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A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


A transnational lone-wolf terrorist: the case of Pavlo Lapshyn

By Sean L Hanley, on 21 November 2013

When Ukrainian postgraduate Pavlo Lapshyn was sentenced for racially-motivated murder and terrorism in the West Midlands, the response from Ukrainian media was to distort facts; from authorities to remain silent; and from British journalists to pin blame on UK society. These approaches obscure the uniqueness of the case, says Anton Shekhovtsov

On 25 October, 25-year-old Ukrainian postgraduate student Pavlo Lapshyn was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 40 years for a series of terrorist acts carried out in the West Midlands, UK. In Ukraine, Lapshyn’s case provoked a critical response in the media, revealing a distressing, if not unusual aversion to national soul-searching. In Britain, some of the significance of the case was obscured by the irresistible urge to interpret it in terms of British society. What is currently missing in the accounts of Lapshyn’s terror campaign is an understanding of its uniqueness.

Lapshyn came to the UK from the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, hometown of now jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, having been awarded a temporary work placement at the Birmingham-based Delcam software company. He arrived on 24 April 2013. Five days later he murdered Mohammed Saleem (82). In June-July, he detonated three home-made bombs near mosques in Walsall, Wolverhampton and Tipton. Fortunately, his lack of experience in making explosive devices meant there was no physical damage to anyone. However, in the course of his bombing campaign he was able to improve his skills and make his devices more dangerous. Only the timely intervention of the West Midlands police, who identified and arrested Lapshyn on 18 July,  prevented him from continuing with his deadly mission.

After his arrest, Lapshyn willingly cooperated with the police. He made no secret of the fact that his actions had been motivated by racism, of his desire to ‘to increase racial conflict’ and make Muslims ‘leave our area.’ In his room at Delcam’s premises in Small Heath (Birmingham), police recovered mobile phones he had adapted to trigger devices, chemicals and bomb-making equipment. There were also 98 video files and 455 photographic files on his laptop showing chemicals, firearms, component parts of explosives and images of Lapshyn manufacturing and detonating bombs, presumably in Ukraine. According to Detective Chief Inspector Shaun Edwards from the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit, ‘Lapshyn stressed he was acting alone – not part of a wider cell or influenced by any group – and was keen to take credit for masterminding and carrying out the attacks.’ After his arrest, Lapshyn twice rejected any legal assistance from the Embassy of Ukraine in the UK.

Denial and distortion in Ukraine

No official body in Ukraine has ever issued an official statement – condemnatory, concerned or otherwise – relating to either the arrest or conviction of a Ukrainian citizen, who had received a life sentence for a series of terrorist acts in another country. The Ukrainian authorities followed a longstanding pattern of sweeping the problems they consistently fail to tackle under the carpet. President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime’s pompous ‘anti-fascist’ campaign, launched in spring 2013, has proved to be no more than a tool for smearing the political opposition and mobilising its own supporters under the ‘banners of righteousness.’ At the same time, top-ranking member of the ruling Party of Regions, Hennadiy Kernes, has been turning the blind eye to neo-Nazi gigs – featuring Ukrainian, British, German and Russian fascist bands – openly advertised and held in Kharkiv, the city of which he is mayor.

Some Ukrainian media were in denial too. One of the most influential printed magazines in the country, Korrespondent, devoted two miniscule notices (one of them was factually incorrect) informing its readers of Lapshyn’s arrest and, later, his pleading guilty. The magazine had, however, previously dedicated whole pages to uncritical coverage of the extreme right Svoboda party, while Korrespondent’s editor-in-chief Vitaliy Sych even declared Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tyahnybok the Person of the Year 2012. Disturbingly and even cynically, this award was given to Tyahnybok against the background of the attacks on peaceful gay demonstration and human rights activists carried out by Svoboda’s members in December 2012.

However, outright denial or ‘footnoting’ of Lapshyn’s case was the exception rather than the rule in Ukrainian media space. Almost all major publications and TV channels commented extensively on the case, but sometimes their reports evidenced yet another psychological defence mechanism, distortion, employed by most of Ukrainian society to evade self-analysis or confronting uncomfortable truths.

