Revealed: animal rights extremists set up combat skills training camp in Britain

Activists from around the world are coming to this country to prepare themselves for battle in what they call 'the animal liberation war'. Report by Sophie Goodchild and Steve Bloomfield
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The Independent Online

Britain is the new training ground for animal rights activists, with anti-vivisectionists travelling here from all over the world to learn techniques of unarmed combat and how to evade arrest.

Up to 300 young militants from abroad, including about 50 from the United States, will arrive in Britain next month for a training camp. They will be taught to climb using ropes - useful in scaling buildings - plus skills required by hunt saboteurs.

The four-day training workshop for aspiring anti-vivisectionists, in Tonbridge, Kent, has been organised by the two most prominent and militant groups - Speak, which is campaigning for the closure of Oxford University's new science laboratory, and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) which targets Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), the leading animal testing company. A SHAC website gives a timetable of workshops for the camp, one of which is titled "unarmed combat".

As guest speaker they have invited Ronnie Lee, who is credited with founding the Animal Liberation Front, a group notorious for its extreme tactics. Both groups deny they promote violence, although their followers have been blamed for a series of attacks on the homes and properties of scientists.

There has been an escalation in what participants call "the animal liberation war". This week the Government will announce a clampdown on what some politicians have branded the "home terrorists", whose tactics include breaking into the houses of researchers, sending them hate mail and death threats, pouring acid over their cars, fire-bombing property and threatening to create bogus criminal records to smear company directors.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, will publish a strategy document on Friday that tightens up existing laws, including making it an offence for campaigners to protest outside the homes of anyone involved in animal experimentation.

Ministers are concerned that technology companies will pull out of Britain, forcing laboratories to close. Speak has already been successful in forcing Cambridge University to abandon plans to build a neuroscience centre. Last week, the construction company Montpellier pulled out of a contract to build Oxford University's £18m research laboratory as a result of a Speak campaign.

Yesterday protesters staged their biggest demonstration in years against the new lab at Oxford. Police sources estimate that there is a core of no more than 50 to 100 activists operating in Britain but their attacks have escalated.

Between January and June this year, 146 people were arrested for activities relating to animal rights protests compared with 15 for the same period in 2003.

The scientific community has tried to strike back. Yesterday it was reported that a consortium of businessmen is offering £25m in rewards for information leading to the conviction of extremists. The National Association of Pension Funds is said to be putting together a steer- ing committee, which is considering multi-million pound civil lawsuits against extremists who threaten company shareholders.

Last week, eight activists were convicted of aggravated trespass in Cambridgeshire after targeting HLS and Yamanouchi, a pharmaceutical company, in the first successful prosecutions of animal rights protesters for attacks on company property.

However, the threat of imprisonment is unlikely to deter the most ardent animal liberationists who are committed to preventing the "savage dawn" of new centres for vivisection.

Speak competes with SHAC to attract the support of animal activists around the country, and is seen as the more radical side of the animal liberation movement.

Robert Cogswell, a spokesman, said it was the activists who needed to defend themselves, which was the reason behind the workshop in September. "Britain is where animal rights started," said Mr Cogswell, who edits Arkangel, a magazine and website. "We are a legal campaign. We certainly don't encourage illegal acts. We put information out, but what people choose to do with it is up to them."

Greg Avery, one of the leaders of SHAC, is also eager to stress they do not support violence, although they say activists have to be prepared for physical threats.

"People regularly get attacked on demonstrations. We want to give people the means to defend themselves," said the former sailor, who was convicted in 2001 for masterminding an intimidation campaign against HLS staff.

The SHAC website states it does not endorse violence. But an anonymous message posted on the website of SHAC's US branch provides a shocking insight into the violent tactics used by its secretive band of supporters.

The bulletin, dated last week, describes how anti-vivisectionists carried out an attack last Sunday on the home of Andrew Baker, the head of HLS in the US. It says: "By the time we were ready to leave, there were broken planter boxes, a destroyed fountain, busted windows, and smashed security cameras ... Andrew doesn't even have a mailbox anymore. It was kicked into pieces. Nothing was left the way we found it."

