Source: New York Times

U.K. Far Right, Lifted by Trump, Now Turns to Russia

The anti-Islam agitator Tommy Robinson struck gold in America. Keeping it might require help from Moscow, where other British far-right activists are also finding friends.

The British far-right activist Tommy Robinson at a march in support of Brexit in London in 2018. A court case that year hugely raised his profile in the United States.
The British far-right activist Tommy Robinson at a march in support of Brexit in London in 2018. A court case that year hugely raised his profile in the United States.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

By Jane Bradley and Michael SchwirtzApril 23, 2021Updated 1:44 p.m. ET

LONDON — Two days after supporters of former President Donald J. Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, but failed to reverse his election defeat, a defiant shout sounded from across the ocean. Tommy Robinson, Britain’s loudest amplifier of anti-Islam, far-right anger, insisted the fight was not over.

“You need to pick yourselves back up,” Mr. Robinson said in an online video viewed tens of thousands of times. “As Donald Trump says, it’s only just beginning.”

A former soccer hooligan and founder of the English Defence League, one of Britain’s most notorious nationalist groups, Mr. Robinson has largely been a pariah in his home country but Trump loyalists embraced him much the way they embraced many of the American extremist groups whose members would join the Capitol riot, including the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.

Mr. Robinson appeared on Fox News and Infowars. A right-wing U.S. research institute even bankrolled a 2018 rally in London that foreshadowed the violence at the Capitol: Mr. Robinson’s supporters attacked police officers in a street fight near Parliament. A month later, Representative Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, flew to London to speak at a second rally for Mr. Robinson.

His message? Keep fighting.

The Capitol riot on Jan. 6 has brought new scrutiny to the ties that bind the far right, not only within the United States but abroad. Few fringe figures have enjoyed more cross-national appeal than Tommy Robinson. Anti-Islam groups in Germany and Denmark have given him awards. Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys leader, called him an inspiration. At one point, the White House took up Mr. Robinson’s cause directly, and the president’s son tweeted his support.

Mr. Robinson’s American connection was deeper than previously known. Interviews and internal documents newly released in court show how the U.S. research institute, the Middle East Forum, provided him with financial backing for three years, using cash from an American tech billionaire and Trump donor, while its president helped shape his message.

Now that Mr. Trump is out of office and the American money is apparently drying up, Mr. Robinson and some other far-right figures are turning to Moscow. Mr. Robinson, who is fighting a potentially costly libel case in London this week, did a media tour of Russia last year but three associates told The New York Times that part of his agenda was kept secret — to seek accounts with Russian banks.

“Why else would you visit Russia?” said Andrew Edge, a former senior figure in the English Defence League and another far-right group, Britain First, who said that he discussed moving money to Russian banks with Mr. Robinson and Britain First’s leader, Paul Golding.

In many ways, Mr. Robinson is now useful to the Kremlin — which has often encouraged fringe political figures who might destabilize Western democracies — for the same reasons he was welcome in Mr. Trump’s Washington.

He preached an angry narrative of Western civilization in decline, of a society ruled by shadowy elites and of the persistent threat of Muslims to the Western world — never mind that he was an agent of chaos in Britain, a key American ally.

Not long after the November election, Mr. Robinson spoke with Mr. Tarrio and urged the Proud Boys to try to keep Mr. Trump in office. Weeks later, rioters stormed the Capitol.

“I’ve always said that America needs a Tommy Robinson,” Mr. Tarrio said.

Mr. Robinson has done four stints in prison and is banished from Twitter and Facebook. His criminal convictions bar him from the United States, and one of his jail terms was for illegally entering the country on another man’s passport. Yet after one of Mr. Robinson’s many arrests, the White House intervened, raising the issue of Mr. Robinson’s arrest with Britain’s ambassador in Washington.

