Guest post: Muhammad Iqbal on the EDL and Woolwich

My colleague Muhammad Iqbal shows how the EDL’s actions following the Woolwich attack follow its traditional method of mobilising support.


The brutal murder of a British soldier in Woolwich on Thursday sparked immediate reaction by the far-right English Defence League (EDL), with 250 members of the group taking to the streets in protest.

This development should not be surprising, as from its beginnings the EDL mobilised support by preying on citizens’ fears of Muslim extremists.

EDL’s origins

The EDL can trace its roots to the an incident on March, 2009, where a group of Muslim radicals, collectively known at the time as Ahle Sunnah al Jamah, staged a protest and shouted abusive phrases at soldiers returning from active duty in Afghanistan.

Also at the incident was anti-Muslim activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who is now more commonly known as Tommy Robinson. Prior to this incident, Robinson claims to have been active in protesting what he describes as the Islamisation of Luton, going back all the way to 2004 when he and other individuals held up banners saying “Ban the Luton Taliban”.

However, after the incident with the returning troops, and similar protests in other parts of the country, Robinson felt that his struggle should be taken to the national level. He did this through establishing the English Defence League.

From its formation, the EDL gained strength from the activities of Muslim extremists. This is exemplified through both the EDL’s real-world and online activities.

EDL’s online presence

While the EDL does not have an official YouTube account, many of its followers have uploaded videos of EDL related activities or created whole channels dedicated to the group.

This was examined in research I presented at last year’s GTReC conference. As one example, I found that out of 155 videos on one unofficial EDL account, 23% specifically mentioned the Ahle Sunnah al Jamah, one of its successors, or members of these groups. A further 45% of the videos have as its main focus, the supposed dangers of Islam, Muslims and/or Shariah law. Only 32% of these videos did not mention a perceived Muslim threat.

Further analysis of the contents of these videos show that they can also encourage its viewers to demonstrate or rally against the actions of Muslims that were perceived to be “Islamising” Britain.

One such example of this was a string of videos that was in direct response to the launch of a “Shariah Controlled Zone” campaign that was initiated by a group called al-Muhajiroun, the successors of Ahle Sunnah al Jamah. The YouTube videos urged its viewers to attend demonstrations protesting the establishment of such zones, which sometimes drew large numbers.

Such demonstrations have in the past degenerated into violent skirmishes with the police or counter-protest rallies.

The EDL today

In recent years, the EDL have seen a decline in popularity. Whereas its rallies used to attract people in the thousands, the past year or so have seen events attended by only hundreds of people.

However, terror attacks such as the brutal slaying of Lee Rigby can provide the far-right group with a platform through which they can revive their divisive and destructive activities. The surge of new followers on their twitter account, and the fact that their Facebook account boasts more than 100,000 “likes” since the attack, shows that they are well poised to exploit such tragedies. So far, this has also translated to a spike in attendance of EDL rallies, with a rally in Newcastle attracting between 1500 to 2000 supporters. This was then followed by a march through London, which attracted around 1000 people.

The actions of the EDL will do nothing but further fuel this cycle of hatred, and in the face of such tragedy, cooler heads need to prevail.


Muhammad Iqbal is a researcher at the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC). He is a graduate of Monash University’s Master of International Relations, completing a dissertation on the historical development of Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia. His interests include radical movements in Indonesia and Australia, as well as progressive Islamic thought and movements in Indonesia.

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