Tommy, spokesman for the English Defence League (EDL), was adamant: there were to be no pictures of him or the other masked men holding the makeshift swastika flag before it was set alight. Otherwise, it might look as though they were supporting Nazism – which, we were assured, they abhorred.
It was both sinister and comic, this nocturnal gathering in a disused office block near the centre of Luton. There were 16 of them, mostly big men in black balaclavas sewn up into masks, wearing black T-shirts sporting the Cross of St George. The location had been kept secret until the last minute to preserve “security”
The boys of the EDL “Luton Division” were milling about in the half darkness as The Daily Telegraph was shown in. Most appeared a little jumpy, unsure of their role in the coming stunt, but not the man going by the name of Tommy Robinson. He was smaller than most of them, but clearly in charge. Articulate, too. Look around, he said, couldn’t we see there were black men here, as well as whites. This was not a racist organisation.
“We are doing this to challenge Islamic extremists who have been unchallenged in our country for 10 to 15 years. They are recruiting on our streets and colleges and the government is doing nothing.”
While many far-Right groups should not be allowed the oxygen of publicity, the potential menace of the EDL appears to make it an exception.
If you don’t know about the EDL, the chances are you soon will.
The group is due to demonstrate in Manchester today, the latest of a series of outings that have resulted in running street battles with young Muslims and anti-fascist protesters. Another gathering is planned for Leeds, promising more trouble in northern England, following incidents in Luton and Birmingham.
The organisation, if such it can be called, is a child of the internet. Its immediate origin can be traced to March when a small group of Muslim anti-war protesters heckled members of the Royal Anglian Regiment parading through Luton following their return from Iraq. They carried placards, one of which accused the Anglians of being the “Butchers of Basra”.
The protesters were drawn from a small group of Muslim extremists in Luton – Bedfordshire Police say there are just 20 or so in a town that is home to 27,000 Muslims. But their actions were enough to trigger the creation of the EDL, which since then has been a main ingredient in violent confrontations with Muslims and anti-fascists across the country, despite its stated aim of peaceful opposition to Islamist extremism and the imposition in Britain of Sharia.
Incidents include a running battle in Luton in May during which EDL supporters and others attacked property and passers-by in a predominantly Asian area, resulting in 35 arrests. There have also been outbreaks of violence in Birmingham, most recently on September 5 when a collection of overt EDL supporters and hooligans poured into the city centre for a “peaceful” demonstration, before clashing with Muslim youths and anti-fascist campaigners. Penned into a pub by police, the demonstrators chanted “Allah, allah, who the —- is allah?” They were eventually removed from Birmingham in two double-decker buses, but not before 90 arrests were made.
“There was no intent to protest,” said Sharon Rowe, assistant chief constable of West Midlands Police. “Once there was fighting on streets the EDL just wanted to get out of city.”
The organisation, she said, had been offered the opportunity to demonstrate peacefully in a less sensitive location in the city, and had deliberately ignored it.
The Birmingham incident was followed by more violence in Harrow, north London, when a group of EDL and other anti-Islamic activists attempted to demonstrate outside a mosque, provoking a mass counter-demonstration by Muslims. Ten people were arrested. As a result, a planned EDL rally in Luton on September 19 was banned under an order which prohibits any political marches in the town for three months.
But who are the people who constitute the English Defence League?
The answer lies in a combination of anti-Islamic internet bloggers, who constitute the EDL’s intellectual ‘elite’, organised football hooligan ‘firms’, who provide the street-fighting muscle, and agitators from the Far Right who spy an opportunity to enflame racial tensions which have grown up around the Muslim community following the bombings in London on July 7 2005.
The EDL claims “thousands” of members in scores of branches, but it is in reality a far more defuse entity, its website serving as a rallying point for a loose network of followers. Its foot soldiers are the ‘casuals’ hooligan groups – in Luton it is the MIGS (Men in Gear), supposed supporters of Luton Town FC. Associates include David Cooling, a 26-year-old driver from Luton who is believed to administer the Luton EDL page on the Facebook website.
One of the organization’s principle strategists is a man calling himself Alan Lake, who works as an IT consultant in the City and has helped create the organisation’s intranet. Mr Lake, who is 45, single and originally from the north of England, has advised the Far Right Swedish Democrats on tactics. He told the Daily Telegraph that he became interested in Islamic writings some four years ago through a love of Arabic music and became alarmed by the religion’s “supremacist” aspect.
