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Combating animal rights extremism in the UKArticle, 21 September 2006
While acts of international terrorism are often high profile and shocking, domestic extremism can be more insidious, with highly personal attacks devastating people's lives. Countering such attacks is the remit of the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit under the stewardship of Supt Steve Pearl, of Cambridgeshire Constabulary.
The animal rights movement has existed for more than a century in the UK, but in the 1970s a new breed of fundamentalists began to appear - people who were willing to carry out criminal acts to achieve their aims. However, such attacks were fragmented and uncoordinated. It was not until the 1990s that the animal rights movement consolidated its actions.
A new organisation known as Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) was created in 1999 with the aim of shutting down the Cambridgeshire-based contract research organisation Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). In the first year of the group's existence, it organised hundreds of demonstrations outside HLS. Some members of the group intimidated and harassed the company's staff by following them to and from work, shouting abuse at them, throwing rape alarms into their gardens at night, throwing bricks through windows, pouring paint stripper on cars and destroying cars with fire bombs.
As a result of the group's activities, Cambridgeshire Constabulary was forced to request extra support and funds from the government, eventually setting up a dedicated unit to tackle the threat. Supt Steve Pearl, who was made head of the new unit due to his experience in dealing with protesters, says: "The protesters disrupted our force's ability to continue providing effective day-to-day policing."
Supt Pearl began working with companies that had been affected by the extremists. With the help of the police college Centrex, he set up a forum comprised of representatives from firms that were being targeted. He says: "There was a huge outpouring of frustration about the government's leadership on the issue, as well as the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the police response in different parts of the country."
To address these problems, the Association of Chief Police Officers established a national unit to deal with animal extremism and Supt Pearl and his unit were transformed into the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Netcu) in March 2004. Supported through the national counter-terrorism budget, the unit's remit is to help reduce the effects of domestic extremism on businesses and organisations.
While animal rights extremism occupies the majority of Netcu's time and is deemed the biggest threat to the UK, domestic extremism can include other single interest groups. Although Supt Pearl was unwilling to identify exactly which groups Netcu is focusing on, it would be reasonable to assume that some far right or militant anti-globalisation movements could be among them.
The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit has four roles. They are:
- interacting with frontline police officers and their managers and educating them through tactical workshops and briefings to achieve an effective and consistent response across the country
- providing businesses with information and security advice to enable them to withstand threats, intimidation and criminal actions perpetrated by domestic extremist groups
- collecting and analysing reports from British police forces on extremist incidents to identify trends and hotspots and for use in investigations
- co-ordinating police statements to the media about domestic extremism and communicating information about extremism through police forces and the Netcu website.
Netcu is one of three units within ACPO's National Co-ordinator for Domestic Extremism. While Netcu is responsible for preventing attacks, the National Domestic Extremism Team is engaged in enforcement and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit gathers intelligence on extremism.
Signs of success
There is little doubt that there have been successes in the fight against extremism. For Supt Pearl, the proof of this is the fact the pharmaceutical industry is investing in the UK again after a marked downturn over the past decade. In the government report Protecting people from animal rights extremists, published in July, it was noted that a quarter of the entire research expenditure by the UK manufacturing sector is funded or carried out by pharmaceutical industries. This equates to some GBP3 billion (USD5.7 billion) in research and development each year.
A number of key animal rights extremists have been prosecuted and in some cases jailed. One of the most recent cases involved Donald Currie, who admitted two charges of possession of an explosive substance with intent to endanger life or cause serious injury to property in relation to an incident in Reading in March. He also pleaded guilty to aggravated arson in relation to an incident in Buckinghamshire in September 2005. He is awaiting sentencing.
A group of 15 protesters who allegedly took part in a spontaneous sit-down protest in Oxford have been charged with a number of public order offences, while other activists have been convicted on charges of burglary or illegal street collection.
The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 has proved to be a valuable tool for Netcu officers. Section 145 of the Act creates a new offence of interfering with contractual and similar relationships with the intention of harming an animal research organisation. Section 146 creates a further offence criminalising the intimidation of specified persons connected with an animal research organisation.
Joseph Harris, 26, from Nottinghamshire, became the first person to be convicted under section 145 of the Act in August when he pleaded guilty to three charges under the Act. He will be sentenced later this year.
Supt Pearl says: "We are having a significant and sustained effect on animal rights extremism. We are seeing an increase in High Court injunctions, which protect companies from day-to-day harassment and intimidation."
Due to injunctions and anti-social behaviour orders, some extremists have been driven abroad and have been observed in countries such as Austria, France, Ireland and Spain. Supt Pearl said that he had seen a slow rise in the number of incidents on a pan-European basis. In many of these cases, British activists have visited their European counterparts to offer them advice and intelligence.
The success of Netcu can be partly measured by the response of its opponents. A website entitled Netcu Watch was created to describe the work of Netcu and pro-vivisection or industry interest groups, provide news on the animal rights movement and give instructions on how to complain about Netcu.
Despite these successes, animal rights extremism is continuing to make its presence felt and the tactics of activists continue to evolve. A hallmark of SHAC's campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences was its use of secondary targeting. The group targeted banks, insurance companies and accountancy firms associated with HLS, all of which stopped working for the company. Eventually, the government had to provide accounting, banking and insurance to keep HLS in business. Secondary targeting can also involve smaller firms connected to the main target, such as plumbers or taxi companies.
In May, activists began targeting private investors in the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline because the company was working with Huntingdon Life Sciences. As a result, GlaxoSmithKline issued an injunction against the extremists to stop them from further contacting or harassing its shareholders.
GlaxoSmithKline Chief Executive Jean-Pierre Garnier says: "As a company, we have become used to these offensive gestures, but this attack on our shareholders represents a new variation of intimidation and harassment."
Secondary targeting can be highly effective and what marks it out is its personal nature. Supt Pearl says: "I do not know of any other criminal organisation that targets companies which personalises its targeting in this way. This targeting has created a climate of fear for anyone who is involved in anything to do with animal research."
As long as animals are used for testing in the UK, there is little doubt that there will be opponents to it. For some of those people, legitimate protest will not be enough and direct action will be seen as the only solution. New recruits can always be found to support the cause.
Pearl says: "Certain websites and chat rooms are a haven for misinformation or biased information, which could attract people who want to get involved in an 'exciting' campaign." In a radicalisation process that mirrors that of other extremist or terrorist groups, a small number of these people will go on to commit criminal acts.
Netcu does not exist to debate the pros and cons of vivisection. Rather, it is there to protect individuals and companies from harassment and attack. Supt Pearl acknowledges that mistakes have been made in the past in tackling extremists but believes that better use of intelligence and a greater understanding of what the activists are willing to do is the best way of tackling the issue.
He says: "The government response has not always been coherent, and while there is a willingness to let people demonstrate legitimately, authorities have been slow to understand that people who have extreme views and are willing to carry out extreme actions are abusing the democracy we live in at the expense of other people's rights and freedoms."
Chris Pope is editor of the Rusi/Jane's Homeland Security Monitor