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Under the skin of English Defence League

12 October 09 18:53 GMT

By Paraic O'Brien
BBC Newsnight

One night in September I was invited along to a large disused warehouse in Luton for an English Defence League (EDL) "press conference".

The windows of the warehouse had been boarded up. Fifteen men in balaclavas unfurled a swastika flag and proceeded to try to set it alight for the cameras.

The message - look we are not Nazis.

The flag proved stubbornly, and embarrassingly, incombustible. While we waited for it to catch fire I spoke to the leader of the Luton division, a man calling himself Tommy Robinson - though that is not his real name.

The real Tommy Robinson was an infamous football hooligan with the MIGs, the Men In Gear firm associated with Luton Town Football Club.

According to this Tommy, EDL's raison d'être is to take a stand against the rise of radical Islam on Britain's streets. When you ask the rank and file though they will tell you they are just anti- Muslim.

Over the last five weeks I have got to know some of EDL's main players.

So, who are they? Part of the problem with answering that question is they do not quite know themselves.

Youth wing

The organisation is about seven months old and only started gathering any kind of momentum after 10 Muslim extremists staged an anti-war demo at a Royal Anglian Regiment parade in Luton in March this year.

The big divisions are in Luton, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff. They are a rag tag group of about 400 self-styled English patriots, loosely affiliated with football hooligan firms.

They have a female division and a youth division. The leader of the youth division is Joel, an 18-year-old who lives with his grandparents.

His father is Irish, his mother Afro-Caribbean and Joel grew up in multi-cultural Harrow, North London.

He did not worry about Muslim extremism until he happened upon EDL's website in April. Now he organises the youth division and sells EDL merchandise - adapted hoodies with a mask you can pull down over your face for demonstrations.

Joel admitted to me that he finds the cut and thrust of street demonstrations "exciting". He also acknowledged that when there is a face-off between EDL and Muslim youths on the street "it plays into our hands".

Joel denies that there is any militant undertone behind the balaclavas and black shirts, but as he talks you get the feeling he enjoys the drama of it all.

There is, of course, a difference between looking scary and being dangerous and one of the key questions being asked in the wake of recent demonstrations is, are EDL dangerous?

Threat of hijack

About a fortnight ago I was invited along to a pub near the Barbican in London. The leadership of EDL were meeting some potential sponsors.

One of them was an IT consultant working in the City. They were offering technical expertise to EDL.

During the conversation it was also let slip that someone purporting to be from the Ulster Defence Association had been in contact, interested in starting a branch in Northern Ireland.

This could be just bluster, but it raises a serious question - are EDL becoming a sort of lightning rod for other groups of people that are altogether more clever, and altogether more sinister.

Prof Matthew Goodwin is an expert on far right groups and advises the Home Office. According to him the group is at a crossroads.

Four hundred people that can be quickly mobilised online and will travel to demonstrations is seen as very useful resource.

Within the organisation a debate is under way about whether it should stay as a street based protest movement or something more organised and political.

The direction EDL takes next largely depends on who decides to try to hijack it.

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