For the Middle East Forum, a small Philadelphia-based research institute bankrolled by wealthy right-wing donors — including Nina Rosenwald, an heir to the Sears fortune; and the Gatestone Institute, which has financial ties to the prominent Trump backers Rebekah and Robert Mercer — Mr. Robinson became an anti-Islam cause célèbre.

In internal memos included in filings of an ongoing court case in Pennsylvania, Lisa Barbounis, a former deputy at the Middle East Forum, described how Mr. Robinson had sharply increased traffic to the group’s social media accounts and website. Her boss, Daniel Pipes, the group’s president, was sometimes frustrated with Mr. Robinson’s excesses, such as when a video leaked in February 2019 that showed him bragging about scoring drugs in different countries.

But two months after that video appeared, the Middle East Forum donated to Mr. Robinson’s legal defense fund.

“Money follows Robinson,” said Jim Dowson, a far-right activist who previously ran fund-raising for several British groups. “The Americans love him.”

In an interview, Mr. Robinson denied all allegations and said they were based on “has-been rejects of the patriot force” who were working with “far-left” organizations and had been blackmailed by security services into supplying negative information about him.

David Gauke, a former Conservative lawmaker who served in the cabinet of then Prime Minister Theresa May, said Mr. Robinson was a marginalized figure, and that the Trump administration’s support of him had been perplexing.

“It was just embarrassing and irritating that our most important security partner and leadership figures in the U.S. were in any way endorsing him,” Mr. Gauke said. “It was a political and diplomatic headache.”

In 2018, Tommy Robinson was sent to prison for contempt of court. Arguably, it was the best thing to ever happen to him.

Mr. Robinson, 38, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, was a street brawler from a working-class enclave north of London who attracted a fringe following by trafficking in anti-Islam, anti-immigrant hatred. Yet he was transformed in May 2018 when he set himself up outside a courthouse in Leeds.

Inside, a group of men mostly of Pakistani heritage were on trial, accused of running a gang that sexually exploited girls. Mr. Robinson livestreamed himself haranguing the defendants. He was arrested and later convicted under an English law designed to ensure a fair trial.

It was a public relations coup: His backers portrayed him as a fighter against injustice, working to expose rapists. In reality, the men were already on trial, facing stiff sentences, and Mr. Robinson’s actions threatened to tank the case.

In the United States, the Middle East Forum was already posting articles that portrayed him as a martyr for free speech. Right-wing media outlets joined in, including Fox News’s top prime-time host Tucker Carlson — who declared that freedom of speech was “dying” in Britain. In response to a tweet about Mr. Robinson’s arrest, Donald Trump Jr. replied: “Don’t let America follow in their footsteps.”

In London on June 9, 2018, thousands of Mr. Robinson’s supporters with British flags and “Free Tommy” T-shirts gathered along Whitehall, a grand avenue lined with government offices, to demand his release. A few people waved Trump banners or wore MAGA hats. The far-right politician Anne Marie Waters railed against the “Islamic tyranny and supremacy that plagues our great country.”

Then a group of Mr. Robinson’s supporters charged at the police, swinging flag poles and other makeshift weapons as they chased officers down a side street. A group of protesters commandeered a double-decker sightseeing bus. Five police officers were injured.

To British authorities, it was an alarming spasm of violence a short walk from Parliament. To the Middle East Forum, the rally was an unabashed success. The organization later proudly declared that it had sponsored the event in Mr. Robinson’s “moment of danger.” Mr. Pipes, the organization’s president, said his group was “vindicated.”

In an interview, Mr. Pipes acknowledged that Mr. Shillman was a Middle East Forum donor, but declined to disclose who paid for the rally. But a person involved in organizing it, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, identified Robert Shillman, the billionaire Trump supporter and chief executive of the technology company Cognex Corp., as a major funder of the rally. Middle East Forum internal communications also describe Mr. Shillman’s involvement in funding for Mr. Robinson.

