His path to that moment of ‘glory’ had led him from being a Conservative activist to UKIP, where he served as chief adviser to Nigel Farage. In 2014 he was appointed London editor of Breitbart News, the extreme right-wing publication funded by Robert Mercer and run by Steve Bannon, which was credited by Farage as having “helped hugely” with Brexit. Kassam has also previously worked for the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the influential lobbying group run by Vote Leave CEO Matthew Elliott.
Kassam’s career as a “journalist” began at the right-wing online magazine The Commentator, from which he was sacked for what the publication described as “gross and extreme misconduct”. His writing since then has been marked by a particular animus against Muslims. In 2017 he published his book No Go Zones: How Sharia Law Is Coming to a Neighborhood Near You, to the applause of extreme right-wingers such as Tommy Robinson (grateful, it seems, for all the positive coverage Kassam had given him). The anti-Muslim shock-jock and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was only too delighted to let Kassam plug the book on his InfoWars channel, where Kassam claimed that “there are vast swathes of Europe, and indeed here in the United States now, that are turning into enclaves for migrants…establishing their Koranic law, their Islamic rules.”
Kassam is particularly noted for the abuse he directs at those he sees as political enemies or rivals. For instance, in June 2016 he tweeted that Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should have her “mouth taped shut. And her legs, so she can’t reproduce“. In January 2018, he told Sky News that London had become “a shithole” under Mayor Sadiq Khan, echoing the word used by Donald Trump to describe non-white countries.
His views are seen as extreme even by some within UKIP. Former UKIP leadership candidate Suzanne Evans, for instance, has described him as “toxic”. Kassam had probably not endeared himself to Evans by referring to her in tweets as “a wrinkly old ginger bird” and “a rotting corpse”.
In September 2014 Kassam accompanied Farage on a trip to the US that helped connect the then UKIP leader to leading far-right ideologues and funders in that country, including Bannon and Robert Mercer. Farage reportedly later wrote that it was this that convinced him and Kassam of “the extraordinary power of online media”. According to the anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate, “Kassam has been widely held responsible for the implementation of the ‘shock and awful’ TV debate strategy, whereby Farage would make inflammatory, xenophobic comments – such as deploying statistics about foreigners with HIV and referring to a ‘fifth column’ of Muslims in the UK.”
In 2015, Kassam and his close associate Matthew Richardson were sacked as Farage’s advisers after UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn described them as “wrong ‘uns” who wanted to take UKIP “in a direction of some hard right ultra-aggressive American Tea Party movement.”. O’Flynn observed that they had helped turn Farage into a “snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive” man and risked turning the party into a “personality cult”.
Undeterred, in October 2016 Kassam made a bid for the UKIP leadership, describing himself as “the “Faragest of the Faragists“. He was supported in this by the party’s main funder Arron Banks, but withdrew from the contest at the last minute, perhaps realising he had little chance of winning.
His chances had not been improved by his calling for ex-members of fascist organisations such as the BNP and the English Defence League (EDL) to be admitted to the party, or by his having addressed a rally of the far-right anti-Muslim group Pegida in Birmingham earlier that year, alongside Pegida’s German founder Lutz Bachmann. Kassam has also profiled Bachmann, who has been convicted of inciting racial hatred, in glowing terms for Breitbart.
One senior UKIP source was quoted as saying: “He associates with Tommy Robinson and spoke at a Pegida rally… If someone like Kassam wanted to stand as a UKIP candidate for their local council they wouldn’t be allowed. But he’s allowed to publicly disgrace us by standing for leader.”
Kassam’s extreme views were no obstacle to his being appointed managing editor of Breitbart News – quite the opposite. This gave him a high-profile platform to pursue his far-right agenda – and to offer support to the Brexit campaign of Banks, Farage and Leave.EU. It appears that this support may have gone beyond running frequent stories attacking the EU and immigrants.
In October 2017, two whistle-blowers from within UKIP filed complaints over the “unusual arrangements” they claimed the party had made with Breitbart in the months before the referendum. They alleged that individuals paid by Breitbart were working as senior unpaid UKIP volunteers. No such support had been declared to the Electoral Commission (as the law requires) and, if the allegations were true, this would have constituted an indirect – and illegal – political donation by a foreign donor, Breitbart being an American-owned publication. The Guardian quoted UKIP sources expressing alarm at “what they viewed as a ‘deliberate strategy’ by Breitbart to wield influence over the Party in ways that emphasised views against migrants and other far-right positions”.