Wednesday's horrific attack on the streets of southeast London was more than just a random murder; This murder, like all terrorist attacks, was intended to send a message, one of division and hate. As we warned three weeks ago in an article for The Guardian, those that benefit most from attacks of this nature by Jihadists are their enemies in the far right. Though the English Defence League (EDL) is by no means a terrorist organisation, Wednesday's events have not only skyrocketed the movement's levels of support, but have yielded increasing calls for targeted violence against Muslim communities.
Over the past several years, the far right in Britain has been stagnating and fragmenting, if not declining. At its height, the EDL had the capacity to draw crowds in the thousands, as it did during marches in Dudley in 2010 and Luton in 2011. Since 2011, the EDL has suffered a series of gradual defeats, fraught with leadership crises and internal disputes, which have contributed to a massive drop in numbers of activists willing to turn up on the streets. This is in part due to effective policing and community responses to EDL demonstrations. Look no further than Rochdale or Walthamstow, where the problem has been successfully contained in parks and backstreets, and actions have been taken to make the protest environment made less appealing for EDL activists.
The combination of these internal and external elements has certainly led to a drop off of those members not committed enough to the cause to spend a Saturday afternoon in the streets rabblerousing. But even the core ideologues within the movement have split. The last year has seen the emergence of numerous smaller movements led by former EDL organisers, like English National Resistance, Britain First or the English Democratic Party. A number of hardline and potentially violent splinter groups have emerged, like the Combined Ex-Forces and English Volunteer Force. Despite these losses and fracturing, survey upon survey has shown that public support for the anti-Muslim ideologies of the EDL remains high. The EDL has been desperately in need of something to unite the movement, galvanise and legitimise public support.
The Woolwich attack may have been just what the EDL needed. At 8:00 pm Wednesday night the EDL had 25,000 supporters on Facebook. Thursday morning they had over 75,000, and this figure continues to rise with 110,000 on Friday. The organisation are actively seeking to use this event to drive membership, with a constant stream of Twitter requests for people to encourage others to join and support the EDL in the aftermath of this attack. The most worrying factor is not even the stark rise in the numbers of those supporting the EDL on social media outlets, but what those people are saying. Comments calling for the mass deportation of Muslims, the burning of mosques and revenge attacks are commonplace and generally met with approval. One individual even wrote: "A mosque attacked that's not good enough, it should be burned to the ground spat on blown up and all this with the scum inside it."
This rhetoric is not just emerging from hot headed supporters in the aftermath of what is of course a gruesome murder; the EDL leadership itself were calling for the formation of a "Street army" and telling supporters that Britain was "at war." On this point at least, the EDL are in full agreement with one of the perpetrators who also believed that Islam was at war with the west, stating that "we must fight them as they fight us."
The threat of a violent response emerging from the far right cannot be taken lightly. As Anders Breivik demonstrated in Norway when he killed 77 people, right wing individuals have the capacity to wreak havoc and carry out mass casualty attacks in much the same way as some Jihadists. Even the UK has seen instances of far right terrorism. From 2001 onwards, at least 15 individuals with links to far right groups or ideas have been imprisoned on terrorism-related offences. Most recently, in 2009 a father and son belonging to a group calling itself the Aryan Strike Force manufactured ricin gas in order to carry out an attack before being arrested. That same year, Neil Lewington was jailed for planning a terror campaign using tennis balls stuffed with shrapnel, targeting Asian families. The increasingly violent rhetoric we have seen feeds into an ecosystem in which such extreme groups and individuals could emerge and attempt to 'hit back'.
We have already seen some of these violent feelings spill out into the streets. Wednesday night, a mosque in Braintree was attacked by a man with knives and an incendiary device. Another mosque in Gillingham was also attacked and a man is being held in custody on suspicion of racially aggravated criminal damage. Within minutes of these reports, EDL Facebook administrators had posted information about these attacks, much to the delight of supporters who wrote such messages as, 'burn them all' and 'hope it was full of the savages.' By Thursday afternoon, Tell MAMA, an anti-Muslim attacks monitoring initiative, had documented six mosques attacked in the past 24 hours.
In an article three weeks ago, we predicted that events like the failed Dewsbury plot would lead to a rise in numbers turning up to EDL marches. Just as the London marathon saw more supporters come out to show support after the Boston bombings, EDL members would be likely to wish to prove that they will not be intimidated. This weekend, the EDL will be marching in Norwich and at 10 Downing Street, giving them several days to 'rally the troops' from across the country. These events will be the real test of whether the EDL's uptick in online support will translate into boots on the ground. And whether calls to violence and talk of 'hitting back' leads to more sinister action, only time will tell.