Private companies and charitable foundations - regardless of whether they are connected to the planned bio-medical facility - are being targeted after their names were published on an animal-rights website. Oxford University said yesterday that it feared that they could become the targets of violence.
The organisation behind the offensive, Speak, says it is trying to choke off the millions of pounds in funding the university receives each year from benefactors such as the Leverhulme Trust and the Rothschild Foundation.
A primate research facility planned for Cambridge University was scrapped after a campaign there while the Oxford project has been halted for a year after the leading contractor and others pulled out. Montpellier withdrew from the contract to build it last year after shareholders of a subsidiary received intimidating letters.
Secondary targeting has been used against Huntingdon Life Sciences, where campaigners claim to have persuaded more than 100 companies to stop associating with the firm.
The trustees of at least one Oxford charity - the Tubney Charitable Trust funded from the estate of the late chairman of the Blackwell bookshop - are considering the future of environmental projects at the university, The Independent has learnt. The Trust gave £250,000 to Oxford last year.
More than a dozen others - ranging from a trust helping disadvantaged children to an antiquarian book supplier - have received letters, e-mails and telephone calls urging them to cut their ties with Oxford.
The Sutton Trust, run by the millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, said it is receiving two letters a day urging it to stop organising open days for youngsters from low-achieving schools at Oxford colleges. Other charities say they have been contacted even though they have no links with the university.
Oxford University said it was concerned at the change in tactics and that many of those contacted by campaigners found it intimidating.
"While the website points out that letters to the organisations should be polite and courteous, some companies previously featured on this site later suffered criminal damage to property which was allegedly carried out by animal extremists," it said.
The move has dismayed the scientific research community and comes as experts fear a shift towards more extreme tactics.
In the first direct attack on the university, an arson attack on a college boathouse caused £500,000 worth of damage last month. The Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility. The attack came two weeks after tough new laws came into force designed to stamp out extremists who illegally target staff linked indirectly to animal research. The offence now carries a penalty of five years in prison.
Robert Cogswell of Speak said the latest protest was entirely peaceful and that wealthy benefactors and patrons were a legitimate target as they provided a vital source of funding to Oxford at a time when universities were short of money.
Supporters of the new laboratory ruled the university's decision-making bodies "with a rod of iron," he claimed. The idea was to turn non-science academics against the £18m project.
"Oxford University is trying to put on a united front but we understand there is a lot of dissent from within. Once other departments are made aware that because of Oxford University's plan to build this animal torture centre that their funding might be hit, this will build further dissent," he said.
Simon Festing of the Research Defence Council said he was dismayed by the change in tactics. "The extreme groups are becoming more and more extreme. Whenever names appear on a website such as this it is fairly inevitable that some will be targeted for harassment such as abusive phone calls, protests outside the homes of staff. We are also seeing a return to some of the more extreme tactics such as arson and firebombing."
The Government has indicated that it will support the building of the research facility no matter what. It says extremists are endangering research to tackle diseases such as cancer, HIV/Aids and Alzheimer's.
Speculation is mounting that the university has already done a deal with another firm willing to finish the job, which should have been completed by the end of 2005 but is now badly delayed. One suggestion is that the lab will be prefabricated at a secret location, possibly outside the UK and then brought in to the site.
The High Court granted an injunction last November on behalf of Oxford establishing a no-protest zone around the site. The homes of staff, students, contractors and their shareholders are also the subject of exclusion zones designed to prevent harassment.