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English Defense League (EDL)

Insurgency Overview

The English Defence League (EDL) is a right-wing group based in the UK that believes English society is under attack from Muslim extremists and seeks to use tactics such as protest, marching, and propaganda to counter what they see as an invasion of British culture and politics by Islam. The EDL was founded in Luton, England, in 2009 by Kevin Carroll and Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, a.k.a. Tommy Robinson. The group’s mission statement, which now appears to have been taken down from the internet, used to read that they were leading “the struggle against global Islamification.” They also believe in “rape jihad”, where they argue that rape is ingrained into Islamic texts and that Muslim people are coming to the UK to rape English women. They blame the Muslim community in England for many issues, such as organized sexual abuse of children, oppression of women, honor killing, homophobia, female genital mutilation, and anti-Semitism and intolerance of non-Muslims. Indeed, the group was formed by Carroll and Robinson in response to what they called “militant Islam.” (1)

Robinson (often known in the UK media by his pseudonym, Tommy Robinson), has also used other names – such as Andrew McMaster and Paul Harris – to protect himself against violence. He led the EDL from its founding in 2009 to 2013, and has continued to participate in far-right politics in the UK, sometimes surging in prominence. (2) He was also present at the recent far-right clash at the Cenotaph war memorial in the UK, where a group of far-right extremists counter-protested against the Palestine solidarity march taking place in London on the same day. (3) The EDL itself went from being only a small group in 2009 to gathering thousands at marches only two years later. Yet, by 2018, the antifascist organization Hope Not Hate was referring to the EDL as being in a “lethargic and alcohol-fuelled almost comic collapse.”(4) The group went from looking like an organized street movement and talking about forming as a political party in the UK, (5) to disbanding in 2015 and now only exists as a splintered presence on Facebook and in various other far-right networks in the UK. However, with Robinson’s recent appearance at the far-right’s clash with police at the Cenotaph war memorial in London, it is possible that former and prospective EDL members could coalesce once again into a more codified movement in the coming years.

History & Origins

The story of the EDL’s founding centers on the founders’ opposition of Islam, and their determination to react against any Muslim presence in England, or the country’s political culture. After its founding in 2009, the EDL took part in vigilante marches in local communities around England, sometimes clashing with police, and according to Matthew Collins from the NGO Hope Not Hate, in a short few years the EDL “went from being concerned about extremism to radicalizing themselves.” (6) The group’s clashes with police and visible street presence at marches led to it having a public image of violence and extremism, to the extent that the group’s founders abandoned it, citing this as their reasoning. While both have been important figures in far-right politics in the UK, they felt that the EDL had become too radical for them in 2013, four years after its creation. A poll done the same year (2013) by the Mail on Sunday, a popular tabloid in the UK, discovered that 61% of its 1,121 survey participants thought that the existence of groups like the EDL raised the likelihood of terrorism. (7) There are no accessible member lists for the EDL but the group is thought to have had a membership of 30,000 at its peak in 2013, before it was abandoned by its founders. (8) It is possible that the EDL’s demise was due to a fundamental tension between its organizers’ slogans, and the behavior of its proponents at rallies. The slogan “not racist, not violent, just no longer silent” was drowned out at their rallies by racist chants, and overshadowed by the overlap in membership between the EDL and other groups like the British National Party and National Front. (4)

All of the EDL’s former social media channels have been suspended and its members have scattered throughout other various far-right organizations and networks in Britain, with many taking to the streets in the recent far-right clashes with police at the Cenotaph war memorial, where Robinson also made his presence known. The EDL’s website has been offline since April 2020, after which the group created an online radio show on a website called BlogTalkRadio. They also created a Gab account in 2017, however this account has seemed to have been put on indefinite hold within a few years, and so the main contact points for former EDL members appear to be Tommy Robinson’s newsletter and the personal networks that were formed and remain after the group’s more organized activity in the 2010s.

