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The Undercover Fascist

When Collins spoke to Mullen from his hotel in Portugal, he was both alarmed and confused. He’d never heard of Rosie Cooper. He asked Mullen if the plot might actually be targeting Yvette Cooper, a former Labour Cabinet minister. But Mullen was clear on the facts.

“How urgent is it? Is it tomorrow?” Collins asked.

“It’s as soon as he can,” Mullen replied.

Collins took Mullen seriously. He’d been monitoring Renshaw for some time, and felt that he was heading “in a really dark direction.” Collins called Lowles, who told him to keep gathering details from Mullen. The next day, July 3, 2017, Lowles called Ruth Smeeth, a Labour M.P. who was a former employee of HOPE Not Hate. He asked her to notify Rosie Cooper. Smeeth told me, “It’s a very difficult thing to ring one of your mates and tell them there’s a viable death threat about them. I was very candid with her.”

Earlier that day, Renshaw had been interviewed in Lancashire by Detective Victoria Henderson—who did not then know that she was one of Renshaw’s murder targets. Henderson told Renshaw that she was charging him with stirring up racial hatred, citing two anti-Semitic speeches that he had made in 2016. But that was not all. At the Friar Penketh, Renshaw had implied to his friends that Henderson had merely been taunting him by calling him “a pedo.” But, in fact, police officers had compiled substantial evidence that he’d been going online and grooming underage boys for sex, and were preparing to arrest him. At the end of the interview, Renshaw was released, on bail.

That night, Renshaw posted messages to Facebook under a pseudonym, Jack Renstein. One read, “It will all be over soon.” A picture posted at nearly midnight was accompanied by the phrase “A broken man is invincible.”

Meanwhile, the police in Lancashire had just learned of the threat to Rosie Cooper’s life, and counterterrorism officers scrambled to find Renshaw. He was not at his bail address. The officers searched the house of Renshaw’s uncle, where they found the gladius sword, inside a laundry cupboard. Two days later, the police found Renshaw at another address in Lancashire. They arrested him for violating his bail conditions, and subsequently charged him with “making threats to kill.” This time, bail was not granted, so Renshaw could not warn other N.A. members.

Cooper was safe, but Mullen was not. Two weeks before Renshaw announced his terrorist plot, members had begun voicing suspicions that there was an informant within the group. Renshaw, using the encrypted app Telegram, had sent a message to a chat group for fourteen N.A. adherents in northwest England. “This Telegram is compromised,” he wrote. “This group, rather.”

“In here?” Mullen replied.

“Yes,” Lythgoe said.

“Who’s the grass then?” another member of the Telegram chat group, Andy Clarke, asked.

One of the results of Mullen’s foiling the murder plot was that his stay within National Action was prolonged: it would be impossible to walk away now without raising suspicion. He therefore continued to attend meetings at the Friar Penketh, and at pubs in Manchester and Preston. A part of him still enjoyed seeing his friends. Yet rumors of a spy grew. Three weeks after Renshaw was arrested, his father sent an accusatory Facebook message addressing the men who met at the Warrington pub: one of them, he said, was a mole. Mullen’s mother told me that, during this period, her son slept with a knife under his pillow, “in case they came to the house for him.”

The police had no idea who the informant was; Lowles and Collins would not reveal Mullen’s identity without his permission. Collins remembered Gable’s asking him, as a teen-ager, to put his life at risk to protect Searchlight in the libel case. Collins had learned, he told me, to “look after people, to do everything that Gerry didn’t do for me.” If Mullen did not want to reveal himself, Collins would do whatever he could to protect him.

“That dream means you’re hungry—how about a hot dog?”

Before long, though, it seemed that Mullen had no choice but to coöperate with the authorities: if the police began to make arrests, Mullen was vulnerable to being prosecuted for belonging to a banned terrorist organization. HOPE Not Hate hired a lawyer to represent Mullen. Mullen said that he did not want to give evidence to the police unless he had an offer of immunity. In Britain, unlike in the United States, it’s rare for information to be exchanged for legal immunity, but in “exceptional circumstances” it can be done. The lawyer advised Mullen that his case might merit the provision. Mullen decided to hold out for immunity.

