Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism command fears the extreme right will stage a deadly terrorist attack in Britain to try to stoke racial tensions, the Guardian has learned.
Senior officers fear the attack will be a "spectacular" that is designed to kill people. The counter-terrorism unit has moved officers to beef up its monitoring of the extreme right's potential to stage attacks.
Commander Shaun Sawyer told a meeting of British Muslims concerned about the danger posed to their communities that police were responding to the growing threat.
Sawyer said of the far right: "I fear that they will have a spectacular ... They will carry out an attack that will lead to a loss of life or injury to a community somewhere. They're not choosy about which community."
He said the aim of any attack would be to cause a "breakdown in community cohesion".
Sawyer revealed that the Met commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, had asked the counter-terrorism command, SO15, to examine what the economic downturn would mean for far-right violence. The assessment concluded that it would increase the possibility.
Sawyer told the meeting last Wednesday that more of his officers needed to be deployed to try to thwart neo-Nazi-inspired violence. He said the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaida remained the unit's priority, but said of its far-right section: "It is a small desk ... we need to grow that unit."
Sources have told the Guardian that while they believe the neo-Nazi terrorist threat has grown, they have no specific intelligence of an attack.
"There is an increased possibility of violence from the far right. There is a trend," said one senior source, adding that the ideology of the violent right was driven by "people who don't like immigration, people who don't like Islam. We're seeing a resurgence of anti-semitism as well."
Similar warnings about the terror threat of the far right have been issued in America recently. In April, an internal report drawn up by the US department of homeland security warned of a possible rise in violent rightwing extremist groups fuelled by the recession and hostility over the election of the first black president. The report said threats from white supremacist and violent anti-government groups had been largely rhetorical so far, but a prolonged economic downturn could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists.
It is a decade since an extreme rightwing terrorist used bombs to claim lives in Britain. In 1999, David Copeland bombed three targets in London in a fortnight. His strike against a gay pub in Soho, London, killed three people and left scores injured. It followed attacks against the Muslim community in Brick Lane, east London, and the bombing of a market in Brixton, south London.
The senior source said since Copeland's bombing campaign, community tensions had worsened between British Muslims and other groups. "When Copeland attacked we did not have the religious tensions with the Muslim community. What kind of schism would a Copeland-type event cause now?"
British Muslims have been a particular target of neo-Nazi propaganda, and groups representing them say they have felt increasingly vulnerable after the al-Qaida attacks on London in July 2005.
The threat the far right poses to Britain's Jewish communities is monitored by the Community Security Trust, which says attempted terrorist violence by neo-Nazis in Britain has increased in the past few years. The CST says nine white men have been "convicted of offences involving explosives, terrorist plots, violent campaigns or threats to carry them out". One of them, Martyn Gilleard, was convicted last year of three terrorism offences and jailed for 16 years. The self-confessed fan of Nazi Germany had kept nail bombs under a bed at his home in Goole, east Yorkshire.
David Rich, of the CST, said: "The violent fringes of the far right have shown a desire and intention to carry out terrorist violence against minorities in the UK. The last five years has seen an increase in terrorist cases involving the far right, more than before David Copeland."
Most of those convicted are believed not to have been part of a group. Opinion among those tracking the violent far right differs. Some believe neo-Nazi terrorists are acting outside networks, making it harder for them to be caught and investigated.
Rich said: "There's no one directing people, it's a mindset" – a reference to the easy availability of extremist rightwing material and information about making homemade bombs.
The veteran anti-fascist campaigner Gerry Gable, of the group Searchlight, praised police efforts to tackle neo-Nazi terrorism but warned the threat remained: "They believe that violence begets violence. They hope it will cause a backlash."