Holding a microphone and surrounded by fat-necked thugs, Tommy Robinson always cut an intimidating figure, especially to those on the receiving end of his threatening rhetoric. As head of the English Defense League, a right-wing organization dedicated to wiping out “radical Islam,” he was a rabble-rouser with a fearsome band of followers.
Sitting at the head of a long table in Central London on Thursday, he appeared diminished; denuded of his henchmen, he was hunched and withdrawn. Just 48 hours earlier, he had stunned the global far-right movement by abandoning his organization and denouncing the “Nazis” and “morons” who had joined it. At a press conference staged by a liberal campaign group, he announced that he was leaving the EDL and would join the fight against extremism.
Here was the most recognizable face of radical British politics—a defector.
While Quilliam, a respected anti-extremism organization, trumpeted their success in decapitating one of the world’s leading anti-Islamic protest groups, Muslims and activists raised questions about Robinson’s failure to apologize for his own hateful remarks. He was happy to attack far-right elements that had joined his “street protest movement,” but appeared unwilling to renounce the ideology at the very heart of the organization he had founded.
Robinson sat down with The Daily Beast on Thursday for his first major interview since quitting the EDL. Motioning to his phone, he said he had been inundated with responses to his resignation; some good, some bad. A white line of dried saliva that stretched across his bottom lip suggested he was already tired of explaining himself, but after two days of evasion and shifting the blame, he was finally ready to apologize. “I’m sorry that I stood on stage and said ‘Every Muslim… Every Muslim will feel the full force.’ I apologize for it. Sincerely, I apologize for it,” he said.
He was referring to one of the most notorious speeches in the EDL’s four-year history. In East London in 2011, he stood in front of a chanting crowd and apparently threatened violence against Britain’s entire Muslim community. Before police officers moved in to arrest him, Robinson seemed to suggest that the EDL would retaliate indiscriminately if there was another terrorist attack in Britain following 2005’s 7/7 London bombings, which killed 52 people and injured more than 750.
“Every single Muslim watching this video on YouTube, on 7/7 you got away with killing and maiming British citizens... you had better understand that we have built a network from one end of the country to the other end... and the Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defense League if we see any of our British citizens killed, maimed, or hurt on British soil ever again," he said.
When a British serviceman was killed earlier this year in Woolwich, southeast London, the EDL did indeed respond violently to the attack, which was allegedly carried out by two Islamists. Glass bottles rained down on the police, as members of the EDL, including Robinson, gathered near the scene of the crime. Several of them told me that night, that they were willing to give their lives in the battle to reclaim the streets of London from an Islamic invasion. This was just a few miles from where Robinson had given that 2011 speech; in it, he told supporters that “these streets do not belong to pedophilic Muslim gangs.”
Jonathan Russell, of the Quilliam Foundation, insisted this week: “We believe in the power of people to change.” Yet, when you ask Robinson whether he has changed his views, the answer is far from clear. “People say; ‘Will I apologize for the English Defense League?’ No, because it’s had to be formed, because of the groundswell of grassroots support,” he said.
What about the anti-Islamic taunts that were prevalent at EDL rallies? “Do I understand why people are shouting out ‘Who the fuck is Allah?’ Yes, I do. Because every time there’s a bomb, every time there’s a murder, that’s what you hear. It’s not us that destroyed the phrase ‘God is Great,’ it’s the terrorists, the Islamists who have destroyed that phrase, there’s anger, there’s resentment, there’s frustration, it’s building.”
Robinson explained that he had decided to quit the EDL in February after he was sent to prison, the months behind bars gave him “time to think,” he said. He was imprisoned after entering the U.S. illegally using a passport with a false identity.
“Before I went to jail, I was binge drinking, I never had a clear mind, I was steam-rolling through the country with the biggest street-protest group in Europe, at 26 years old,” he said. “Then I went to solitary confinement and I was asking myself—what is the solution to what I’m protesting about? And that’s what changed: being part of the solution rather than the problem.”
He recognized that, tactically speaking, his beer-drenched protest movement was not an effective way to promote the message that Islamists are “the biggest threat to this country.” The rallies, attended by soccer hooligans and neo-Nazis, often ended with arrests and clashes with the police.
“Are we going to solve this by marching through the streets shouting ‘Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah?’ No, it’s not gonna happen, if anything we’re going to give the extremists something that allows them to say ‘Look—these people hate us,’” he said.
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim community organization, said it was obvious that Robinson still held the same views despite his change in tactics. “Everything we’ve seen suggests he hasn’t disowned his previous comments, his philosophy or his racism,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s a bizarre spectacle; the Quilliam Foundation have given him this platform. It’s very damaging for them and actually in the Muslim community there is absolute unanimity of anger toward Quilliam because we know Tommy Robinson has insulted the prophet Mohamed, he has insulted the Quran, he has insulted Muslims, and the Islamic faith.”