Mr. Shillman, who has previously been publicly identified as funding another project with Mr. Robinson, did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Robinson said he had never spoken to Mr. Shillman but wished he had been able to thank him for “all his shekels,” a reference to the Israeli currency that is also a turn of phrase sometimes favored by anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.

Internal communications and interviews reveal that the forum began supporting Mr. Robinson in 2017, and later helped to shape his message, seeking to steer him away from Brexit. The organization also tried unsuccessfully to enlist the help of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Sebastian Gorka, a former White House adviser, to get a U.S. visa for a Robinson speaking tour.

The forum financed a second London rally in July, coinciding with a visit by Mr. Trump. Stephen Bannon, the president’s former adviser, was also in London after touring Europe on a self-proclaimed mission to build a far-right political network. In a radio interview, Mr. Bannon called for Mr. Robinson’s release and told British listeners that they were “going to have to fight to take your country back.”

For the second rally, the forum flew in Mr. Gosar, the Trump loyalist from Arizona, who railed against immigrants and the political establishment.

Mr. Gosar also gave protesters a message that Mr. Trump would echo two years later in his speech before the Capitol riot: “Do not stop fighting.”

Before 2018, Mr. Robinson had mostly relied on small donations from his working-class supporters in Britain, but the sudden attention from the United States opened floodgates for new money.

An analysis by The Times of Mr. Robinson’s financial records, as well as publicly available information, suggests that he has brought in at least $2 million since 2018. He raised some money himself — including by selling his gated home north of London for $1.1 million (810,000 pounds) — but other funding came from generous international supporters. Between March and May of that year, Mr. Robinson received nearly £435,000 from supporters, many in the United States and Canada, according to Caolan Robertson, a former associate of Mr. Robinson who provided a screenshot showing the account balance from this period.

He said that Mr. Shillman paid roughly $7,000 a month, for a year, through a right-wing Canadian media outlet called Rebel Media, and that Alex Jones, the host of Infowars, “transferred $20,000 to us every now and then to buy cameras and kit and grow our content.”

Bitcoin analysis also shows that Robinson received more than $60,000 in small donations between 2018 and 2020, according to John Bambenek, a computer security researcher.

Mr. Dowson, the far-right activist and fund-raiser, said Mr. Robinson once told him that he could introduce him to people in the United States “who would give us £300,000 to provoke and stir up hate against Muslims.” Mr. Robinson denied saying this.

Recently, questions have been raised about what Mr. Robinson has done with his money. None of the 10 companies linked to him in Britain have ever filed financial statements, despite legal requirements. Only two remain active and Mr. Robinson used his wife’s name, or aliases, to run many of them.

In 2014, Mr. Robinson was jailed for 18 months for mortgage fraud and more recently, in March, he was accused by his former associate Mr. Robertson in a report from the news outlet The Independent of using donations to pay for prostitutes and cocaine, which he denied.

By his own admission, Mr. Robinson appreciates luxury. He once arrived in prison with Gucci flip flops.

“I always knew the value of a pound and I always wanted nice things,” he wrote in his 2015 autobiography.

Mr. Robinson’s lifestyle could now be at risk, as the libel trial against him opened this week in London, centered on his response to a video posted online in November 2018.

The video showed a white teenager pushing a teenage Syrian refugee, Jamal Hijazi, to the ground and pouring water over his face, and it stirred near universal condemnation, including from Mrs. May, the prime minister. But Mr. Robinson quickly posted his own video accusing Jamal, without direct evidence, of violently attacking “young English girls.” The boy’s family sued, saying Mr. Robinson had spread falsehoods that forced them to abandon their home in the face of threats.

Mr. Robinson’s former associates say a loss could leave him penniless — an impression he is cultivating. He recently filed for bankruptcy and officials are hunting for assets he may hold. Mr. Robinson said he had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal costs.

In a recent podcast, Mr. Robinson said his wife had divorced him and that he was renting a room alongside four other divorced men.

“Five losers living in a house together,” he said.

