Their aim? To drive out Islamic extremism. Their weapon? The thugs of Britain’s most violent football gangs
On Platform One at Bolton station a mob of around 100 men punch the air in unison. The chant goes up: ‘Muslim bombers, off our streets, Muslim bombers off our streets…’
Their voices echo loudly and more men suddenly appear; startled passengers move aside. The group march forward waving St George Cross flags and holding up placards. The throng of men around me applaud. A train heading for Glasgow draws up on the opposite platform and the men turn as one, bursting into song: ‘Engelaand, Engelaand, Engelaand.’
Some of the men hide behind balaclavas, others wear black hoodies. A few speak on mobile phones, their hands pressed against their ears to block out the cacophony.
‘It’s already kicking off in Manchester. This could be tasty,’ shouts one. These are some of the most violent football hooligans in Britain and today they have joined together in an unprecedented show of strength. Standing shoulder to shoulder are notorious gangs – or ‘firms’ as they are known – such as Cardiff City’s Soul Crew, Bolton Wanderers’ Cuckoo Boys and Luton Town’s Men In Gear.
The gathering is remarkable, as on a match day these men would be fighting each other. But it is politics that has drawn them together. They are headed for Manchester to support a march by the burgeoning English Defence League.
The police are here in force, too. ‘Take that mask off,’ barks a sergeant to one young man. He does so immediately but protests: ‘Why are they allowed to wear burkas in public but we’re not allowed to cover our faces?’
‘Just do what you’re told,’ the policeman snaps back.
‘It’s always the same these days. One rule for them and another for us. I’m sick of this country,’ a man standing next to me says in a West Country accent.
He draws on a cigarette then flicks it to the ground in disgust. He starts to complain again but when the tannoy announces the arrival of the train to Manchester Piccadilly he raises his hands above his head and starts another favourite.
‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves… Britons never, never, never…’ His companions join in. As the train comes to a halt the crowd surges forward.
The carriages are almost full so the men pack themselves into the aisles followed by policemen speaking into radios. A group of lads drinking beer at a table eye the new contingent warily.
One man wearing a baseball cap clocks their fear and reassures them.
‘It’s all right lads, nothing to worry about. We’re protesting against radical Islam. Come and join us.’
Further up the carriage another bursts into song.
‘We had joy, we had fun, we had Muslims on the run,’ he starts up. Nobody joins in and a couple of his mates tell him to ‘shut up’ as they point to a woman dressed in a black hijab sitting at a table.
A man standing close to her is masked and holds a placard. It has a picture of a Muslim woman crying with red blood streaming down her face. ‘Sharia law oppresses women!’ the slogan reads.
The rise of the English Defence League has been rapid. Since its formation at the start of the summer the group has organised nearly 20 major protests in Britain’s cities, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Luton, Nottingham, Glasgow and Swansea.
Its leaders are professional and articulate and they claim that the EDL is a peaceful, non-racist organisation. But having spent time with them, there is evidence that this movement has a more disturbing side. There is talk of the need for a ‘street army’, and there are links with football hooligans and evidence that violent neo-Nazi groups including Combat 18, Blood and Honour and the British Freedom Fighters have been attending demos.
Violence has erupted at most of the EDL’s demonstrations. In total, nearly 200 people have been arrested and an array of weapons has been seized, including knuckledusters, a hammer, a chisel and a bottle of bleach.
As the EDL gains support across the UK, Muslims have already been targeted in unprovoked attacks. In the worst incident, a mob of 30 white and black youths is said to have surrounded Asian students near City University in central London and attacked them with metal poles, bricks and sticks while shouting racist abuse. Three people – two students and a passer-by who tried to intervene – were stabbed.
Following the Manchester protest, when 48 people were arrested during street violence, the Bolton Interfaith Council Executive issued a stark warning that race relations were under threat and Communities Secretary John Denham compared the EDL to Oswald Mosley’s Union of British Fascists, who ran amok in the Thirties. In response to these fears, the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit, a countrywide police team set up to combat domestic extremism, has been investigating the EDL.
‘The concern to me is how groups like this, either willingly or unwillingly, allow themselves to be exploited by very extreme right-wing groups like the National Front and the British Freedom Fighters,’ Metropolitan Police chief Sir Paul Stephenson has said.
I had met the English Defence League for the first time in Luton three weeks before the Manchester demonstration. After several calls, key members agreed to talk on the condition that I did not identify them. We met at a derelict building close to Luton town centre. Eleven men turned up. All wore balaclavas, as they often do to hide their identities, and most had black EDL hoodies with ‘Luton Division’ written on the back. They’d made placards bearing slogans such as ‘Ban the Burka’.
The group’s self-proclaimed leader, who goes by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, did most of the talking. A father of two, Robinson explained the background to the rise of the movement.
‘For more than a decade now there’s been tension in Luton between Muslim youths and whites. We all get on fine – black, white, Indian, Chinese… Everyone does, in fact, apart from these Muslim youths who’ve become extremely radicalised since the first Gulf War. This is because preachers of hate live in Luton and have been recruiting for radical Islamist groups for years. Our Government does nothing about them so we decided that we’d start protesting.’