Maajid Nawaz, the chairman of Quilliam and a former radical Islamist, said helping Robinson and his deputy, Kevin Carroll, to quit the group was a natural continuation of their work in rehabilitating extremists. “As well as being a very positive change for the United Kingdom, this is a very proud moment for Quilliam,” he said. “We have been able to show that Britain stands together against extremism regardless of political views.”
Shafiq suggested the only reason Robinson had “jumped off a sinking ship” was because the EDL brand was becoming increasingly toxic. “They’ve been exposed for what they are: racist, fascist thugs, who get pissed and shout slogans,” he said.
Away from the street protests, some fear Robinson will be able to cultivate a more respectable public persona while continuing to influence the debate with anti-Islamic views. “He’s still very dangerous,” said Shafiq.
The Quilliam Foundation, whose well-appointed rooms were hosting our meeting, was founded in 2008 by a group of repentant jihadis as the world’s first counter-extremism think tank. They plan to train Robinson to better articulate his anti-Islamist feelings. He said he would like to set up a new group once he had learned more.
“Ideally, I want to set up an organization that I was thinking of calling the Anti-Islamist Movement,” he said. “But then, I’ve had a four-year struggle with far-right extremism. So I don’t want to call it a one-off name. I want to do what these guys do and tackle extremists across the board.”
He may have ditched his motley crew of hooligans and street protesters, but Robinson has remained in touch with other radical figures. Pamela Geller, an American activist described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead,” told me she had been discussing plans for further trans-Atlantic collaboration. “I have been in close contact with Tommy Robinson over the last few days, but we have no announcement about future plans as yet,” she said, via email. “We look forward to working for freedom and human rights with Tommy in the future.”
Robinson distanced himself from some of Geller’s most egregious remarks, but was clear that the two are close. “I went to America to speak at one of their events,” he said. “I feel indebted to Pamela. I have a great deal of respect for her personally because she helped my family when I was in custody. She provided a roof over our head.”
Although he was unwilling to discuss specific plans, Robinson was at his most energetic when discussing the future. He ruled out mainstream politics (although he said he would vote for the U.K. Independence Party), but was clear that he wanted to remain in the public eye. “A voice has been created—and I don’t want to see that voice go to waste,” he said. “I’m so passionate and determined to oppose Islamist ideology, terrorism, and Sharia, but at the same time, I’m so pissed off with the real far-right.”
The clearest explanation he is able to offer that he will combat extremism is to suggest that he will act as a release valve for the hard-right elements in the EDL and other radical groups. He believes that his presence on the national stage, raising issues of immigration and Islamic rights will help to curb working-class resentment. “For the majority of people who go to the protests, if they see that there is a dialogue, a debate, they will be less frustrated,” he said.
For Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the association with right-wing politics began back in Luton, the run-down suburban town where he grew up. “I saw problems in my town that no one was talking about,” he said. After a close friend of his uncle was murdered by a group of Asian men in a road-rage incident, he turned to the British National Party, a nationalist political party which has been accused of racism, homophobia, and intolerance to Islam. “I was 21, I’d never been interested in politics but the BNP came to Luton and they were campaigning on these ten points - - you’d be a moron not to agree with them,” he said. “I didn’t know it was racist.”
Despite his protestations of ignorance, Robinson was no fool, he did well at school (he says he got 11 GCSEs including an A in mathematics) and embarked on an aircraft engineering apprenticeship before setting up a plumbing business and opening a tanning salon, which he still owns and may re-open with the name The Only Way Is Lu-Tan.
Five years after leaving the BNP, Robinson was ready to lead his own political revolt. He wanted the EDL to be a relatively clean-cut working-class protest movement, which would not allow racists to take part. Gary Hastings, who has tracked the group intensively on a website called EDL News, said: “I am not convinced that he was ever a hard-core racist or Nazi, but he had to let them join the EDL to bolster numbers.”
Hastings explained that despite Robinson’s growing notoriety, he was no longer able to keep the group under control. “The northern lads were not going to let a southern lad tell them what to do, so they carried on with their racism and threats to burn mosques and were happy to march alongside neo-Nazis,” he told me.
Robinson, who has convictions for assault and dishonesty, claims he left the EDL at the height of its influence, but he admitted it was increasingly difficult to keep the nastiest characters out of the marches. “Two weeks ago, the regional organizer for the Yorkshire area wrote a comment [about the next rally] in Bradford, saying: ‘We’ve got four hours of drinking time, plenty of time to bash some Pakis,’” he said. “I had weeks and weeks of thinking how this can change? Stop the drinking, because it gets out of control on demonstration day? But, it was fucking impossible, it was impossible.”