Objectives & Ideology

The official goals of the EDL are to stand against what it calls ‘militant Islam’, which it equates to an invasion of the UK. During a 2009 homecoming parade for British soldiers in Luton to mark their return from Iraq, there was a disruption by Muslim extremists: the founding of the EDL was sparked by Carroll and Robinson’s reaction against this event. The Muslim protesters waved placards at the soldiers’ parade reading:  “Anglian Soldiers: Butchers of Basra” and “Anglian Soldiers: cowards, killers, extremists.” (6) Two people were arrested at the event. From here followed the anti-Islam ideology of the EDL, with Muslims being seen as an invading force into UK culture and politics. Many issues are blamed by the EDL on Muslim influence, such as the denigration of women, organized sexual abuse, and more. (1) The group sees itself as a defender of British values, including the army, with Robinson telling Channel 4 News in 2013 he was “extremely passionate about our troops”. He was later dismayed when the veterans’ charity, Help For Heroes, rejected donations raised by his sponsored walk. (6)

EDL members or associates feel that human rights are threatened by the presence of a Muslim community in Britain. A YouGov survey of 1,600 EDL supporters found that these views also influenced their ideas about immigration: this was a top concern they chose, followed by the economy, and then “Muslims in Britain.” The researcher who conducted this survey, Matthew Goodwin, told Channel 4 News that the EDL’s concerns are more broadly focused on the direction that Britain is headed in, saying, “It’s a broader fear about society, rather than a fear of Muslim terrorists. It is much more nuanced.” (6)  This fear about the unfamiliarity of a developing society can be seen in many far-right ideologies, and in that sense, although the EDL’s focus on Islam is very specific, the grounding of its ideology is extremely rooted in the usual tenets of the extreme right. The group insists that it is not racist, or fascist; however, those bearing the EDL insignia have been seen doing Nazi salutes at rallies, and over the years the membership became steadily more extreme, moving towards fascism.

Approach to Resistance

The central tension in the EDL’s organizational methods is most clearly seen in its various tactics of resistance. Despite claiming to be non-violent, the group participated in multiple clashes with police throughout its years of being active on the streets of Britain. It is arguable that the group initially grew so rapidly because of its broad tent approach to ideology: with its framework less clearly defined, the EDL could become an umbrella under which many with anti-Islamic ideas could gather, combining those with less extreme views with a more radicalized right-wing contingent. This meant, however, that the tactics of marching or distributing propaganda online, could easily spill into acts of violence by those members with more extreme ideas. One such instance was that of Darren Osbourne in 2017, a British man who drove his car into a crowd outside a mosque in London, killing one person and wounding nine; Osbourne was later found to have been radicalized over the space of a few weeks by the writings of Yaxley, Robinson, and other far-right figures. Then, in 2015, 50 EDL supporters were collectively sentenced to more than 75 years in prison for violent disorder. (1)

Whether violence or non-violent, the main tactic of the EDL was marching and  gathering a street presence in significant locations. As well as London, the members targeted their actions in locations with large Muslim communities, such as Bradford, Birmingham, and Newcastle. This tactic grew the EDL membership and made them, for a short few years, the most prominent far-right presence on UK streets since the 1970s when the National Front was using similar tactics. It is possible that this tactic began as a counter-protest action against extremist Muslim demonstrations, of which there were relatively few however. Online communication was also extremely important to the EDL, even when its presence on the ground was growing. According to a Guardian investigation in 2010, the EDL online division for army personnel had 842 at the time, perhaps illustrating the success of the group’s rhetoric of patriotism as well as its online reach. (9)

At its peak the EDL maintained Facebook pages for 17 regional chapters around the country; their online outreach mainly utilized Facebook, Twitter, and the EDL website, which contained a user forum. Their Facebook pages were suspended in 2019, and EDL leadership recommended that members instead connect with each other on their website forum. By this time however, interest had waned in the EDL: the group’s main Facebook page only had 2,728 likes in March 2019, and was suspended by 2020. The EDL Twitter page was suspended in 2017, and the deplatforming of Robinson’s own Twitter followed a year later in 2018. Following the Twitter suspension in 2017, the group created a Gab account. However, as of January 2024, this account only has 1,100 followers. (10)

While the more overtly hateful rhetoric remained in forums and on social media, the EDL’s leadership focused instead on their aims of peacefully protesting ‘militant Islam,’ and expressed desires to enter British politics on more official grounds as a political party. (1) This range of tactics allowed the EDL to reach a range of different audiences – online, offline and via the UK mainstream media – yet the disparate nature of the tactics arguably also led the group to struggle with internal coherence and led to their collapse, with the extremism of many of the EDL’s followers going beyond what its founders intended and proving uncontrollable. This eventually led to its dissolution and the scattering of its members throughout the various far-right networks and initiatives throughout the UK.

