brings up the question who else Browning was talking to. On Covington, I don’t think we currently have the evidence to know that he was working with the state. Even if he wasn’t that hardly gets MI5 or Special Branch off the hook as I will outline.

It also seems to be certain that the Guardian article by Stuart Millar (April 27, 1999) that suggests that “the group’s leadership are so closely monitored that there is little they can do without it coming to the attention of the authorities” is accurate.

This of course raises an important question and one the second part of the article focuses on. If this is the case (and it seems to be), what exactly did MI5 and/or Special Branch know about what C18 were getting up to. And best, it seems that they turned a blind eye, at worst that they actively encouraged it. With that in mind, I shall now move onto some of the more notable interests in C18’s history in Part 2.

  1. May 24th, 2021

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