Re­vealed: hid­den net­work be­hind Tommy Robinson

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Josh Hal­l­i­day Lois Beck­ett Cae­lainn Barr

The Bri­tish far-right ac­tivist Tommy Robinson is re­ceiv­ing fi­nan­cial, po­lit­i­cal and moral sup­port from an ar­ray of non-Bri­tish groups and peo­ple, in­clud­ing US think­tanks, rightwing Aus­tralians and Rus­sian trolls, a Guardian in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found.

Robinson, an anti-Is­lam ac­tivist who is lead­ing a “Brexit be­trayal” march in Lon­don to­mor­row, has re­ceived fund­ing from a US tech bil­lion­aire and a think­tank based in Philadel­phia.

Two other US think­tanks, part­funded by some of the big­gest names in rightwing phi­lan­thropy, have pub­lished ar­ti­cles in sup­port of Robinson, who has be­come a cause cele­bre among the Amer­i­can far right since he was jailed in May for two months.

His im­pris­on­ment on con­tempt charges prompted a global Twit­ter cam­paign, with 2.2m tweets posted us­ing the hash­tag #free­tommy be­tween May and Oc­to­ber.

An anal­y­sis con­ducted for the Guardian by the In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Di­a­logue found that more than 40% of the tweets came from the US, 30% from the UK and more from Canada, the Nether­lands and nine other coun­tries. A sep­a­rate study of about 600 Twit­ter ac­counts, be­lieved to be di­rectly tied to the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment or closely aligned with its pro­pa­ganda, found sig­nif­i­cant num­bers had tweeted pro­lif­i­cally in Robinson’s de­fence.

On Face­book, Robinson has more than 1 mil­lion fol­low­ers. Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yax­ley-Len­non, has been us­ing Face­book do­na­tion tools de­signed for char­i­ties to raise funds for his ac­tivism for sev­eral months. He says that he

has raised sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand pounds via on­line do­na­tions, some of which were so­licited via the Face­book do­nate but­ton.

Robinson has said he plans to use the money to launch a Euro­pean ver­sion of the rightwing con­spir­acy web­site In­fowars, and to sue the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment over his prison treat­ment.

How­ever, the tool is meant for char­i­ties alone. When the Guardian alerted Face­book to this, the so­cial me­dia com­pany switched off the func­tion within hours.

The Guardian looked into Robinson’s global sup­port af­ter he was jailed for film­ing out­side a rape trial in­volv­ing de­fen­dants of mainly Pak­istani-her­itage at Leeds crown court. He was re­leased on 1 Au­gust af­ter the court of ap­peal or­dered a re­trial. The at­tor­ney gen­eral is de­cid­ing whether to pro­ceed with a re­trial.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion has es­tab­lished that:

• A Philadel­phia-based think­tank, the Mid­dle East Fo­rum (MEF), ac­knowl­edges it has spent about $60,000 (£47,000) on Robinson’s le­gal fees and demon­stra­tions staged in Lon­don ear­lier this year. A se­nior MEF ex­ec­u­tive has been closely in­volved in prepa­ra­tions for this week­end’s march, though the think­tank said she was there in a per­sonal ca­pac­ity.

• A US tech bil­lion­aire, Robert Shill­man, fi­nanced a fel­low­ship that helped pay for Robinson to be em­ployed in 2017 by a rightwing Cana­dian me­dia web­site, the Rebel Me­dia, on a salary of about £5,000 a month.

• A small Aus­tralian rightwing group, Aus­tralian Lib­erty Al­liance, says it has helped fund Robinson, but did not dis­close how much it has given.

• A New York-based think­tank, the Gate­stone In­sti­tute, has pub­lished a suc­ces­sion of ar­ti­cles sup­port­ing Robinson’s cause.

• The David Horowitz Free­dom Cen­ter (DHFC), a Cal­i­for­nia-based think­tank that de­scribes it­self as a “school for po­lit­i­cal war­fare”, has pub­lished a se­ries of pieces de­fend­ing Robinson, and has lob­bied for him to ad­dress US politi­cians.

Horowitz, the co-founder of the DHFC, told the Guardian in an email: “Tommy Robinson is a coura­geous English­man who has risked his life to ex­pose the rape epi­demic of young girls con­ducted by Mus­lim gangs and cov­ered up by your shame­ful gov­ern­ment.”

