A 20-year-old self-confessed neo-Nazi sympathiser hiding a secret about his own identity has been convicted of preparing a terrorist attack against a pub that was hosting a gay pride night. The case raises worrying questions about the use of far-right material online.
Barrow-in-Furness knows a thing or two about national security. It’s where the UK’s fleet of nuclear submarines are built in a secure facility between a giant supermarket and the Irish Sea.
But the Cumbrian town had never seen anything like the events of 23 June last year when armed police officers rushed to the New Empire Pub and surrounded it.
They were trying to protect its occupants from an imminent terror attack.
Ethan Stables, 20, was preparing to walk in to the pub, which was hosting a Pride Night for Barrow’s LGBT support group, with a machete and kill anyone he found.
It was a terror alert in a year of awful attacks, sparked by a man who apparently hated himself.
In early 2017, Stables was living alone in a small flat on the outskirts of town. He didn’t work and while he claimed to local people to have a girlfriend, nobody had seen her.
Inside Flat 3G Egerton Court, a tall, austere block facing into the sea wind, Stables spent his hours online nurturing a hatred of his lot in life that would be eventually translated into terrorism.
During his trial at Leeds Crown Court, jurors were told that Stables:
- Searched the internet for information on extremist groups including Combat 18 and banned terror group National Action. The BBC understands that he asked NA if he could join – but was turned down. Two of his searches were for how to prepare for a “race war” and tips on “how to become a terrorist”
- Looked for violent or terrorism-related videos, such as scenes of torture, murders and killing sprees
- Investigated how to get hold of guns and plans for building his own bombs by downloading a well-known manual. Stables took his research further, by looking into the precise chemicals he needed to buy to build a device – and tried to work out if he could join the army and smuggle a gun out for use in an attack.
He had become immersed in Nazi thinking by September 2016. Research included looking up the “Fourteen Words” – a far-right code for the phrase “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” the jury heard.
And having decided he fitted the bill of a white supremacist, he began sharing hate-filled comments online.
He looked up jokes incorporating the N word as well as insults against Jewish people, Muslims and Pakistanis. He searched for violent homophobic material.
He took a selfie in his flat with a swastika and posed bare-chested with an air-rifle – the model of a member of the Aryan ‘master race’.
And he recorded a video in which he burned a rainbow flag, saying that he wanted to see gay people go up in flames too.
The only way anyone found out about any of this was because he set up a neo-Nazi group on Facebook and added an entirely innocent woman to its members. And what she saw shocked her.
The group was called “National Socialists Union standing against the New World Order” and on 23 June, Stables went online to tell all that he was furious that the New Empire Pub in his town was hosting a Pride Night in association with the Furness LGBT support group.
It was the pub’s second such event – part of an attempt by landlords Lorraine and Steve Neale to make their venue welcoming to one and all.
But Stables wasn’t having it. He’d already posted a picture of a machete he had bought from a shop in the Lake District. And that afternoon he told the group what he was going to walk in with it and “slaughter every single one of the gay [expletive]”.
Stables posted a picture of the pub with rainbow flags flying outside, meaning that he had been watching the venue that afternoon. Prosecutor Jonathan Sandiford told the jury at Leeds Crown Court this was the start of Stables’ reconnaissance of the target.
The young woman who had been copied into the group realised that time was running out.
“That’s not right, Ethan,” she told him.
“I’ve had enough,” he replied. “I don’t want to live in a gay world and I sure as hell don’t want my children living in one. What happened to our traditional qualities?
“I don’t care if I die, I’m fighting for what I believe in and that is the future of my country, my folk, and my race.
“I’m going to make the news. I want them to know they’re being targeted. Tonight is going to be a good night, and the beginning of the end.”
The woman tried to contact her local police force in Staffordshire via Twitter and got a reply stating she should call 101.
She contacted them again and put her own public warning on Facebook – including screen shots of his own comments – to prove she wasn’t making it up.
“If you’re in Barrow-in-Furness, please do not attend the LGBT gay pride night at the pub!”, she wrote. “I’ve reported it to the police but still don’t go!”
Barmaid Katy Bolger was busily getting things ready inside the pub. She had been there by herself that afternoon and would soon be joined by landlords Lorraine and Steve Neale. Then their world was turned on its head.
“Four armed police came in with their guns ready to go,” said Ms Bolger. “It was so, so frightening. I felt like a deer in the headlights. The first thing they said was ‘is there any other way people can get in or out of this pub?’ And they said someone had made a terrorist threat – and that this person was going to come in during the event and harm people.”
