In the 48 hours after the killing of a soldier in London two days ago, the number of people “liking” the anti-Islamic English Defence League’s Facebook page rose more than fivefold to 110,000.
Following the attack outside a barracks in Woolwich, in the course of which the murderers chanted Islamic slogans, according to U.K. news reports, a mosque in Gillingham, Kent, 23 miles (37 kilometers away, and a Muslim prayer center in Braintree, Essex, 35 miles away, were targeted by anti-Islamic protesters.
While the EDL describes itself as “peacefully protesting against militant Islam,” with a division for gay members, its Twitter feed following the murder urged people: “Take to the streets ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.” That evening, the police dispersed an EDL march through Woolwich, a suburb in the southeast of the capital.
“There’s no question that the attack has fueled something of a resurgence of interest in the far right,” Matthew Goodwin, an associate professor of politics at Nottingham University, who studies such groups, said in a telephone interview. “A significant number of people have been brought into contact with them.”
Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, visited the scene of the killing today to lay flowers. Griffin’s party, which won 2.8 percent of the vote in the Greenwich and Woolwich parliamentary district in the 2010 general election, campaigns for the repatriation of immigrants.
The Ministry of Defence yesterday named the soldier killed by two men wielding knives and meat cleavers as Lee Rigby, a drummer in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Police shot, wounded and arrested two men at the scene. Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack a “betrayal of Islam” and warned against “knee-jerk responses.”
In Gillingham, a man was arrested after a window and a bookcase at a mosque were smashed, police said. In Braintree, a man was arrested outside an Islamic prayer center on suspicion of possession of an offensive weapon and attempted arson, according to the Essex force.
The EDL’s Twitter feed offered links to reports of both attacks. It said its members had thrown missiles at the police in Woolwich, where London’s Metropolitan Police described the march as “a minor disturbance.”
“We’re at war,” EDL leader Tommy Robinson said in a YouTube clip posted late yesterday. “We’re sleepwalking into oblivion, our whole entire race.”
On Facebook, the EDL page read “Rest In Peace, Woolwich Soldier.” It announced marches for tomorrow in Newcastle in northeast England and for May 27, a public holiday, in central London.
“It’s an old strategy called ‘march and grow,”’ Goodwin said. “Hold demonstrations and rallies as a way of identifying recruits.”
Local residents in Woolwich expressed anger yesterday about the changing demographics in the area.
“It’s horrible here now,” said Stuart Webb, 42. “I don’t want to be classed as a racist but I’ve been abused in the street for being white. I feel intimidated.”
According to Goodwin, the evidence from the U.S. is that the level of hate crimes rises in the two weeks following a terrorist incident and then falls away. “The long-term effects are more significant, in terms of whether they help these organizations grow,” he said.
For Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, a research group looking at integration and immigration, there’s a “symbiotic relationship between Islamic extremists and far-right groups. This is the best thing that can happen to the far right. It’s an act designed to create polarization.”