MEF, Gate­stone and DHFC are well funded by in­flu­en­tial rightwing donors, ac­cord­ing to tax re­turns scru­ti­nised by the Guardian. In 201416, the re­turns show they re­ceived a to­tal of al­most $5m from sev­eral mil­lion­aire donors.

MEF re­ceived $792,000 from a foun­da­tion led by Nina Rosen­wald, the co-chair of Amer­i­can Se­cu­ri­ties Man­age­ment once dubbed “the su­gar mama of anti-Mus­lim hate”. The DHFC re­ceived $1,638,290 from five wealthy bene­fac­tors, one of whom is be­lieved to be among the big­gest ever donors to the Repub­li­can party.

Gate­stone has re­ceived more than $2m in do­na­tions, in­clud­ing $250,000 from the Mercer Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, which is funded by Don­ald Trump’s top donor, Robert Mercer, and run by the bil­lion­aire’s daugh­ter Re­bekah.

All three think­tanks have been re­peat­edly ac­cused of stok­ing an­tiIs­lam sen­ti­ment in the west and spreading false in­for­ma­tion about Mus­lim refugees in Europe. But all three have con­sis­tently de­nied be­ing anti-Is­lam.

“Rad­i­cal Is­lam is the prob­lem and mod­er­ate Is­lam is the so­lu­tion,” MEF’s pres­i­dent, Daniel Pipes, said in an email, adding that he be­lieved Robinson had been pros­e­cuted for his views and not his ac­tions out­side the court­house.

“In the course of five hours, he was ar­rested, tried, con­victed, sen­tenced to 13 months’ prison, and jailed; that sounds more like a banana repub­lic than the home of the Magna Carta.”

Robinson, Shill­man and the Mercers did not re­spond to de­tailed re­quests for com­ment.

Nina Rosen­wald and the Gate­stone In­sti­tute have strongly de­nied they are anti-Is­lam. In a 5,000-word ar­ti­cle in May, the in­sti­tute said “far from be­ing anti-Mus­lim” it was “proMus­lim” and said it did not want to see “Mus­lims de­prived of free­dom of speech, flogged or stoned to death for sup­posed adul­tery”.

The sup­port from prom­i­nent and well-fi­nanced groups un­der­mines Robinson’s self-styled im­age of a far-right pop­ulist un­der­dog whose anti-Is­lam agenda is be­ing si­lenced by the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment.

Robinson was re­cently ap­pointed by Ukip’s leader, Ger­ard Bat­ten, as an of­fi­cial ad­viser to the party, which is back­ing his pro-Brexit rally to­mor­row.

Ukip’s em­brace of the far-right ac­tivist has caused a rup­ture in the party and prompted two for­mer lead­ers, Nigel Farage and Paul Nut­tall, and hun­dreds of mem­bers to leave. An­nounc­ing his res­ig­na­tion this week af­ter 25 years with the party, Farage wrote in the Daily Tele­graph: “The very idea of Tommy Robinson be­ing at the cen­tre of the Brexit de­bate is too aw­ful to con­tem­plate.”

Robinson founded the English De­fence League, a far-right Is­lam­o­pho­bic group, in 2009. It has since frac­tured and de­clined. He fre­quently com­plains of be­ing smeared as a racist. He in­sists that he doesn’t care about skin colour and that his ob­jec­tion is to Is­lamist po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy rather than peo­ple.

How­ever, he has been filmed mak­ing com­ments such as: “So­ma­lis are back­ward bar­bar­ians”; Bri­tish Mus­lims are “en­emy com­bat­ants who want to kill you, maim you and de­stroy you”; and refugees are “rap­ing their way through the coun­try”.

Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of Tell Mama, which records anti-Mus­lim hate crimes, de­scribed the US and Rus­sian sup­port for Robinson as for­eign in­ter­ven­tion­ism. “It should alarm any­one in this coun­try who val­ues the demo­cratic prin­ci­ples on which our coun­try are founded.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: REUTERS

Twit­ter ac­counts linked to Putin’s gov­ern­ment ral­lied be­hind Robinson as did a group part-funded by a Trump donor

Bil­lion­aire Robert Mercer and his daugh­ter Re­bekah

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