London (CNN)Until he was jailed for breaking the strict rules that govern the reporting of British court cases earlier this year, Tommy Robinson was among the most marginal of British political figures, little known outside the far-right circles in which he has moved for the past 10 years or so.
A jailed UK far-right activist has gained some big-name US supporters
But when Donald Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon appeared on a radio show hosted by his populist fellow traveler Nigel Farage at the time of the US President's controversial visit to the UK earlier this month, he talked of Robinson as something of a cause célèbre.
"I don't think he's a bad guy. I think he's a solid guy and I think he's got to be released from prison," Bannon told Farage. In a furious off-air exchange after the show had ended, Bannon went further. "Tommy Robinson is the f***ing backbone of this country. You lose guys like Tommy Robinson, you're not going to have a country," he said, according to audio leaked to Buzzfeed.
It was a ringing endorsement from a leading figure in the US alt-right for someone who has so far largely failed to break out of fringe politics in the UK. Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, founded the English Defence League in 2009, a group that described itself as "the forefront of the counter-jihad." He left the EDL in 2013 but continued as a far-right activist, attacking the influence of Islamic extremism and arguing against Muslim immigration. He has been convicted of assault, and served jail terms for fraud and an attempt to enter the US on a false passport.
Bannon did not mention any of this on Farage's radio show. Instead, he concerned himself with Robinson's involvement in a trial of four Pakistani men accused of sexual offenses against white girls in northern England. In May, Robinson pleaded guilty to contempt of court for a Facebook Live webcast he conducted while the trial was taking place, in which he filmed defendants as they arrived in court and discussed the trial. His actions breached tight restrictions intended to prevent British trials being prejudiced, and he was jailed for 13 months.
But while Bannon may have been the most prominent US figure to take up Robinson's cause, he was not the first. CNN has confirmed that, in June, a US State Department official, Sam Brownback, raised Rob