Reclusive, nervous and by his own account gripped by feelings of worthlessness, Thomas Mair struck his neighbours and many of his relatives as odd but quite harmless. "Tommy's nowt to worry about," they used to say on the Fieldhead estate in Birstall, West Yorkshire. "He wouldn't hurt a fly."
In truth, Mair was racist and a terrorist in the making, his home stuffed with far-right books and Nazi memorabilia and his mind brimming with a belief that white people were facing an existential threat. “The white race,” Mair once wrote, was about to be plunged into “a very bloody struggle”. His greatest obsession, however, and his deepest bitterness was over those white people whom he condemned in his writings as “the collaborators”: the liberals, the left and the media.
The seeds of the hatred that drove him to murder his MP, Jo Cox, appear to have been sown years earlier, when he began to acquire the means to kill. They germinated during the febrile countdown to the EU referendum.
Brexit campaigners were claiming that a Remain vote would result in “swarms” of immigrants entering the UK, that it could trigger mass sexual attacks. Just hours before the murder, Ukip unveiled its infamous “breaking point” anti-immigration poster.
Mair came to regard Cox as one of “the collaborators”, a traitor to his race. The passionate defender of immigration and the Remain campaign was a legitimate target in his eyes.
Mair was an extremely slow burner. He appears to have fantasised about killing a “collaborator” for more than 17 years, drawing inspiration from another right-wing terrorist,
Over 13 days in April 1999, Copeland planted three nail bombs in London, targeting first black people, then Asians and finally gay people. Three died and more than 140 were injured, some losing limbs.
Copeland was a former member of the British National Party (BNP) and an admirer of the late William Pierce, once the leader of a US neo-Nazi organisation, the National Alliance. Pierce's novel The Turner Diaries, which depicts an apocalyptic race war, had been particularly influential.
Copeland was arrested on April 30th that year, shortly after planting his third and final bomb at the Admiral Duncan, a gay pub in the Soho area of the capital. He appeared in court four days later. The bombings were front-page news and dominated the airwaves. It is fair to assume that Mair would have been following events.
On May 13th, 1999, 10 days after Copeland's first court appearance, staff at the National Alliance offices near the small town of Hillsboro, West Virginia, were packing a consignment of goods to be sent to Mair's home on the Fieldhead estate.
A packing slip subsequently obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a US civil rights body, showed Mair had bought a range of items from the organisation. They included manuals on the construction of bombs and the assembly of homemade pistols, six back issues of the Alliance journal called Free Speech, and a copy of Ich Kämpfe, a tract handed out to Nazi party members in 1943, the year that Germany's wartime fortunes began to wane.
Having had been galvanised by Copeland’s attacks, Mair took his first steps on the long road that would lead to his own hate crime.
Other records the SPLC obtained show this was one of a series of purchases that Mair made from the National Alliance over a four-year period. He began to subscribe to Free Speech, and other publications with titles such as Secret of the Runes and We Get Confessions were packed up in Hillsboro and sent to the semi-detached council house where Mair had been living alone since the death of his grandmother three years earlier. In total, he spent more than $620 on Alliance purchases.
Mair amassed a small library about the Nazis, German military history and white supremacy, which he kept in in a bedroom at his home on a bookshelf topped by a gold-coloured Third Reich eagle with a swastika.
SS Race Theory and Mate Selection Guidelines
was the title of one, fairly typical text.
Uniforms and Traditions of the Luftwaffe Volume Two
, was another.
He also subscribed to a right-wing magazine called SA Patriot, which was initially published in South Africa by the Springbok Club, but moved to the UK and became SA Patriot in Exile in 1991. That year, Mair had written a letter to the magazine in which he railed against the killing of loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and attacked the UK media's coverage of South African affairs "which . . . never fails to present whites in the worst possible light".
He tried to end his letter on a positive note: “Despite everything, I still have faith that the white race will prevail, both in Britain and in South Africa.” But then his pessimism got the better of him: “I fear that it’s going to be a very long and very bloody struggle.”
Eight years later, around the time Mair purchased the bomb-making manual from the US, the magazine ran another of his letters. He praised the publishers for “carrying on the struggle”, before returning to his ultimate obsession. “I was glad you strongly condemned collaborators in the white South African population. In my opinion the greatest enemy of the old apartheid system was not the ANC and the black masses but white liberals and traitors.”
The Springbok club still runs a blog, which just two weeks before Cox’s murder urged UK readers to vote to leave the EU in order to renew links with their “ethnic brothers and sisters” elsewhere in the world.
