A former De Montfort University student who downloaded nearly 70,000 documents pertaining to neo-Nazism and bomb-making has been spared jail, and instead was told to read classic literature.
Ben John, 21, was convicted by a jury at Leicester Crown Court on 11th August of possessing information likely to be useful for preparing an act of terror – a charge that carries a maximum jail sentence of fifteen years.
Ben Lloyd, prosecuting, told the court at the sentencing yesterday that Mr John had previously failed to heed warnings by counter-terrorism officers.
The court heard that Mr John was labelled a terror risk only days after his eighteenth birthday. He was referred to the Government’s counter-terrorism scheme, Prevent, but continued to download “repellent” right-wing documents, which included the Anarchist Cookbook, a guide to making bombs and illegal drugs at home, written during the 1970s. The author of the book has since stated that he was motivated by anger at the time of writing and said that the “basic premise behind the Cookbook is profoundly flawed”.
In addition to this, the court also heard that in January 2018, Mr John had come to the attention of, and had meetings with, Prevent officers. In May 2018, Mr John wrote a letter called “Eternal Front”, where he claimed to be a member of the Lincolnshire Fascist Underground and railed against gay people and immigrants. This prompted further meetings with Prevent officers and a psychiatric evaluation.
It was said that by April 2019, Mr John had accumulated over 9,000 right-wing and terror-related documents, which by August 2019 had increased by 2,600. In January 2020, he was arrested and charged with offences under the Terrorism Act, including possessing documents on combat, homemade weapons and explosives.
Eventually, Mr John had collated 67,788 documents which contained a large quantity of National Socialist, white supremacist and antisemitic material, as well as information relating to a Satanic organisation.
Lincolnshire Police said that Mr John “had become part of the Extreme Right Wing (XRW) online, and was studying Criminology with Psychology in Leicester when he was arrested”.
Counter Terrorism Policing East Midlands (CTP EM) Detective Inspector James Manning, who led the investigation in partnership with regional and national agencies, said: “The terrorist material he was found in possession of is extremely dangerous, and he acquired this to further his ideology. It indicates the threat that he and other followers of this hateful ideology pose to National Security. It was not light reading, or material most would concern themselves with for legitimate reasons. This has been a long and complex investigation over the course of eleven months.”
Judge Timothy Spencer QC said he believed that Mr John’s crime was likely to be an isolated incident and “an act of teenage folly”. He labelled Mr John as a “lonely individual with few if any true friends” who was “highly susceptible” to recruitment by others more prone to action. Judge Spencer went on to say that he was “not of the view that harm was likely to have been caused”.
However, stating that the material was “largely relating to Nazi, fascist and Adolf Hitler-inspired ideology” as well as “a substantial quantity of more contemporary material espousing extreme right-wing, white-supremacist material”, he rejected Mr John’s assertion at his trial that the material was “mere academic fascination”. “My view is that to a significant degree you have aligned with these ideologies and to a significant degree have adopted the views expressed as your own,” said the judge.
Harry Bentley, the barrister for Mr John, said that “violence is the necessary ingredient of terrorism. It is not the prosecution case he was planning a terrorist attack.” He added: “[Mr John] was fascinated by extreme right-wing views and shared those views himself. He was a young man who struggled with emotions, however he is plainly an intelligent young man and now has a greater insight. He is by no means a lost cause and is capable of living a normal, pro-social life.” Mr Bentley also said that the whole case was “really about not deleting items on a computer”, an argument which the judge dismissed as an “over-simplification” of the case.
Speaking directly to Mr John, Judge Spencer asked him: “Have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.”
The judge told the defendant to “think about Hardy. Think about Trollope”, before adding: “On 4th January you will tell me what you have read and I will test you on it. I will test you and if I think you are [lying to] me you will suffer. I will be watching you, Ben John, every step of the way. If you let me down you know what will happen.”
“He has by the skin of his teeth avoided imprisonment,” the judge told Mr Bentley.
Mr John will have to return to Judge Spencer every four months in order to be tested on his reading. In addition, he was handed a two-year jail sentence suspended for two years plus a further year on licence, monitored by the probation service.
Mr John was also given a five-year Serious Crime Prevention Order requiring him to stay in touch with the police and let them monitor his online activity and up to 30 days on a Healthy Identity Intervention programme.
A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “It is inexplicable that a man who collected nearly 70,000 neo-Nazi and terror-related documents could avoid a maximum jail term of fifteen years and leave court with no custodial sentence whatsoever. Instead, the judge has let off Ben John with a mere suspended sentence and some English homework. Yet for all the novels that the judge has ordered Mr John to peruse as he enjoys his unearned freedom, it was notable that Crime and Punishment was not among them. Perhaps the judge himself ought to review that classic as he reflects on the risk that his sentence poses to the public.”
Campaign Against Antisemitism has been monitoring and acting against the threat from the far-right for years and continues to support the authorities following suit.