Jennifer Cunningham considers the questions raised by the weekend arrest of Combat 18 members

The thugs whose gang name, Combat 18, is derived from Hitler's initials (A the first letter in the alphabet and H the eighth) have long been a source of concern to the police and the intelligence services in the UK.

The group was first identified in 1992 when it was founded by the British National Party, originally with the purpose of providing protection against anti-Nazi demonstrators, but by the following year the violent tactics were an embarrassment to the BNP which saw its first local councillor elected that year in Millwall. That effectively sealed the break and C18 adopted a more extreme Nazi ideology. It soon became a wider volatile mixture of neo-Nazi sympathisers identified and recruited from violence-inciting football hooligans, the loyalist movement, and any fringe group which shared ultra-right views.

Since then they have used both football violence and postal terrorism to spread their message of racist hate and brutal violence. That was followed by an even more sinister recruiting tactic. They created their own music scene from skinhead ''white power'' music which spawned a number of neo-Nazi rock groups, spreading sedition and hate through lyrics and music, typically at small-town concert venues. It wasn't just propaganda, however, but business which quickly became so profitable that greed became a new motive, resulting in Combat 18 splitting into bitterly warring factions as large sums of money went missing. By 1995 the CD business was estimated to be worth #100,000 a year.

That year a number of Asian families, mainly in Leicester, received racist, threatening, and abusive cards and razor blades in the post, but it was its masterminding of the riot by English football ''fans'' in Dublin in February, resulting in the friendly between England and Ireland being abandoned, which gave C18 its highest profile. They later claimed it was a protest against the Anglo-Irish peace agreement, but now appears as little more than offering the troops a bit of action while the leaders had their sights on concerted action with neo-Nazis in continental Europe and Scandinavia.

In September 1997, Mark Atkinson, a London dustman, was jailed for 21 months for possession of hundreds of copies of a C18 magazine, Stormer, for distribution, with a comment from the judge that the maximum penalty of two years was not sufficient for this type of crime.

It was one of several magazines published by Combat 18 which preach violence and death towards Jews, blacks, left-wingers, or anyone in disagreement with their views, and that issue carried details of the addresses of well-known people including the mother of boxer Frank Bruno, who was forced to move house as a result, Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, broadcaster Anna Ford, and actress Vanessa Redgrave, and the names and addresses of a number of Jewish organisations and synagogues.

In the same month a Danish court jailed three neo-Nazis, whose leader claimed to be acting under orders from William Browning of Combat 18, for attempting to send letter bombs to targets in Britain, including Olympic gold medallist Sharron Davies, whose husband, Derek Redmond, is black, boxer Frank Bruno, whose wife, Laura, is white, the British office of Anti-Fascist Action, and to a Combat 18 member with whom Browning was feuding.

Only the following year when Combat 18 leader Charlie Sargent and Martin Cross, a leading figure in the neo-Nazi music organisation Blood and Honour, were jailed for the murder of Chris Castle, a fringe member of Combat 18, did the extent of the schism emerge, and in the accounts of the ensuing power struggle the suggestion that Sargent had been an informer for MI5 and even that C18 had been deliberately set-up by the security services as a magnet for the worst elements of the BNP.

Internecine hatred was the main motive behind the Danish brigade's letter-bombs according to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, which has done most to investigate and record the activities of Combat 18 and its connections with similar groups in Europe, Scandinavia, the US, and South Africa.

As a result of the split, the breakaway faction is thought to have forged links with US Nazi groups. Neo-Nazism has produced an upsurge of racist violence in recent years across Europe and through Scandinavia, partly fuelled by its own neo-Nazi music with CDs sold by mail order and concerts arranged clandestinely but attracting 1000-strong crowds at the bigger events in Scandinavian countries until it has become a racist

sub-culture. Denmark's liberal freedom of speech laws have made

it something of a neo-Nazi haven,

to the irritation of neighbouring

Germany where Nazi tracts and paraphernalia are banned.

With the jailing of Sargent and Cross, C18 had appeared to be weakened, although it effectively left Sargent's rival, the head of the music business - referred to in court as Mr X - in sole command.

Last year a World in Action programme claimed that Charlie Sargent had been a paid informer for the

Metropolitan Police, gathering information on the Ulster Defence Association, as a result of which Special Branch officers had allowed Combat 18's racist crimes to go unpunished. Other loyalist organisations had long suspected Combat 18 members of being agents for the security services, and the Ulster Volunteer Force had previously shut down a C18 cell in East Belfast at gunpoint because they believed it to be infiltrated by MI5 and the police.

With the weekend's arrest of 15 members of the group, including two serving private soldiers, with others believed to be former soldiers, and with a further dozen men including some in the Territorial Army reportedly under investigation for neo-Nazi activity, the painful question of institutional racism raised by Sir Colin Macpherson has to be tackled with an urgency and honesty by the Ministry of Defence and the chiefs of staff as well as by the Metropolitan Police.

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