LONDON (Reuters) - At a secret location in London in April 2002, nine far-right extremists gathered together to form “The Knights Templar Europe,” a small pan-European group which pledged to seize political power and drive Islam from the continent.
Nine years later, one of those at this meeting caused the sort of carnage the group had discussed as being an essential part of their campaign, the bombing and shooting rampage that killed at least 76 people in Norway.
At least that is the version of events recorded in a rambling 1,500 page manifesto penned by Anders Behring Breivik, the man who has admitted to carrying out Friday’s attacks.
Security services across Europe are trying to figure out whether he really was part of a wider, right-wing organization plotting atrocities, a “lone wolf” or a fantasist.
Experts say there is no evidence to suggest the Knights Templar Europe exist or actually met in London but warn it would be wrong to discount it entirely.
“Err of the side of caution,” said Martin Feldman, who runs the Radicalism and New Media Research Group at the University of Northampton and is a leading expert on right-wing extremism in Britain.
“Just because they’re small and under the radar doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.”
In his manifesto “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” Breivik says the Knights Templar, a medieval order of crusading Christian monks, were re-founded to fight against the “ongoing European Jihad.”
The meeting was hosted by an “English Protestant” with attendees from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Russia, Serbia, and another member from England. Members from Sweden, Belgium and a “European-American” were unable to attend.
“Our primary objective is to develop PCCTS (Poor Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon), Knights Templar into becoming the foremost conservative revolutionary movement in Western Europe the next few decades,” he wrote.
Breivik’s lawyer said on Tuesday his client was probably insane and Feldman said that, while it was unclear if the London meeting ever happened, Breivik’s talk of other cells in Norway and abroad should be investigated.
“It does seem like a matter of urgency that we need to look at whether there are other chapters across Europe of this so-called Knights Templar Europe,” Feldman said.
London’s Metropolitan Police, which monitors extremism in Britain, is helping investigate the Norway attacks.
“We’re looking at these links but nothing has come out that has led us to launch a major inquiry here,” a police source said.
The Home Office (Interior Ministry) said it had no record of Breivik’s movements and security services in Belgium, Sweden and other countries named by Breivik said they were running checks, though had found no evidence of links to the Norwegian thus far.
Even if the Knights Templar Europe was formed back in 2002, the group could simply have disintegrated, said Richard English from the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
“We don’t know what to make of the talk of more cells at this stage -- although at the moment I would put that down mainly to scaremongering,” he told Reuters.
“Even if the meeting did take place, different people might have taken very different paths,” he said. Breivik’s own manifesto hints fellow members may have got cold feet.
If Breivik’s organization did exist, Britain would appear a strong candidate for its base -- Breivik cites the 2002 meeting in London and makes repeated references to the English Defense League (EDL), a populist right-wing anti-Islamist group.
The EDL, which says it is non-racist, has staged many protests across the country, many of which have ended in violent confrontations with opponents.
“I wonder sometimes if one of the EDL founders was one of the co-founders of PCCTS, I guess I’ll never know for sure,” Breivik wrote.
“I know this for a fact as I used to have more than 600 EDL members as Facebook friends and have spoken with tens of EDL members and leaders.”
The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight said Breivik exchanged messages with the EDL in the last few months using the name Sigurd Jorsalfare, a reference to the 12th century King of Norway who led one of the Crusades.
“The biggest problem in Norway is that there is no real free press, there is a left-wing angle on all the political topics so most people are going around like idiots,” said one post, according to Searchlight.
In a statement on its website the EDL denied any official connection and said Breivik’s own manifesto had criticized them.
“I have never personally met this man, I’ve never had no interaction with him, never had any dealings with him,” said EDL founder Stephen Lennon.
The Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE), another right-wing group name-checked by Breivik, doubted whether the Knights Templar Europe existed.
“I’ve done extensive research into our organization and there’s no link at all,” Stephen Gash, a self-professed English nationalist from SIOE, told Reuters. “I don’t think he’s actually affiliated to any organization as far as I can make out apart from this one he’s made up, this Knights Templar.”
Senior British police officers have said far-right movements are on the increase but lack the organized structures of other groups and tend to be “lone wolves.”
“Mostly, I have to say, they tend to be less organized. It tends to be the concept of the ‘lone wolf’,” John Yates, until last week Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer, told lawmakers in 2009.
Feldman said even the lone wolves tend to come from a community or have supporters who shared the same ideology, if not their violent intent.
“(These are) people who say I’ve got to go that one step further and be the person who starts this civil war,” he said, adding Breivik’s manifesto itself posed the greatest concern as “a DIY kit for potential terrorists.”
“It gives you everything from blending in to explosives manual, to how to kill without remorse and who the targets should be,” he said. “To me this is one of the most chilling documents I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading.”
Additional reporting by Peter Apps, Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels and Mia Shanley in Stockholm; Editing by Jon Boyle