This was especially the case in July, immediately after the police announced the suspect’s name. Ukrainian media seemed to compete with each other in offering or communicating the most fantastic interpretations of the Lapshyn case, and conspiracy theories abounded. Some of these originated from Lapshyn’s teachers and colleagues in Dnipropetrovsk. They generally described the would-be terrorist as polite, quiet and even shy and, on the basis of this perception, came to the conclusion that Lapshyn could not have committed those crimes and that he must have been framed.

In some cases (ICTV,Komsomolskya Pravda), the ‘framing’ theme made its way into presumptuous headlines. Who exactly could have set up Lapshyn – or would have been interested in doing so – was rarely indicated, but Obozrevatel readily conveyed[in Russian] a hint made by Lapshyn’s academic supervisor, Viktor Laskin, that the mastermind behind the whole story could have been the British police: ‘They found a quiet, flabby foreigner and pinned someone else’s crimes on him.’ The relatively new, but already increasingly popular Vesti newspaper took a different conspiratorial angle when it cited [in Russian] Oleksandr Skipal’s’ky, a former deputy head of the Security Service of Ukraine. Obviously playing the domestic card, Skipal’s’ky said that Lapshyn had been well paid for carrying out the acts of terror: ‘These are people who oppose Ukraine’s integration into Europe. They may be members of our parliament.’

Even in October, after Lapshyn had pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey, conspiracy theories continued to play their part in misinforming the Ukrainian audience.The Kiev Times suggested [in Russian] that ‘it was highly disadvantageous for the English security services to acknowledge the growth of its own radical groupings, so they decided to create the impression that racist and nationalist sentiments were being planted from outside and, in particular, from former Soviet states.’ In its turn, the 1+1 TV channel put forward [in Russian] an even more ridiculous version saying that, by jailing Lapshyn, ‘another country [i.e. Britain] was keeping a promising scientist from Ukraine.’

But the prosecution presented sufficient credible evidence and Lapshyn was sentenced to life imprisonment. Then some Ukrainian media, Ukrayinska Pravda or The Insider for instance, tried implicitly to dissociate Lapshyn’s nationality from the theme of terrorism, by putting ‘Ukrainian terrorist’ in quotation marks in their headlines. Neither Ukrayinska Pravda nor The Insiderhad previously had any problems referring without cunning quotation marks to the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik or unnamed Chechen terrorists.

In general, Ukrainian mainstream media reacted to Lapshyn’s case in three distinct but often intertwined ways: (1) ignoring the case altogether or coldly reporting events unfolding in the British courts; (2) distorting the case by bombarding the audience with conspiracy theories and the victimisation of Ukrainians and Ukraine; and (3) implicitly dissociating Ukraine from the subject of right-wing terrorism.

Almost no Ukrainian publication or TV channel has tried to address the problem of racism in Ukrainian society. Very few journalists seemed interested in critically exploring Lapshyn’s social networking website and the groups to which he subscribed. The results of such an exploration are very interesting.  For example, one particular group, the openly neo-Nazi ‘WotanJugend Info’, has over 20,000 subscribers: 2,080 from Ukraine, of which 81 are from Lapshyn’s home town, Dnipropetrovsk. In 2012, Ukrainian NGOs (‘Diversity Initiative’, ‘No Borders’, Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and others) registered 17 verified racist attacks in Ukraine on migrants from Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Guinea, Cameroon and Sierra-Leone, as well as six Ukrainian citizens of Crimean Tatar and Jewish origin. Fortunately none of the victims died.