When asked about the attack, Mr Avery said SHAC had no control over its US branch but: "Under the current climate it [the attack on Mr Baker] is understandable."

An escalation in attacks like those on Mr Baker has led the Research Defence Society, which represents medical researchers who use animals, to set up support group for victims of animal rights extremism.

Its executive director, Dr Mark Matfield, has also been a target of a hate campaign - his car has been vandalised and campaigners have protested at his home. His view is that activists cannot be allowed to block vital research.

"Up and coming young activists come to the UK to learn at the feet of the 'masters'," he said. "But the movement is going to go into decline because these new laboratories will be built. If contractors pull out, then they will just hire someone else."

Companies like HLS have been successful in using the courts to win civil injunctions barring activists from the homes of scientists.

In response, the extremists have switched their attention to suppliers and contractors, including cleaners and taxi drivers who cannot afford to take legal action, which can cost as much as £40,000.

Jonathan Djanogly, the MP for Huntingdon, has 1,000 constituents who work at HLS and has been campaigning for the Government to tighten up the law. He has also been a target - six months ago, a brick was thrown through a window of his home and he has also received death threats.

"I've got constituents who are having acid poured on their cars, receiving hate mail, and have had people screaming through megaphones outside their houses," said the Conservative MP.

"There are honest and decent people involved in animal rights, but there are those who bully and intimidate. It's got way out of control and it's time the Government did something about it."



Formed by a coalition of animal rights groups, Speak claims to support non-violent action. Organisers include John Curtain, who has been jailed several times for animal rights-related offences, including desecrating the grave of the Duke of Beaufort in an anti-hunting protest in 1984. Was originally known as Speac - Stop Primate Experiments at Cambridge - when it fought a proposal to build Europe's largest primate research laboratory in Cambridge. Its campaign resulted in the plans being scrapped earlier this year. Changed its name and is now targeting aresearch facility being built at Oxford University.

Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC)

Formed in 1999 with the aim of closing down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), the animal testing company based in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. SHAC runs a global campaign with supporters in the UK, the US, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Tactics include undercover investigations, demonstrations and direct action - including letters, emails and leaflets. The group does not encourage illegal activity, but Greg Avery, its leader, was given a 12-month jail sentence in 2001 for orchestrating a campaign of harassment against HLS staff. Tactics included publishing details of HLS employees in newsletters and sending them unwanted parcels and letters.

The Animal Liberation Front

The ALF is seen as the central terror group for Britain's animal rights activists. Formed in the UK in the 1970s, it has spread to the US. Its tactics include arson, use of explosives and physical intimidation. The ALF acts as an umbrella group for various animal rights cells. Given the diffuse nature of its organisation, it has proved relatively resilient to police investigations. Individual activists invoke the group's name, using it as a banner head to claim responsibility for acts of violence. All mainstream animal rights protest groups officially distance themselves from the ALF, although their websites carry links to ALF material.

The Animal Rights Militia

This organisation, established in the 1980s, employs similar tactics to the ALF, but is more extreme. One of its early stunts was to send a letter bomb to No 10 Downing Street. Another high-profile campaign was directed at the confectionery maker Mars, which it accused of carrying out tooth-decay experiments on animals. The group announced it had poisoned hundreds of Mars bars, forcing the company to withdraw the chocolate from supermarkets. The ARM later admitted there had been no poisonings and the claim was a hoax.

The Justice Department

A shadowy group which shares the philosophy of the ALF, it has previously targeted the live export trade, sending letter bombs to cross-channel ferry companies that exported animals to continental Europe. The Justice Department began its activities in 1993, and operates in the UK, the US and Canada. Membership is drawn from both the ultra-left and right wings of politics. The group once claimed responsibility for sending envelopes booby-trapped with poisoned razor blades in Canada.