What is the English Defence League?
The English Defence League (EDL) is a racist organisation whose main activity is street demonstrations against the Muslim community. Although it claims only to oppose Islamic extremism it targets the entire Muslim community and its actions deliberately seek to whip up tensions and violence between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
Many of its protests have resulted in violence and it taps into wider anti-Muslim feeling. What started as a loose network of football hooligans is developing into a new social movement.
The EDL emerged in Luton in March 2009 in the aftermath of a protest by a handful of Islamist extremists at the homecoming parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment through the town.
It now has thousands of supporters across the country. What began as a loose alliance of people around various social networking websites is increasingly turning into an organisation with a national, regional and local structure.
Between 2009-2011 the EDL was without doubt the largest social movement in the country, often holding councils and local authorities to ransom with its demands carrying the threat of up to 3000 EDL members descending on towns and cities and bringing them to a standstill.
In 2011 however, the wheels of the EDL juggernaut appeared to come off. The Norwegian racist killer Anders Breivik cited the EDL as an inspiration. Several high profile EDL activists were recorded admitting their support for Breivik's actions in killing 77 people in two terror attacks, many of them teenagers.
The EDL's leader Stephen Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) was later filmed seemingly admitting his admiration for the killer, though Lennon has denied he made these comments. Throughout 2011 a series of exposures in the national and international media exposed the heart of the EDL as part of an international network of extremists targeting Muslims around the world. This movement, the "Counter-Jihad" movement, had a number of small-time English businessmen and women at its heart, as well as the street army that is the EDL.
The leadership even had a very short-lived foray into politics that ended in disarray and humiliation.
After the Breivik exposures and a series of other exposures that seemed to tear away the EDL's very thin veneer of not being a fascist or racist organisation, ordinary activists seemed to tire of the organisation and splits emerged. Some of the more damaging allegations included the engagement in paedophilia by one of its founding members.
Lennon, along with his co-leader and cousin Kevin Carroll are both natives of the town of Luton. They run the EDL and its lucrative merchandising arm ruthlessly. Those who show dissent are often violently removed from the organisation and as a result of this and growing frustration with the EDL's direction, the organisation has been in a near terminal decline for over a year.
In September 2012 the group suffered a massive humiliation when it was prevented by locals from marching in Walthamstow, east London. The fallout from which reopened a festering sore with the rival BNP, whose leader Nick Griffin described the EDL's leader as a "big girl's blouse" in an appeal for the EDL activist base to move to the BNP. Many EDL activists broke away to form their own groups or quit the movement entirely.
In January 2013, Lennon pleaded guilty to "possession of a false identity document with improper intention" at Southwark Crown Court. He was sentenced to ten months imprisonment, but was released on electronic tag in February. Lennon had used the false passport to gain entry into the United States in late 2012.
A career criminal, Lennon has a number of criminal convictions, including football violence related convictions. The EDL is a non-membership organisation and so has often been viewed by Lennon and Carroll as their own private army. It is estimated that there are 700 criminal convictions directly linked to the EDL and its supporter base. This includes fire-bombings and even murder. The EDL is always quick to distance itself from the more heinous of these crimes.
EDL demonstrations, even after Lennon's release from prison, dwindled to mere handfuls of alcohol-fuelled desperados' intent on drinking and fighting their way into prison.
The murder of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London, in May 2013 has been jumped upon by Lennon as a way of rebuilding the organisation. Until Rigby's death, Lennon had shown no real interest in further EDL activities, but found his way to Newcastle on the 25th of May 2013 to address over 1500 people at an already planned march.
A social media led organisation, many people judge the size of the EDL primarily on its facebook page(s). The EDL has certainly gained a massive boost to its numbers on social media sites since Drummer Lee Rigby's murder, but building an accurate picture of its "membership" has also proved difficult.
An estimate would be that there are now between 500-1500 people actively engaged in the day-to-day activities of the group. This is likely to decline again, in time. An offer from the BNP leader Nick Griffin for Lennon to join him on an illegal protest in Woolwich was rebuffed by Lennon out of hand and it is likely that the ongoing enmity between the two will also increase as their followers dwindle again.