In July, 2017, HOPE Not Hate was contacted by a senior officer from the C.T.C. According to Lowles, the officer intimated that the staff might be in legal jeopardy of its own. Under the Terrorism Act, it’s illegal for journalists to secretly handle sources within proscribed organizations. HOPE Not Hate had been instrumental in dismantling a terrorist plot, but it had unwittingly broken the law by running Mullen as an informant. Lowles and Collins explained the situation to Mullen. The organization was at risk if he refused to reveal himself, and his evidence might not be admissible unless he came forward. On July 27, 2017, Mullen, who had an indication that he might receive immunity but no formal assurance of it, agreed to coöperate with the police.

In the course of the next seven weeks—during which he continued to work at the warehouse in Runcorn and to meet with other neo-Nazis in his habitual way—Mullen, the police, and HOPE Not Hate engaged in a delicate dance. At a central-Manchester hotel, Mullen attended a “scoping interview” with several police officers. He was asked about the extent of his knowledge of National Action, and about Renshaw’s intentions. The objective was to establish how much Mullen could assist the police.

“Do you have information about a plot to murder Rosie Cooper?” an officer asked Mullen.

“Yes,” Mullen replied.

“Were you present when this plot was arranged?”

“I was.”

Prosecutors offered him limited immunity, on the condition that his story remain consistent and truthful. The police urged him to enter a witness-protection program, and to move far away from the northwest of England. To their surprise, he refused. Mullen couldn’t imagine life without his sister and his mother. Moreover, the police had said that he could not take an animal with him, and he did not want to be separated from his dog, a Staffordshire bull terrier named Milly.

The police continued to pressure HOPE Not Hate to reveal everything it knew about National Action. According to Collins, the police were embarrassed by his blog posts about National Action’s headquarters, which made clear that he knew more about the group than they did. (Two police spokespersons, in Lancashire and in London, declined to comment.) The posts also upset N.A. members. In several group chats, they vowed to murder the mole, then burn his body. At the end of August, Lythgoe wrote Mullen an e-mail saying that he was “pretty certain” the informant was Garron Helm, an unpopular former member: “No-one else had access to all the info passed over to HOPE not Hate, or the personality to even contemplate doing something like this.” Mullen wrote back that Helm was indeed the most likely informant.

That September, Mullen, under conditional immunity, met with counterterrorism police for three days, at a hotel in Newcastle. Mullen had thought that his information would be used to incriminate only Renshaw. He could justify Renshaw’s jailing—he was actively plotting murders, and he was an alleged pedophile. But the police now had enough evidence to arrest and charge several current and former members of National Action, and Mullen was informed that the crackdown would be more wide-ranging. The news upset him, but it was too late. He was offered another chance to enter witness protection. The government would even pay him his current salary for two years. Mullen refused.

The next day, September 27, 2017, eleven suspected National Action members were arrested. Lythgoe was detained, as was Hankinson. It would soon become obvious that the police had arrested everyone who attended the Friar Penketh meetings but Mullen.

At around 5 p.m., the police visited Mullen at home. Officers seized his phone and other evidence. They then issued an Osman warning, a formal notice given to someone who faces a “real and immediate” threat of being murdered. It was the first of five such warnings that Mullen received. Two hours later, HOPE Not Hate helped him move to a hotel in the Manchester area. He was reluctant to go, but Collins had no doubt that someone from National Action would try to kill Mullen if he stayed. Before he left home, Mullen asked his sister to pick up his dog. In torrential rain, Mullen was driven, with Collins, toward the “safe” hotel. The party changed vehicles once, at Runcorn Station, in case it was being followed. There was no police escort. Mullen lay flat in the rear footwell the whole way.

At the hotel, Mullen could not bring himself to call his mother. In June, he’d told her that he had become mixed up with National Action, and she had Googled the group to find out more. What she had seen chilled her, and she had said to him, “I don’t like them—they’re nob-heads.” Mullen had also recently informed her that he was in contact with HOPE Not Hate, but she had no idea how much danger he was in. Collins made the call for him. He told Georgina that her son had helped to stop a terror attack, that he was now safe, and that he would ring her when he could.

Georgina recalls, “I was still disappointed in him. But I was also so proud of him. It could have been a million times worse.”