The magazine's editor, Alan Harvey, told the Guardian: "He sent us a fiver, which would have been enough for about five issues, but I've never met him. I know nothing at all about him."
Because Mair was so reclusive, few people do.
Thomas Alexander Mair
was born in the Scottish town of
in August 1963, the son of James, a machine operator in the lace industry, and Mary, a factory worker. He was named after his grandfathers. The Mairs had a second son, Scott, but the marriage did not last long, and Mary and the boys moved to Birstall, a mill town eight miles southwest of
. Mary remarried, and Mair has a half brother, Duane St Louis.
Mair's links with far-right groups in the US and South Africa are well documented, but his associations with similar organisations closer to home appear more tenuous. He told the SA Patriot in Exile that he had had some contact with the National Front in the early 1990s, he was seen at an English Defence League rally and attended a meeting of nationalists in London.
Supporters of various far-right organisations in West Yorkshire deny, however, that Mair was ever part of the local scene, and anti-fascist campaign groups say he had not crossed their radar. “He’s not on any of our lists,” a spokesman for one such group said, before adding quickly: “Not that we keep any lists, you understand.”
Nor had he ever come to the attention of the police. He had no previous convictions.
There would have been no shortage of opportunities for Mair to make common cause with right-wing extremists in his area. The demographic changes in the towns and villages around Birstall and nearby Batley happened a generation or more ago, but it has remained fertile ground for the far right, for whom the many Muslims in the area represent a highly visible enemy.
In the mid 90s, one local man formed an offshoot of the National Alliance, which he called the National Socialist Alliance. In 2006, after a jury at Leeds crown court cleared
, the then BNP leader, and another party member of inciting racial hatred, Griffin hailed West Yorkshire as “an unusually radicalised” part of the UK, meaning, apparently, that he believed a considerable proportion of local people shared his views.
Three years later, when a list of BNP members was leaked, significant numbers of members were found to live in the towns and villages west of Leeds, with a couple of dozen near Birstall.
A year after that, police discovered 54 homemade bombs and a dozen firearms at a house in Batley. The occupant, Terence Gavan, a BNP member, was jailed for 11 years after admitting a series of offences under the Terrorism Act 2000. The court heard that Gavan showed "strong hostility" towards immigrants.
Since then, a number of smaller fringe groups – the British Movement, National Action, the National Front, the Yorkshire Infidels and Liberty GB – have recruited members in the area. The NF, the BNP and Liberty GB fielded candidates in the byelection triggered by the Labour MP’s murder. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Ukip all declined to stand.
Members of the far right have staged several marches in the area over the past two years. Such was the level of concern this year at the local authority, Kirklees council, that it asked Tell Mama, an organisation that monitors anti-Muslim incidents, whether it could help devise a strategy to ease community tensions that were being caused or exacerbated, in part, by the far right.
It appears that Mair, however, had little to do with such groups, perhaps because he was so reclusive. He preferred his relationships with the far right to be long-distance affairs.
He was a frequent visitor to Birstall’s public library, where he liked to use the computers. One of the librarians, Beverley Fletcher, later recalled how would walk in and simply utter the word “computer”. “Thomas Mair doesn’t engage in conversation and he doesn’t give much eye contact,” she told police. “And I don’t remember him ever getting a book out of the library.”
Earlier this year he was using the library’s computers to research such matters as the BNP, white supremacists, Nazis and public shootings.
In the days before he struck he sought out information about the Ku Klux Klan, the Waffen SS, Israel, serial killers and matricide. He read up on the death of Ian Gow, the last MP to have been murdered, killed by an IRA car bomb in 1990. He even called up the Wikipedia page of the former foreign secretary William Hague, a Yorkshire politician who, like Cox, supported the campaign to remain in the UK.
Mair had acquired a firearm, a German made Weihrauch .22 bolt-action rifle, from which the stock and most of the barrel had been removed. It is not clear where the weapon came from. He carried out online research into .22 ammunition, reading one page that offered an answer to the question: “Is a .22 round deadly enough to kill with one shot to a human’s head?” He also bought a replica British army world war two dagger.
Mair was particularly fascinated by the Norwegian Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in gun and bomb attacks in 2011, and kept newspaper clippings about the case. Despite his identification with violent figures of the far right, however, he made little effort to make any real contact with others of a like mind.
Mental health In the immediate aftermath of the murder, there were suggestions among some neighbours that Mair had a history of mental illness.
According to members of his family, he had been treated for obsessive compulsive disorder, and it is said that he was so anxious about cleanliness that he had been known to scrub himself with pan scourers.
