The far-Right can be funny, in their way. Julia Ebner remembers when she pretended to be one of them. The first time she attended a meeting, it was in Mayfair, at a little pub called Ye Grapes. As she walked into the back room, the group were chatting about holidays in Hungary (I only give my money to free nations) and having to hide their political views (You get fired here if youre a Nazi). The food at Ye Grapes is Thai.
There were so many surreal moments, Ebner says about the two years she spent undercover, infiltrating a range of extremist movements both online and in the flesh. It was hard, because I would sometimes think they were joking, but they were serious about things where it seemed too absurd to be true.
Ebner has written about her experiences in a new book, Going Dark. By day, she works at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, an anti-extremism think-tank. By night, she was doing what she calls completely separate work. (As she puts it in the book: During my working hours I was the cat, but in my spare time I joined the mice.)
The ironies, she found, were exquisite. After the Mayfair event, Generation Identity invited her to a meeting in Brixton, not an area known for hostility to multicultural life. (They holed up in an Airbnb.) Over coffee in Vienna with their regional leader, Edwin Hintsteiner, she raised suspicions by asking for soy milk only to learn that at a party that night, the far-Right Freedom Party of Austria would be serving Club-Mate, a trendy energy drink from Berlin.
Online, where the absurdities of conspiracy theories such as QAnon or Pizzagate hold sway, the hypocrisycould be similarly complex. For example, Ebner says, take the vetting procedures in some of the neo-Nazi channels. You have to submit a genetic test. But people come back of course! with results showing a small percentage of non-white background. Which opens up a discussion about the Jews controlling them.
Ebner wasnt trained to enter these spheres. Her work was unsanctioned by the ISD. She was moving in the domain of intelligence officers or investigative journalists, who spend years learning how to work in the field. There are moments in the book, she admits, where you can tell that Im a complete amateur. That I didnt go through any kind of MI5 training, or any investigative journalism training.
And there were definitely moments where I thought: Maybe Ive gone too far, maybe I shouldnt have come here. At one point at the Brixton meeting, she drops a bank card that bears her real name. By chance, the woman who hands it back doesnt look at it. These are not mistakes that a professional would likely make.
I did have an exit plan for all the events I went to, Ebner says. In my phone, I had people who were prepared to come to the Airbnb in Brixton if something happened. In that case, she wasnt scared. With Generation Identity, I knew that their reputations would be at stake, so they wouldnt do anything.
Not all her investigations felt so safe. In the German town of Ostritz, for instance, Ebner attended Schild & Schwert (Shield and Sword), a neo-Nazi rock festival held on Hitlers birthday, April 20.
There, she recalls, I knew that some people had criminal records. Everyone was checked by the police on entering. And these people could potentially use violence. Once again, her faade had cracks. She wore black Adidas trainers, but New Balance is the alt-Right fashion; she didnt know how to dance to neo-Nazi hardcore rock. This time, it would have been harder to laugh and walk away.
I thought: OK, in the worst-case scenario, Im going to take a punch. I didnt think anyone was going to kill me, even if they found out who I was. But taking a punch was something that I mentally prepared for.
Before long, one neo-Nazi accosted her and refused to leave her alone. She pretended to be 23, and feigned what she calls a bogus naivety but he was bemused by her lack of knowledge. She didnt know, for example, about how Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev sold out the German race. This time she needed her exit plan someone waiting outside with a car and had to escape.
Going Dark is impressive in moments like this, when Ebner is less offended or angry than disappointed in those she meets. Even her harasser is portrayed as he was: calmly described, no caricature. This, she says, was a conscious choice.
Its counterproductive to denounce them as individuals. We can denounce the ideologies, or conspiracy theories. But it doesnt help with getting people back from the radical fringes if we humiliate them or denounce them on an individual level, or attack them personally.
She even felt sad, when embedded in Generation Identity. There were some very young individuals in that movement. You could see that Generation Identity made an effort to bring that into their media campaigns which would also make it impossible for them to leave any more. There were moments where I wanted to say, Please leave now.
And yet, she never did. In part, Ebner admits, it was a cold strategic choice: preserve her cover, or save a soul.
There were moments when I did want to debunk conspiracy theories, or tell someone to leave. I could have done that. But I thought it was more valuable to stay there, collect all the information I could, then hopefully inform a bigger intervention programme with a wider scope.
Nor, she points out, was she trained in deradicalisation any more than she was in undercover work. Id prefer to leave that task to professionally trained psychologists and intervention providers. I saw my role as that of a researcher. Thats what Ive done at Quilliam and the ISD.