Robinson could barely conceal his anger as he explained that the spark for him had been the sight of radical Muslims protesting when soldiers paraded through the town on their regiment’s return from Afghanistan in May.
Following the incident Robinson set up a group called United People of Luton and, after linking up with a Birmingham-based organisation called British Citizens Against Muslim Extremists and another called Casuals United (largely made up of former football hooligans), they realised there was potential for a national movement.
‘We have nothing against Muslims, only those who preach hatred. They are traitors who should be hanged and we’ll keep taking to the streets until the Government kicks them out.’
More than 100 divisions have been set up across Britain and a careful co-ordination means the EDL is becoming efficient and a potential catch-all for every far-right organisation in Britain.
Robinson admits that he has attended BNP meetings in the past. Another prominent member and administrator of Luton EDL’s Facebook group is Davy Cooling, a BNP member. Sean Walsh, an activist for the EDL in Luton, is a member of the BNP’s Bedfordshire Facebook group.
Even within the EDL there are concerns over links to extremists. A former member called Paul Ray recently claimed that the group had been hijacked by BNP activists, including a man from Weston-super-Mare, Chris Renton, who helped set up the EDL website. Ironically, Ray himself has extremist contacts, including a German former neo-Nazi who is friends with Northern Ireland Loyalist Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair.
Casuals United was the brainchild of Jeff Marsh, a convicted football hooligan from Cardiff City’s Soul Crew, one of the most feared gangs in Britain. Marsh operates behind the scenes, orchestrating activities with both Casuals United and the Welsh Defence League, a sister group of the EDL.
The public face of Casuals United is another Welshman called Mickey Smith. An avowed football hooligan, he is banned from Cardiff City’s football ground. Together, Marsh and Smith organise the 50 or so gangs actively recruiting members across the UK.
The EDL insists it is separate from Casuals United, but dig a little and it becomes clear they operate hand-in-hand. Joel Titus is a cocky but politically naive 18-year-old Arsenal fan of mixed race. He tells me that the EDL youth division he runs has over 300 members across the UK.
‘We want to hit every town and city in Britain,’ he says.
Titus became involved with the movement through Casuals United. And according to anti-fascism magazine Searchlight, his role is to recruit football hooligans.
He sticks to the ‘peaceful movement’ mantra but a text I later receive from him ahead of an EDL demo in London reveals his involvement with the hooligans. It reads: ‘Right lads, the “unofficial” meet for the 31st (London) is going to be 12 o’clock at The Hole In The Wall pub just outside Waterloo Station. I will be there just before that. Remember lads were (sic) going as Casuals Utd and if you could obtain a poppy to wear it would make us look good even if we are kicking off. lol. Cheers lads. Joel “Arsenal” Titus.’
Alarmingly, the EDL is becoming more sophisticated and those orchestrating its activities at the top are far more astute than its foot soldiers. I meet two of the EDL’s key figures in a Covent Garden pub – a respectable looking man called Alan Lake, and a man who goes by the moniker ‘Kinana’.
Lake is a 45-year-old computer expert from Highgate, north London who runs a far-right website called Four Freedoms. This summer he contacted the EDL and offered to both fund and advise the movement.
‘Our leaders in this country no longer represent us,’ he says.
Lake’s aim is to unite the ‘thinkers’ and those prepared to take to the streets. He describes this marriage as ‘the perfect storm coming together’. Lake says that street violence is not desirable but sometimes inevitable.
‘There are issues when you are dealing with football thugs but what can we do?’
He criticises fascist organisations, however, and says he will only support the EDL so long as it doesn’t associate with the BNP. When I ask about extremists hijacking the movement, he says: ‘There are different groups infiltrating and trying to cause rifts by one means or another, or trying to waylay the organisation to different agendas. The intention is to exclude those groups and individuals.’
These men are outwardly intelligent and their political nous combined with the brawn of the casuals makes them a quasi-political force.
Britain’s neo-Nazis realise this. For Kevin Watmough, leader of the neo-Nazi British People’s Party and a former member of the National Front, the rise of the EDL is reminiscent of the Seventies.
‘The protests remind me of the National Front marches, but I wouldn’t march with the EDL because they have blacks as supporters,’ he told me.
But other neo-Nazis have joined EDL demos. These include members of Combat 18 and the British Freedom Fighters, who later posted videos of themselves on the internet.
Watmough lives in Bradford and can recall the 2001 riots, which came about as a result of tensions between whites and Muslims. Bradford, along with Oldham, another tinderbox northern city that witnessed riots in 2001, is a stated target for the EDL and Casuals United in 2010. Tension is likely here and in other towns where the EDL is also promoting spontaneous flash demos and the occupation of building sites for new mosques.
Professor Matthew Goodwin, an expert on far-right organisations who has advised the Home Office, says that the police are right to monitor the EDL and to take them seriously.
‘(The EDL) is now well-organised and not just a minor irritant. It has become a rallying point for a number of different groups and to have them marching through sensitive areas is a major concern.’
Communities Minister John Denham has also condemned the rise of the EDL: ‘If you look at the types of demonstrations they have organised, the language used and the targets chosen, it looks clear that it’s a tactic designed to provoke, to get a response. It’s designed to create violence. And we must all make sure this doesn’t happen.’