Guest Blog: The catalyst for the EDL: March 2009 Luton – a terrible mistake

As a Special Branch officer I watched the anti-Islam protest movement, the English Defence League (EDL), develop in 2009, I was struck by their apparent strategic acumen, not something normally associated with the far-right or football-related gang.

A large group of English Defence League members march through Luton, this afternoon.

The traditional Special Branch role of providing chief officers with intelligence on public order had slipped down the priorities list as other threats grew notably Islamist-related terrorism. Some coverage of emerging far-right extremist threats was offered by the UK’s National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which was based in London; as the EDL were not a traditional neo-fascist or neo-Nazi far-right group, it is reasonable to expect that there was initially very little knowledge, let alone any covert coverage, of such a new group.

The Formation of an Anti-Islam Protest Movement: Luton’s 2009 Home-Coming Parade

The catalyst for the EDL’s emergence seems to have been the home-coming March of the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton, Bedfordshire, UK on the 10 March 2009, after a tour of duty fighting in Iraq. The march became famous for the hostile shouting and signs, which were shown by a group of locally well-known, Islamist extremists, known as the ‘Call to Submission’ (CTS).[1] Others were also present from an Islamist group Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (ASWJ); this was a spin-off on the then banned al-Muhajiroun led by Anjem Choudary.

I was puzzled at the broadcast footage of the home-coming and protests as it was abundantly clear Bedfordshire Police expected something to happen – simply due to the numbers of officers deployed. Their planned operation was called ‘Operation Auto’.[2] Later, Bedfordshire Police would state that:

‘In March 2009 the Royal Anglian Regiment marched through the streets of Luton to allow the people of the town to acknowledge their achievements in Afghanistan. This event was disrupted by a small group of radical Muslims who demonstrated on the day. These events were broadcasted around the county causing massive public outrage. Bedfordshire Police was placed under the national spotlight and our actions were into question at the highest levels of power in the country.’[3]

After gathering evidence, Bedfordshire Police arrested nine men; starting with two on 14 May 2009, followed by others and then a joint magistrate’s court appearance of the six accused of public order offences on 16 September 2009. The other three men were not part of the CTS group; I expect they were counter-demonstrators and maybe future EDL members.[4] Viewing videos two others can be identified as Bryan Kelso and Kevin Carroll.[5]

The Lacuna: Policy Decisions and the 2009 Home-Coming Parade

Later in 2009, I met an activist now opposed to the far-right, who had infiltrated the BNP and had then gone public via Hope Not Hate / Searchlight Magazine. We talked about the rise of the EDL and what happened at Luton. His reaction puzzled me and research made it clear that Searchlight and the other anti-fascist groups were not aware of the full facts.

I found that the Bedfordshire Police website had three press releases on 10 March protests and the arrests that followed. None of the articles are now available on their website, but they did refer to two court appearances in May 2009 and one in August 2009.[6] On 16 September 2009 the six CTS defendants appeared at Luton Magistrates Court and pleaded ‘not guilty’.[7] The information was provided to the press, but, apart from local coverage and some national reporting, few appeared to have noticed.[8]

I was convinced that it have been easier to police the EDL protests if their opponents – mainly locally-based – had been aware that Bedfordshire Police had arrested six of the CTS protestors after the Luton March and a court case was underway.

One local Luton far-right activist stated:

‘The original English Defence League was born in Luton by the people of Luton. It was initially formed in direct response to the Moslem anti-war protest by Al Muhajiroun in Luton due to the fact that a section of the local community had finally had enough of the militancy within their town and wanted action taken by the police and local government.’

In my opinion, it may also have “pricked the bubble” of apparent police inactivity at the original Luton protest, which many regard as the start for the emergence of the EDL.[9] Nationally it would have shown the police would take robust action at the time of extremist illegal activity. Following the discovery of the CTS court case, I watched to see if there was press coverage.

On 4 January 2010 the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyer stated the ‘police had met would-be protesters beforehand to arrange a place where they could gather and a “no arrest” policy had been agreed’. The case concluded, with guilty verdicts for five men on 11 January 2010; two men were acquitted – a seventh defendant apparently had failed to appear, hence the change from six to seven defendants. In the BBC News report, it ended with: ‘Lawyers defending the men said their clients discussed their plans to protest with police beforehand, had agreed to a time and a place to do so with them, had complied with police throughout and officers had not objected at the time to their slogans’.

Who in Bedfordshire Police made the policy decisions about policing the Royal Anglian march is not in the public domain. It would be very surprising if the local commander in Luton, probably a Chief Superintendent, was not directly involved, although none of the available Bedfordshire Police information that was online named the senior officer on the day itself. Given that policing Luton might have posed many problems, including community tensions, the Chief Constable and her senior officers should have been aware of any such policy decisions. Indeed, did they direct local officers to enter into the agreement with CTS? Bedfordshire Police was and remains one of the smaller British police forces[10]; it had also been subject of local criticism and some Home Office criticism over its performance.

A Prior Incident: The 2006 Danish Embassy Protest

What is more remarkable about Bedfordshire Police’s decisions is that such a police decision at a protest had happened before and had led to a storm of media and political criticism. One critical, public comment was made by Tony Blair, the Prime Minister; plus by other politicians and some Muslim community voices raised their concerns also.

The previous instance in question was the Metropolitan Police decisions not to make arrests at the time of an Islamist protest in February 2006, after protests over the Danish cartoons outside the Danish Embassy in London. Infamous for many as one protestor dressed as a suicide bomber.

