Before the murder of Lee Rigby the English Defence League was dying. Now its leaders claim serving soldiers are joining the anti-Islamist group.
Speaking outside the warehouse in Luton where the EDL’s first press conference was hosted in 2009, leader Stephen Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, told Channel 4 News how his organisation is once again on the rise.
The group almost folded earlier this year with high profile arrests of leading members and protests drawing just handfuls of supporters, but within hours of the murder of Lee Rigby a vocal crowd of EDL supporters had gathered in Woolwich in front of the world’s press.
“Since Woolwich, in a terrible way, it gave people a platform to listen to what we were saying…it’s common sense what we stand for and everyone’s agreeing,” Stephen Lennon proclaimed.
Our military are trained to fight against Sharia and then when they come home are they supposed to turn that off?
Stephen Lennon, EDL leader
“This campaign’s been going on for four years to demonise our organisation – now it’s been blown out of the water.
“Since Woolwich there’s a massive influx of support from every walk of life, people are just saying enough is enough.”
Mr Lennon claimed that the organisations numbers are “massive”, with thousands joining the organisations on marches in central London, Newcastle and Woolwich in the week after Lee Rigby’s murder.
At the group’s latest rally in Birmingham on Saturday, bottles and cans were thrown at police. Officers were also showered with broken glass and pieces of slate after EDL supporters, some wearing balaclavas, confronted police. Four people were arrested.
In the days after the Woolwich attack, the EDL’s Facebook page went from just 20k supporters to over 151,000. On-the-street support for the organisation grew, with demonstrations drawing large numbers.
Mr Lennon claims his arrival in Woolwich shortly after the murder was not an opportunistic act; “I went there to show solidarity. It was my son’s birthday but I couldn’t sit at home so I went straight there.
“We’re passionate about our armed forces. The EDL was created in defence of our armed forces, we will continue to defend our armed forces.”
He went on to claim he receives messages of support “from every regiment in this country on a weekly basis”.
“Our military are trained to fight against Sharia and then when they come home are they supposed to turn that off? They’re trained to fight and battle this. We’re the only ones that dare speak up against Islamist ideology.”
Colchester MP Bob Russell raised fears over membership of the EDL by serving members of the armed forces in parliament – the Defence Minister Mark Francois clarified that following Lee Rigby’s death soldiers were urged “not to get drawn into the politics of this incident”.
One former soldier, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has told Channel 4 News that in the aftermath of Woolwich he made the decision to become and EDL supporter.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing for his job and personal safety, he claimed that seeing a soldier attacked in Woolwich was “the last straw.”
He said: “I joined up and served in Iraq and Afghanistan, I found the adjustment difficult, the first month I was looking forward to civilian life but it hit me hard…adjusting to civilian life.
“After Woolwich I started taking part in demonstrations, I went to the memorial for Lee Rigby, you can just turn up and show your support.
“What surprised me was the amount of serving and ex-soldiers at these demonstrations, I had a chat with a few of the lads. I went with an open mind and wanted to see but it seems like the EDL are the only ones showing support to serving soldiers and veterans.”
A man at the Birmingham rally on Saturday said he was a serving soldier and showed an Army ID card which Channel 4 News understands is genuine.
Asked how many other soldiers were at the demonstration, he replied: “Loads. More than you can ever imagine.” There was no way of verifying that claim.
A Channel 4 News investigation has seen social networking profiles from hundreds of serving members of the armed forces who have liked EDL related pages.
Groups that seek to inflame tension and set one part of the community against the other have no place in the Armed Forces
Using Facebook’s new Graph Search feature, Channel 4 News was able to bring scroll through pages and pages of uniformed soldiers, some of whom had liked multiple EDL pages including the organisations “Armed Forces Division”.
The total numbers of soldiers who have declared their support for the group remains unclear, but it is unlikely to be more than a small minority of armed forces personnel.
A statement from the MOD has claimed that Queens Regulations forbid regular service personnel in uniform taking “any active part in the affairs of any political organisation, party or movement and they are not to participate in political marches or demonstrations”.
“Groups that seek to inflame tension and set one part of the community against the other have no place in the Armed Forces and racism of any kind is completely unacceptable”, an MOD statement explained.
“Members of the Armed Forces are free to join lawful political parties and are entitled to their beliefs and no restriction is placed upon the attendance at political meetings provided that uniform is not worn.”