International Relations & Potential Alliances

Perhaps the most interesting alliance at play with those involved in the EDL, is that of the group’s relationship to football hooliganism. UK football hooligan culture is not inherently right-wing, however, there are crossovers between EDL involvement and some football hooligans. Some EDL members stated “you need an army for war” to encourage football supporters to take part in their rallies, perhaps for the purposes of intimidating the Muslim communities where they were being held. (11) This link was present from the beginning in 2009. Early on, as the EDL was being founded, there was also a group called the British Citizens Against Muslim Extremists, based in Birmingham, which was later absorbed as a local faction into the growing national organization of the EDL. This gradual splintering and absorption between the EDL and different anti-Muslim groups has been a hallmark of its development since 2009, and is now a continued feature of its limited, underground existence. Rather than existing as a force in British politics or protest today, the EDL is more a collection of personal relationships and online gatherings in the less moderated areas of the internet. Many of its members (such as they can still be called so) have dissipated into other right-wing networks in the UK, which they may have always had connections with. This includes the Nazi music and promotion network, Blood and Honour, which has documented links to the ruling Conservative Party in Britain, as well as the remains of the British National Party, the National Front and even UKIP. (3) 

While the EDL faded from British political news after 2018, it laid the modernizing groundwork for radical right-wing politics in the UK. The key principle of this was breaking with the more explicit racism of previous movements like the BNP, and focusing instead on a much narrower anti-Islamic platform that its leaders sought to prevent from widening into an anti-immigration stance. This distanced them from the rest of the UK far-right, but ensured them an increased reach amongst people who subscribed to Islamophobic views. (12) This narrow focus was reflected in the contrast between the BNP’s “Outlaw Homosexuality” stickers and the EDL’s LGBTQ+ division. The EDL was perhaps the first right-wing group to position the right to be queer as a ‘Western value’ that could be used as a wedge issue to radicalize more people against the Muslim community. It is debatable how genuine this view was among the EDL membership, but it simultaneously made them more palatable, and more distant from explicitly fascist far-right groups such as the National Front – though the EDL did release a 2011 manifesto sharing some wording with BNP propaganda. 

Therefore, while the EDL lacked codified alliances with both mainstream political parties and other extremist groups, they instead pioneered methods of presenting far-right ideas that have echoed through British politics since. The positing of anti-Islam ideas as protection of human rights has outlasted the group, with the 2018-19 UKIP leader, Gerard Batton, quoting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights during his speech at the 2018 ‘Day for Freedom’ rally in London. (12) The recent clashes at the Cenotaph in the UK mark the appearance offline of these informal relationships, as Robinson could be spotted there alongside other far-right figures. Robinson did not participate in clashes with police; he instead walked with the protesters to Whitehall and then departed. However, Robinson later stated on Twitter (now X), “If you want the EDL back, Rishi, I could easily organize that for you.” (3)

Works Cited (Chicago)

(1) ‘English Defence League’. Counter Terrorism Project. Accessed 19 January 2024. 

(2) Michael, Tom; Steed, Les. ‘Who is Tommy Robinson? Former EDL founder and far-right activist.’ The Sun. 29 July 2020. Accessed 19 January 2024.

(3) Dugan, Emily. ‘Tommy Robinson: Cenotaph clashes could mark return of far-right figure’. The Guardian. 12 November 2023. Accessed 19 January 2024. 

(4) Wilding, Mark. ‘The rise and demise of the EDL’. Vice. 12 March 2018. Accessed 19 January 2024. 

(5) Atkins, Chris; Bignell, Paul. ‘Far-right group ‘to become a political party’’. The Independent. 6 March 2011. Accessed 19 January 2024. 

(6) Channel 4 News. ‘Far-right extremism: who are the EDL’. Channel 4. 28 May 2013. Accessed 19 January 2024. 

(7) ‘Woolrich Reactions Poll’. Survation. May 24, 2013. Accessed 19 January 2024. 

(8) BBC News. ‘EDL leader Tommy Robinson quits group’. BBC. October 8, 2013. Accessed 19 January 2024. 

(9) Taylor, Mattew. ‘English Defence League: Inside the violent world of Britain's new far right’. The Guardian. 28 May 2010. Accessed 19 January 2024. 

(10) English Defence League. Gab. Accessed 24 January 2024.

(11) Booth, Robert; Lewis, Paul; Taylor, Matthew. ‘English Defence League: chaotic alliance stirs up trouble on streets’. The Guardian. 12 September 2009. Access 19 January 2024. 

(12) Dr. Muhall, Joe. ‘Modernising and Mainstreaming: The Contemporary British Far Right’. Hope Not Hate. 29 July 2019. Accessed 24 January 2024. 

Additional Resources


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