Some protesters waved placards reading slogans such as “Massacre those who insult Islam” and, “Butcher those who mock Islam”. The protestor dressed as a suicide bomber, who came from Bedford was arrested the next day at home for breach of his prison licence.

The Metropolitan Police responded in a statement:

‘Those gathered [outside the Danish embassy] were well natured and in the main compliant with police requests. Arrests, if necessary, will be made at the most appropriate time. This should not be seen as a sign of lack of action … The decision to arrest at a public order event must be viewed in the context of the overall policing plan and the environment the officers are operating in. Specialist officers were deployed on both days to record any potential evidence should it be needed at any point in the future. All complaints will be passed to the public order crime unit for further investigation.’

On the 15th March 2006, five men were arrested and charged for their roles in the protests. The most notable arrestee in London was Anjem Choudary, a well-known public figure in Islamist extremism and seen as the leader in the UK of the Islamist groups that appeared in Luton in March 2009. Three of the men were sentenced to six year’s imprisonment, one was the protestor dressed as a suicide bomber. Choudary was charged with a lesser public order offence.

Back to Luton: The Curious Case of Sergeant Peter Rawkins

Given the national publicity around Anjem Choudary, it would be incredible had Bedfordshire Police, not known of his links to Luton via CTS and the others who in advance signalled their intentions to protest; including their Special Branch, if not those involved in community liaison. Or was their knowledge not used?

It is noteworthy that the actions of a Luton community police officer, Sergeant Peter Rawkins, were seen as crucial in 2005, after the 7/7 bombings.[11] Soon after the Royal Anglian march there were two protests in Luton by the far-right which led to violence and clashes with the police; plus an increase in racially aggravated crime after the march.[12]

Curiously Sergeant Rawkins was awarded the Queens Police Medal (QPM) in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours for his work in community cohesion. The QPM is the highest award available to police officers for their service.

Was it Sergeant Rawkins who made the agreement with the CTS? It is very likely he was the local officer with community links who had to directly deal with the aftermath.

Discussion: The Future of the UK Far Right and Lessons for Public Order Policing

A number of commentators have remarked that the far-right tactic of ‘march and grow’ to gain publicity, was used repeatedly by the EDL until its demise. This tactic may reappear and has now been adapted for the social media era as: “tweet”, “message” and grow.

It is clear that for several years afterwards policing the activity of the EDL caused local and national problems, with considerable police resources being required[13] and had some financial impact with some far right protests costing millions of pounds – even if they were centrally funded.

The arrests and court case were publicised, but there was little media reporting, even those who closely watched the EDL missed what happened.

Bedfordshire Police clearly made a series of errors in their handling of the Royal Anglian home-coming march, in their local contact with the CTS over their planned protest. Sadly, it is likely that such a mistake will be made again, whether by the police or another private or public body in the handling of extremist activity. [14]

Mr David Page is retired police officer whose speciality was intelligence who served in the West Midlands. He is an occasional contributor to discussions around a variety of issues.

©David Page. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] The original reference was http://www.bedfordshire-news.co.uk/News/Police-awards-night-celebrates-successes.htm which is no longer available. CTS were later proscribed in January 2010, as one of the names for Islam4UK. See: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmhansrd/cm100114/text/100114w0007.htm

[2] Google no longer displays results for this on 22/10/2019.

[3] This was originally shown on Bedfordshire Police’s website.

[4] There are number of academic and NGO articles on the EDL’s emergence, written after the original research and they are on Notes 18-21 on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Defence_League

[5]See a news report with footage of both men’s actions and comment after court on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JiP8fQ8anr4

[6]Originally on: www.bedfordshire.police.uk/onlinenews/…/140509_op_auto_update.html ,
www.bedfordshire.police.uk/onlinenews/2009/may/210509_op_auto.html and http://www.bedfordshire.police.uk/onlinenews/2009/august/210809_charges_auto.html

[7] Originally on: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/2640843/6-deny-disorder-at-heroes-parade.html . Later in February 2011 their appeal to the High Court was rejected.

[8] Comment to the author by a national BBC journalist.

[9] See an October 2018 story: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/anjem-choudary-tommy-robinson-islam-preacher-far-right-edl-luton-protests-islamists-terror-a8589236.html

[10] See: https://www.police.uk/bedfordshire/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bedfordshire_Police

[11] He was short-listed for the 2006 Community Police Officer of The Year award in recognition of his links with Luton’s diverse communities and comments by his Luton commander. From: https://www.lutontoday.co.uk/news/luton-copper-in-line-for-top-award-1-1017415.

[12] From a report to Central Bedfordshire Council 24/9/2009 by a councillor on the Police Authority https://centralbeds.moderngov.co.uk/documents/s10762/Police%20Authority%20Report.pdf

[13] In February 2011, a Luton protest had 27 police forces present. A wider comment on public order issues involving the EDL is in the book The Police and the Expansion of Public Order Law in Britain, 1829-2014’ by Iain Channing; published by Routledge in 2015). See: http://www.lawcrimehistory.org/Source.htm

[14] Similar criticisms were made over the Metropolitan Police Service’s recent Extinction Rebellion protest actions in London and a former Metropolitan Police officer, a SB veteran and CT leader wrote a report before the latest protests. See: https://policyexchange.org.uk/publication/protest-parliament-and-the-rule-of-law/