Police discovered evidence of behaviour associated with OCD when they searched his home. It was sparse and obsessively orderly, and inside his kitchen cupboards, tinned food was carefully arranged in precise rows, with each labels pointing in exactly the same direction.
Mair himself claimed to be in need of treatment for mental health problems. In 2010, while volunteering at a country park near his home, he suggested to an interviewer from the Huddersfield Examiner that he had previously received such treatment. "Many people who suffer from mental illness are socially isolated and disconnected from society," he said. "Feelings of worthlessness are also common, mainly caused by long-term unemployment."
His defence lawyers, however, put forward no evidence of poor mental health. Mair did not deny murder on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The implication was that he knew what he was doing.
Mair is clearly an extraordinarily troubled individual. Some psychologists who have studied people responsible for acts of “lone-wolf terrorism” have concluded that they frequently identify strongly with one group so strongly that they are prepared to make considerable sacrifices for what they see as the good of the group.
The authors of one study wrote that “positive identification with a group, combined with the perception that this group is being victimised, produces negative identification with the group perpetrating the injustice”. This appears to chime with Mair’s belief that “collaborators” were operating to the detriment of white people.
The authors also found that individuals who are radicalised by a sense of grievance “can be steady, planful and workmanlike – as indeed many lone-wolf attackers seem to have been”.
Those in Birstall who believed Mair to have been odd but harmless say he was devoted to his mother, who lived nearby, and many commented on the way he tended elderly neighbours’ gardens. Neighbours, who knew nothing of his links with white supremacists, said they had no reason to believe he was racist. His half-brother, Duane, whose late father, Reginald, was originally from
, said he had never heard him express racist sentiments.
Others in the town tell a different story. A number of Asian taxi drivers say Mair would utter insulting comments to them. “He’d been reported by a few taxi drivers for making racist remarks,” said Zein Ali, a controller at Oakwell and Rex taxis. “When they dropped him off and he was paying them, he’d say racist things. We always thought he was a racist.”
The books and magazines that police recovered from his home and the examination of library computers on which he had browsed the internet left no room for doubt.
The question remains as to why Mair turned to murder in June, 25 years after he first made contact with the Springbok Club and 17 years after he purchased a manual describing the assembly of a homemade pistol?
Copeland was also a slow burner, taking a number of years to convince himself that he should turn to terrorism. At Copeland's trial, the prosecuting counsel said he had told police that the seed had been planted in July 1996, when the Olympic Games in Atlanta were bombed. The following month, during the Notting Hill carnival in west London, Copeland found himself fantasising about a bomb exploding among the crowds.
“To start with he treated the thought as a joke, but he could not get it out of his head,” said Nigel Sweeney QC. “The thought became stronger. He woke up one day and decided he was going to do it.”
It appears that Mair also woke up one day and decided he was going to do it.
Cox was a vocal supporter of the Remain campaign. Her constituency is a place where anti-European feelings run high, and each day during the referendum campaign, Mair was surrounded by red and orange Vote Leave notices. St George’s cross flags fluttered from windows. His “death to traitors” outburst during his first court appearance shows he regarded Cox as one of “the collaborators”, the white people who had betrayed their race.
Perhaps he was provoked by the far-right literature he devoured. It is possible that, like Copeland, he hoped to become the spark that would ignite a racial war. There is little doubt that he regarded Cox as a “collaborator” by this stage. One of the last searches he conducted on Birstall library computers was into people who had been executed as traitors.
On June 16th, on a warm and sunny afternoon, Mair stepped out of a shadow as Cox walked towards the library where she was due to hold a surgery for constituents. He raised his sawn-off rifle and shot her. Then he pulled her to the ground, dragged her between two parked cars, and stabbed her repeatedly with his dagger. When Bernard Carter-Kenny, a 77-year-old passerby, tried to intervene, Mair stabbed him too. He then stepped back a little, as if he had finished. But when he heard Cox warn her two assistants to flee – shouting “get away, let him hurt me, don’t let him hurt you!” – he stood over her and shot her twice more, and stabbed her again.
Cox was shot twice in the head and once in the chest. Rounds passed through both hands as she tried to protect herself. Some of the eyewitnesses gave evidence at Mair’s trial, but one became so unwell as a consequence of she saw that she could not attend. Mair was said to have appeared calm throughout. Cold was the word one witness used to describe him. They saw Mair swing the knife again and again as he stabbed Cox 15 times in her heart, lungs and abdomen. One blow pierced her chest after passing through her right arm.
He did so, according to the eyewitness, while saying: “Britain first, keep Britain independent, Britain will always come first.”
Finally, he yelled: “This is for Britain.”