It was during her time at Quilliam, the think-tank where she worked until 2017, that Ebner was dragged into the news. In May that year, she wrote a piece for The Guardian in which she connected Tommy Robinson and the phrase white supremacist movements. Robinson declared on video that he was going to confront her, and he did. Entering Quilliams building, he found Ebner, a scuffle broke out with security, and he was thrown out, camera in hand, exactly as he wished.
Ebner had the data to prove that as she told Quilliam CEO Haras Rafiq afterwards Robinsons support base overlaps with that of white supremacist movements. Quilliam wanted the hostilities to go away. Ebner stood by her position, and wouldnt sell The Guardian out. The next day, she was fired.
Robinson, as he likes to say, is a campaigner for freedom of speech. Yesterday, he joined Toby Youngs Freedom of Speech Union, and Young says hes welcome there. It exemplifies another of the ironies Ebner found: those with the strongest positions are often papering over their cognitive dissonance.
She takes the example of free-speech warriors online. On the one hand they say that theyre being shut down, that theyre the victims of infringement of freedom of speech but on the other hand, theyre launching intimidation campaigns that are meant to silence their political opponents.
These things, she says wryly, are a bit like going to a Thai restaurant to speak about the Great Replacement, or going to Brixton for a Generation Identity meeting. Not impossible, just moral hypocrisy.
All Ebners undercover work involved what she calls an ethical line. She drew it at anything that would help them expand their reach or get recruits, and this put an expiry date on each of her attempts.
For example, I wouldnt have helped with running any campaigns, or reaching out to people during recruitment. Even when they asked me whether I could translate some materials, some campaign materials from German to English, I wouldnt have done that.
Her ethics also killed some of her budding plans. Not all of the groups I tried are in the book. In some of them, I was kicked out too early to get any deeper insights, because I refused to do certain things. For example, creating my own racist memes, or attacking a political opponent on Twitter with vile messages.
Even so, I wonder, was that ethical line ever perfectly firm? Ebner pauses, and picks her words. I think there are always grey zones. Even laughing at a joke, or nodding at a statement even if you dont say anything, simple approval or applause can confirm peoples views and make them more willing to show off.
Thats the problem on some of these messaging boards they have a big audience who glorify them. I wouldnt say that at any point I glorified anyone. But they do play to their audience. Not every user on these platforms is participating, but even by passively giving their confirmation or approval, they play into the radicalisation engine.
Ebner wants us to practice civil courage, and not assume that the intelligence services will handle extremism on our behalf. Everyone has the responsibility to protect themselves and people in their surroundings from being lured into these networks.
We often have civil courage on the Tube if someone gets attacked, someone steps in but we dont often see it in online spaces when someones being attacked. Not yet.
Working undercover, she concedes, has changed her. She felt close to being seduced, having seeds planted that might be hard to uproot. Infiltrating a trad wives group online the Red Pill Women she found female misogynists who ranged from ultra-conservative women and to be fair, its everyones right to hold those views all the way to endorsing domestic violence.
Ebner, who calls herself a feminist, was primed to disagree all the way. These women talked about womens sexual value to men; the need to be docile and marketable. And yet: Ebner, who had just emerged from a break-up, felt unsettled by some of their other claims about the burdens that women face in todays modern world, or about hook-up culture and online dating apps.
Mostly, she remembers, it felt like they were speaking about topics so close to my own worries and my own frustrations. Id never been able to identify with the topics talked about in jihadist groups or in neo-Nazi groups there were no topics there that touched me on a deeper emotional level.
Nobody, she tells me again and again, is immune to being radicalised. It isnt a problem for other peoples minds, and you dont always see the angle from which it comes. Ebner relied on a safety net: an informal debriefing process with colleagues at the ISD. There were counter-extremism experts who would have been able to spot the signs if I were going in that direction.
After two years of undercover work, Going Dark is the end of Ebners shadow-career. Even during that period, she grew liable to be unmasked. After the real name of Jennifer Mayer was revealed, Generation Identity sent Ebner a glacial message saying they hope it was at least interesting for her to meet them.
Today, she says, in the English- and German-speaking world, its virtually impossible for me to go undercover offline unless I wear a full-face mask.
And Im not sure I would want to do that work any more. Nor, she adds, would she ask others to follow her lead. I wouldnt recommend doing it offline.I dont think everyone needs or wants to take that risk the risk of having their face out there.
Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists is published by Bloomsbury at 16.99. To order your copy for 14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop