Four legs good, two legs bad: a recipe for terror: Activists have caused pounds 5m worth of damage this year

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The Independent Online
THE TORCHING of two British high streets last week got less publicity than a seasonal change in the weather. Some national newspapers did not report the animal-rights terrorist attacks, which caused more than pounds 2m of damage in a single night on the Isle of Wight.

Why should this be? Two days after the firebombing in Newport and Ryde pushed the island to 'the verge of a major disaster' (in the words of a local dignitary), the 'press officer' of the Animal Liberation Front, Robin Webb, agreed to a meeting near his home in Cambridgeshire.

Mr Webb, who is 49, seems inoffensive: his voice discreet, his opinions expressed without great insistence, body language free of aggression. In the pub where we met, he allowed a bluebottle unimpeded passage across the lapels of his blazer. When a spider drifted down from his grey locks, he tenderly supervised its safe descent to the floor. In his village home, he said, he had a number of 'companion animals' (pets), including a brain-damaged cat and three gerbils 'liberated from a school biology dissection class'. Like many in his movement, Mr Webb seems too gentle for the extremism it inspires. His soft words obscure the organisation's violent deeds, lowering their profile. But can the alarm bells be ignored much longer?

The ALF did not claim to have firebombed the Isle of Wight. The destruction of a branch of Boots, a sports shop, a leather shop, a cancer-research charity shop and other targets, was the work of the Animal Rights Militia, one of a number of cells variously named to confuse the police. But Mr Webb does not deny links, even overlap, with his own group.

One of the most violent is the self-styled Justice Department, which will physically injure humans it believes to be animal abusers. 'As far as I'm aware, I'm the only person (in the ALF) who has had communications from them,' said Mr Webb. The Justice Department specialises in sending exploding mailing-tubes, Jiffy-bags, and videotapes. Last year it showed a penchant for unusually devilish methods: bombs containing hypodermic needles allegedly dipped in HIV-infected blood, and razor-bladed traps capable of amputating fingers.

Since 1990, when the infant son of a Bristol University researcher was seriously hurt by a car bomb, injuries to humans have been relatively minor: an Oxfordshire cat breeder, for example, damaged both his hands opening a mailing-tube bomb, as did a Buckinghamshire farmer who had convictions for cruelty to animals.

Yet the economic damage is mounting steadily. This year, so far, animal-rights terrorists have caused damage to shops in England and Wales estimated at pounds 5,384,000. An average of about 18 incidents a week included the use of 29 incendiary devices.

The terrorists will suddenly switch targets. In 1991-92, the ALF destroyed 100 refrigerated meat lorries. Damage was estimated at pounds 5.5m, but the total cost, including higher insurance costs and increased security across the industry, will have multiplied that figure.

Mr Webb estimates that those attacks probably cost up to pounds 150m in capital and knock- on losses. He predicts an escalation in the work of 'these compassionate commandos'.

In the 18 years since the ALF was formed, trails of damage have criss-crossed the country. Pig farms have been burnt down, butchers pelted by catapult, foxhunters' door-locks glued, hens removed from egg farms, rats taken from laboratories, partridges and rabbits freed, dogfight organisers punished, cement poured down the lavatories of hamburger joints and frozen meat centres.

ALF members have gone to jail or underground. But despite the creation of a special 30-strong Scotland Yard monitoring unit, the front's activists have increased by 20 per cent to 2,500 in the past six years. Tens of thousands of supporters are thought to be funding their excesses and propaganda.

Ronald Lee, 43, is a slightly built, moon-faced 'compassionate commando' who spent nine years in jail and now lives outside Birmingham. 'Prison doesn't deter people,' he said. 'You have only to look at what happened on the Isle of Wight. OK, it may put some key people out of action, but there are always others to come along.'

Mr Lee, a former ALF spokesman, points to the 'virtual demise' of the fur trade as one of the movement's greatest victories in the past 10 years. 'In prison you have a chance to think. We should be finishing off the fur trade altogether and go hard against Boots and their animal experiments. There's only a certain amount of pressure these companies can take.'

Shortly after his release from jail last year, Mr Lee visited his imprisoned former deputy spokesman, Vivien Smith, who holds unusual views about Animal Utopia. Now in her thirties, this pale daughter of a Surrey dog-breeder wants 'quite an anarchist society, where sheep and cattle would graze wild'. The human population would be cut - 'I don't mean by mass slaughter, but over a period of years.' In time, would not the sheep and cattle overwhelm what's left of humanity? 'No, no. You would have wolves and things eating them,' she said.

Ms Smith is now at large. A few months ago, having completed most of a jail term, she did a bunk while on weekend leave from Holloway. 'It was a tactical decision on her part,' Mr Lee explained. 'We all have different ideas about the best way to serve the movement. For me, going on the run would not be the best way to help animals. I don't criticise her.'

The number of cells continues to expand, to change shape and dimensions. As well as terrorist cells such as the Justice Department and the Animal Rights Militia, last year saw the opening of a London branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), a wealthy, confrontational American organisation with a reputation for targeting individuals.

Some old-established British bodies, such as the National Anti-Vivisection Society and the League Against Cruel Sports, have distanced themselves from the ALF's breaches of the law. Mr Webb makes no apology for extremists. The Justice Department, for example, had ALF activists who 'found our speed of progress less than they hoped for. They have seen human liberation struggles succeed in South Africa and elsewhere, and want to defeat animal oppressors with the same efficiency.'

He says his phone is tapped and his house in Cambridgeshire has been raided more than once. In the last raid, in 1992, officers from the Lothian and Borders Constabulary, armed with a search warrant and accompanied by local constables, descended on him at dawn following statements he made to Scottish newspapers about ALF actions in Scotland. 'I was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to cause an explosion, held for three hours without charge and released. They said they'd be back within a month or two. But two years later, there's still no charge.'

He then offered a further explanation for the ALF's elusive quality. 'Think of us not as an organisation, but as a state of mind.'

(Photograph omitted)