By 2019, Mr. Robinson’s American allies were growing impatient. By that spring, the Middle East Forum had paid $50,000 for legal fees and protests, and if Mr. Pipes liked the interest Mr. Robinson attracted, his antics and association with extremist groups like the Proud Boys were becoming embarrassing.

“Could you gently caution him that our continued support requires him to stay away from the nasties?” Mr. Pipes wrote at one point in a message to his colleague, Ms. Barbounis.

Mr. Robinson had already been banned from many social media platforms when, in February 2020, he posted a new video on YouTube. Dressed in a gray three-piece suit, Mr. Robinson is seen strolling through Moscow.

“Red Square’s beautiful,” he said. “I was surprised just how nice it is.”

“I might move to Russia,” he added.

Mr. Robinson’s week in Russia was a full-throttle media tour, including a 30-minute interview with RT, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda channel, as well as an appearance at a packed auditorium in St. Petersburg, where he gave a lecture titled “The Rape of Britain.”

In one interview, with a libertarian activist and Kremlin critic, Mikhail Svetov, Mr. Robinson explained that he had flown to Russia because he felt “silenced in the U.K.”

“I’ve come to seek a platform,” he said.

By rushing to Moscow, Mr. Robinson was perpetuating a myth on the Western far right that portrays Russia as a defender of white conservative Christian values and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, as a paragon of valor. Russia also gives a platform to Western extremists blocked from social media.

“By using Tommy Robinson, the Kremlin is obviously sowing chaos,” Mr. Svetov said in an interview. “But it’s only happening because Tommy is cornered.”

Yet associates of Mr. Robinson said he wanted more than media exposure. Andrew Edge, once a top official in Britain First and the English Defence League, said Mr. Robinson had called him soon after he left prison in September 2019 to ask about bank accounts in Russia. Mr. Robinson was already facing the libel suit and wanted to hide his money, Mr. Edge said.

Before Mr. Robinson went to Moscow, Mr. Edge said he met with him and Paul Golding, the Britain First leader, for a dinner in which they discussed how to move money to Russia. Mr. Edge said Mr. Golding had already opened accounts there linked to his far-right group. Mr. Robinson also paid £300 to a local accountant in Dartford, near London, who advised him on how to move assets offshore, Mr. Edge said.

“Paul then advised him to go speak to the Russians and talked about how they were helpful with bank accounts,” said Mr. Edge, who provided a photograph of the three men at the restaurant. “He’s really worried about the Syrian boy getting his money.”

Mr. Edge said that Mr. Robinson later told him he had opened an account during his Russian tour. Edvard Chesnokov, who said he had chaperoned Mr. Robinson during the visit, confirmed that Mr. Robinson had discussed the possibility of opening bank accounts. But he said that as far as he knew Mr. Robinson did not actually do it.

“We could just evaluate, discuss theoretically that there were Russian banks,” Mr. Chesnokov, the deputy foreign editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s largest tabloid, said in an interview. “If your assets are being frozen you need some reserve, don’t you? All that remained theoretical discussions.”

Mr. Golding said that he had spoken “extensively” with Mr. Robinson about his traveling to Moscow, which his group has visited several times, but there was “no mention” of bank accounts. He added that Britain First was planning greater collaboration with Russia after being “deplatformed,” including financially, in its home country, though he did not respond to questions about any banking arrangements involved.

In a phone interview that he filmed, Mr. Robinson joked that he had gone to Moscow to find a Russian wife, but denied opening or discussing opening any bank accounts in Russia, or holding assets outside Britain.

He said he had simply accepted an invitation to speak in a country that welcomed him more warmly than his own.

“I wanted to go and see what Russia was like and try to understand the freedom aspect because our politicians and journalists go on about how Russians have no free speech, how Russians have no freedom,” he said.

“But I wanted just to let them know that we don’t over here, we have a facade.”

It is a message that the Kremlin’s propaganda networks dutifully conveyed.