The causes of racist violence in Ukraine and sources of racist sentiments in the Ukrainian society are complex and cannot be linked to one particular phenomenon. However, some Ukrainian media, irrespective of whether they openly or covertly support Yanukovych’s regime or the opposition to it, are complicit in normalising right-wing extremism in the country by ignoring, denying or under-reporting racist incidents. At times one has the impression that the extreme right has infiltrated some mainstream Ukrainian media. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that online newspaper Levy Bereg recently engaged a neo-Nazi activist to write a slanderous ‘expert opinion’ [in Ukrainian] on Ukrainian football, or that The Insider uncritically republishes [in Ukrainian] materials from ‘WotanJugend Info’?

Towards transnational right-wing terrorism?

The British media and experts examined the Lapshyn case in terms of British right-wing extremism, which frequently resulted in misunderstandings. Islamophobia, currently an inherent feature of British extreme right movements such as the English Defence League was one of these erroneous prisms. Hatred of Muslims can sometimes also be found in Ukrainian far right culture, but it is a minor element. The insignificance of Islamophobia in the Ukrainian extreme right can partly be explained by the fact that the Muslim population in the country constitutes less than 1% of the whole population. Ukrainian Muslims are largely Tatars living in the Crimea, which is considered their native land. While hate crimes against Crimean Tatars do take place, the motivation for violent attacks or vandalism is more likely to be anti-Tatar sentiments than Islamophobia.

It was Islamophobia, however, that the British media tended to highlight when reporting the Lapshyn case. BBC, Channel 4 and Sky News described him as a ‘mosque bomber’, but while this is technically correct, the emphasis on the Muslim nature of his targets is misleading. Lapshyn himself admitted that he murdered Saleem out of racial hatred, while the three mosques – as locations for planting the bombs – were ideal because ‘there was little risk of white people suffering’. ‘I did it because they are not white, and I am white’. If Lapshyn ever hated Islam (unlikely, because his grandmother was Muslim), than he hated it in the racialised form.

This distinction between white supremacism and Islamophobia may appear overnice, but the prisms used to analyse Lapshyn’s case by some British media – and, even more, the distortions  in the Ukrainian media – obscure the uniqueness of his case, which is important for all future studies of right-wing terrorism.

This uniqueness is best demonstrated in comparison with two – perhaps the most infamous – lone-wolf right-wing terrorists, David Copeland (UK) and Anders Breivik (Norway). Like Lapshyn, they acted alone, so their activities were difficult to trace. However, both of them had a history of membership in far right organisations and groups: Copeland was a member of the British National Party and then the National Socialist Movement, while Breivik was a member of the Progress Party (but left it). Lapshyn, by contrast, never belonged to any movement or group.

Most importantly, however, Lapshyn’s violent campaign represents a genuine case of transnational right-wing terrorism. On the one hand, the process of his radicalisation in the direction of white supremacism is not entirely clear (we do not know when exactly he became a racist). On the other hand, his social networking website and over evidence suggest that he was radicalised by reading Russian texts praising American, Russian and German right-wing terrorists; listening to Russian and German White Power music; and playing an ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ videogame developed by the American neo-Nazi National Alliance.

The general indifference of Ukrainian society to racism either failed to stop, or even contributed to, the strengthening of his radicalisation. It was not the ethnic composition of the Ukrainian population (more than 95% of whom are white) that prompted him to engage in terrorist activities against the non-white, but Small Heath, where, according to 2001 estimates, whites constitute 25% of the population, was something very different.

Copeland’s vision was focused on Britain and Breivik’s on Europe; both of them acted in their own countries; Lapshyn’s views were shaped by truly global white supremacism, and he would most probably have been willing to carry out acts of terror against non-whites in any country where he would perceive threats to his ‘own race’. Thus, Lapshyn’s 2013 terror campaign in Britain may be termed the first instance of transnational lone-wolf right-wing terrorism. It is unlikely to become a trend, but that will not make it any easier to prevent.

Anton Shekhovtsov is a PhD student at UCL-SSEES and a European Fellow of the Radicalism and New Media Research Group. He is also editor of the Explorations of the Far Right book series at ibidem-Verla. 

This post was first published in oD Russia and is reproduced under the terms of a Creative Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

A discussion of the broader implications of the Lapshyn case by Anton can be found here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL


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