“I learned that you can’t afford to stay asleep and there is a problem that is not going to go away. The texts are an ideology preaching racism and fascism.”
Mr Lake admits to having met Robinson and some 10 other EDL supporters, but denies any connection to the Far Right. The political class, he says, has caved in to Muslim pressure at the expense of basic freedoms.
“We are worn out with words, you need to have people on the streets. You have to get the message out.”
Lake is seeking to harness football hooligan ‘firms’ by timing demonstrations to coincide with matches, yet denies an intent to cause violence.
“These guys are prepared to demonstrate, and they are already there because there is a match. This is a dirty, nasty, difficult struggle and you have to work with what is available.”
And the racist, anti-Muslim chanting?
“If a dog got kicked, would you expect it bark or lodge an official complaint? You can’t expect everybody to be an articulate, middle-class intellectual. You have a bunch of people here who are no longer represented by the Government. They are ignored and used and abused, and relegated to second class status by an ideology which is racist.”
The BNP has designated the EDL a “proscribed organisation” but, according to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, that is standard practice for the party when attempting to establish ‘deniability’.
“There should be no underestimating the potential damage this disorder can cause,” says Nick Lowles, the magazine’s editor. “We only have to remember the events of 2001 to see how the actions of small groups of white racists triggered three riots which ripped apart communities and catapulted the British National Party into national prominence.”
Back in the clandestine EDL gathering in Luton, they had brought along a black shirt to burn as well – in response to an attack by John Denham, the communities secretary, who had likened the League to Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts.
The rule, though, is: never perform with children, animals or Nazi flags. Try as the man with cigarette lighter might, the flag stubbornly refused to ignite, hanging down in its embarrassing entirety, barely smouldering at the edge. Even the boys of the EDL couldn’t resist a laugh at this public relations cock-up. Eventually, one of their number seized a can of petrol and – whoosh! – up it went.
“There are no racists or fascists in the English Defence League,” said one. “We are black and white, united. The proof is in the pudding.”
The ‘pudding’ being the black members present, none of whom appeared entirely clear why they were here. Questions about their reasons for affiliating with the EDL raised only mumbled answers. The statements read out by the ringleaders were a shade more eloquent.
“The word fascist has been bandied about without any evidence of us being so,” said one. “This we see as an irresponsible act. Leave us to peaceful protest – our democratic right.”
Tommy continued: “We have been labelled as Nazis and racists, but we are not. The easiest way for the Government and the Islamic community to deal with this problem is to label us as Nazis.”
Why the intimidating paramilitary-style balaclavas?
“Every town that has an Islamic community has a group of mad-mullah extremists.”
Another leading member, who uses the name Howard, has said that the “main focus” of his job in the group is to remove racist comments from its message board, such is the number of offensive views it attracts.
This week dozens of group members were also told by the leadership to remove themselves from an anti-Muslim internet group which had as its logo a montage of Osama bin Laden and a monkey.
The EDL, according to Tommy, had 3,700 members. Membership cards would soon be issued and yearly subs charged. The aim was to force people like Anjem Choudary, founder of two banned Islamist groups, from campaigning on the streets of Britain. Faced with the possibility of violence during his appearances, the Government would eventually be forced to act.
The threat posed to public order by groups such as the EDL is not yet clear, but it is not only ad hoc, internet-generated groups that pose a risk. In the last 18 months, two Far Right extremists have been have been convicted of planning bomb attacks against Muslim targets. Both were ‘lone wolves’ – men who had built crude explosive devices alone in their homes – and who were caught purely by chance by officers investigating other offences. Others may be out there, their views fed by Far Right propaganda on the web.
Luton has already had a taste of such amateurish, yet potentially lethal, terrorism. In May, the Islamic centre in Bury Park Road, one of the more liberal Muslim institutions in Luton, was fire-bombed.
Farasat Latif, secretary of the centre, said a number of threats from extremists had been received. “People say for the first time that they feel vulnerable,” he said.
Robinson sees it differently. “Everybody is treading on eggshells all the time, trying not to offend the Islamic community,” he said, as his boys headed into the darkness.
“How do you think it went?” he asked later, in a text message, about the flag burning. It seemed better not to answer.
The EDL had eventually managed to get its Nazi flag to go up in flames. The question is whether it can ignite racial and religious tensions in Britain’s Muslim enclaves.