Lorraine Neale, who had been doing her hair at home, rushed to the scene. She could not believe what she saw.
The New Empire had highly-trained and combat-ready doormen: armed police under a duty to secure the location while their colleagues rushed around Barrow in what had become a major manhunt.
Despite reassurances, Mrs Neal and Ms Bolger put chairs against the front door just in case anyone slipped past one of the police. Mrs Neale’s son was planning to DJ and said no terrorist was going to stop him.
“It was so scary, I didn’t know whether I wanted him to be there – but he was determined he wanted to say. I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” she said.
At just after 10pm, an armed team spotted Stables on Michaelson Road. His flat was at one end of the mile-long road, the pub at the other, with the UK’s nuclear submarine construction dock in between the two.
Shortly after midnight, a unit of officers broke down the door to his tiny flat. And what they saw – recorded on a police bodycam – was clear evidence of how serious a threat the then 19-year-old posed.
Hanging on the wall was a massive swastika flag. To the left was an array of weapons – knives and an axe. The machete he had been showing off was on the table of the chaotic dirty flat. And there was evidence of bomb-making. Stables, the prosecution told Leeds Crown Court, had begun to accumulate the tiny amounts of explosive residue off the tips of household matches.
This had been the first stage of Ethan Stables’ war – but perhaps losing patience, he had given up and decided to turn to knives instead. After all, by that stage in 2017, the UK had witnessed three low-tech terror attacks in London where all the killer needed was a vehicle and a blade.
Stables was taken into custody by Cumbria Police, who handed the case over to colleagues in the North West Counter-Terrorism Unit in Greater Manchester Police.
During his first interview, he refused to answer any questions or give detectives access to his Facebook account.
Then he was released on police bail. GMP told the BBC that the Crown Prosecution Service had advised there was insufficient evidence to charge Stables at that time. Possession of the machete – and a Swastika – was not a criminal offence.
Back in the community, Stables went online and posted to his followers what had happened to him. He then got hold of another swastika arm band to replace the one confiscated by police.
On 27 June he was taken back in to custody and this time admitted he had posted the threats aimed at the pub. Police had found a copy of a bomb-making manual on one of his devices, so he was charged with a related but relatively low-level terrorism offence and remanded in custody. But he was not charged with preparing an act of terrorism, a crime that can lead to a life sentence.
Only in September did it emerge in court that he could eventually be facing the most serious offence.
“It would have been another Admiral Duncan,” says Lee Wicks, chair of the Furness LGBT support group, referring to the Soho bombing of 1999 in which another neo-Nazi, David Copeland, bombed the heart of London’s gay community, killing three people. “It would have been a blood bath.”
“I’ve always said that when it comes to terrorism, I would not be in fear of an Islamist attack, it would be the far-right.
“When I first saw Stables’ Facebook page, there he was with the swastika behind him. It’s just chilling. I think Facebook should have closed his account. It is quite bewildering why it wasn’t.”
Lee Wicks wasn’t the only one who thought this. The trial heard that the young woman who tipped off the police about Stables activities reported him to the social media network at least four times.
The BBC asked Facebook for a response but had not received one at the time of publication.
During a pre-trial hearing, Stables admitted possession of information useful to terrorism, including a bomb-making manual and plans for home-made guns.
But Stables told the jury that there had been no preparations for an attack. He claimed he wasn’t serious – and his comments were the product of his mental health difficulties and long-standing confrontational behavioural and psychiatric problems – all of which had led his mother to force him to leave home.
And then, to everyone’s surprise, the jury heard Stables claim he was in fact bisexual. He said he had sexual encounters with men in the past and therefore could not be homophobic.
This contradicted his own interview to police in which he admitted harbouring neo-Nazi views.
Whether the jury accepted Stables’ account of his sexuality was immaterial. They decided that on 23 June he posed a genuine threat to the New Empire pub.
The New Empire is now closed. The Neales have moved on to pastures new. But Lee Wicks’ LGBT support group continues. They now meet elsewhere.
Mr Wicks’ last act that evening was to post a defiant video to his Facebook feed, with the rainbow flags flying above the pub, not burning as Ethan Stables wished.
“Throughout LGBT history, we have had so many attacks and violence against us,” he told the BBC. “I’m proud of the fact that the night didn’t get cancelled. Everyone is entitled to a night out. That’s all people were doing – socialising and having fun, celebrating their identity.”