Best-laid plans: countering animal rights extremism

Businesses and the public at large recognise that animal rights extremism (ARE) exists and that it is responsible for violence and disruption to society. But, for reasons that remain unclear, the business community in the UK and elsewhere does not seem to have grasped the true extent of the ARE threat. Although individual attacks affect only one company or person at a time, the ARE phenomenon exploits the inter-connectedness of the private sector to extract maximum commercial impact.

Why worry?

ARE is a serious strategic threat to the economy. This is because ARE planners have developed a successful strategy based on the targeting of vulnerable individuals. The key to the strategy is 'indirect targeting', whereby the selected victims are not just the ARE planners' core target company, but also those institutions and people that form its support network: shareholders, suppliers, insurers, bankers, subcontractors and service providers, for example. The victims are often linked to the core target in a very tenuous way - in one case, ARE activists threatened a brewery that supplied beer to a pub where staff at a (legal) animal facility occasionally drank.

People have also been blackmailed for no other reason than having played tennis with relatives of the directors of companies involved in animal testing. This indirect targeting constitutes an insidious erosion of the support structures for business, and is all the more effective because it picks on those least able to defend themselves and more likely to give in to the ARE activists' demands by distancing themselves from the core target. When a small minicab firm is targeted with a 'request' to stop dealing with the target company, one can easily see why it might give in.

The tactic of secondary targeting enables ARE activists to target the very largest companies by undermining their many networks of support providers. Minor threats or acts of criminal damage in pursuit of the ARE aim are individually small waves around the mighty cliffs of pharmaceutical and biotechnology giants, but collectively they can seriously erode the companies' well-being and threaten their very survival.

ARE activists are well aware of the fragility of investors and have often targeted companies through their shareholders. A memorable example was Montpellier Holdings, a US company that part-owned Ready-Mix Concrete and construction company Walter Lilly & Co - both of which were contractors in Oxford University's primate research laboratory. In mid-2004, ARE activists sent a forged letter to Montpellier's investors purporting to come from directors and warning of "prompt activity by the animal rights movement" unless they sold their shares. Many shareholders did so, and Montpellier's share price dropped by a fifth overnight to a four-year low of GBP0.18. For any company, a sudden drop of 20 per cent in its share price, and thus its market capitalisation, is disastrous and risks triggering further drops as the market rushes to unload shares.

This technique - forged letters and threats to individuals only peripherally connected to the target company - is vicious and underhand. But it works and requires very little input other than imaginative targeting. Crucially, it also means that almost any company or individual could find itself a target of ARE blackmailers.

The bigger issue is that, as the world shrinks, chief executive officers (CEOs) can deploy business assets with increasing flexibility. It is no longer as hard as it used to be to redeploy assets from country to country. Thus, if the UK becomes too costly, dangerous or awkward for a company's operations, a CEO can move them elsewhere with the flick of a pen. The government will of course complain (and lament the loss of the future tax revenue stream), but can do little to block what is essentially a commercial decision.

The implications for a national economy are extremely serious: the UK pharmaceutical industry, for example, is worth GBP16 billion each year and is easily transferable. There are many markets elsewhere in the world with the facilities and intellectual expertise to replace the UK - Singapore has recently built a specialist biotech research campus ('Biopolis') and the authorities deal robustly with any sort of dissent.

Why are ARE extremists so effective?

The impact of ARE activists in the UK is out of all proportion to their numbers, and it is easy to forget that the perpetrators are few. According to informed estimates from government and specialist private-sector investigators, the core ARE activists in the UK number about 30-40, depending on where one draws the line. So why are they so effective? A simple SWOT analysis - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats - of the UK ARE groups may help to tease out some of the key features.

The strengths of UK ARE groups include:

  • zeal, single-mindedness and high morale (because of success);
  • often high levels of intelligence and education;
  • not resource-intensive ('weekend warriors');
  • exploitable public sympathy for animals;
  • speed and flexibility of action;
  • wide pool of recruits from lawful activists;
  • indirect targeting works;
  • good security awareness;
  • targets generally have poor security awareness;
  • poorly co-ordinated government and industry response;
  • growing international links; and
  • ARE is a low priority for police.
  • The weaknesses include:

  • key leaders are few;
  • ego clashes are common;
  • susceptibility to penetration; and
  • vulnerability to civil law measures.
  • The opportunities include:

  • more ambitious targeting (major banks, for example); and
  • increased penetration of target firms.
  • The threats include:

  • development of realistic opposition from industry and press;
  • robust public challenge of ARE assertions;
  • greater police efforts, better co-ordinated;
  • removal of key leaders; and
  • sequestration of assets.
  • Logically, 30-40 known ARE activists should not be able to 'run rings' around the UK government and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. They are successful mainly because they face little serious opposition. This apparent inertia or complacency is hard to understand and should be challenged.

    In a disappointingly large number of cases, companies appear to adopt the ostrich approach to ARE: they build physical defences, cross their fingers and hope that they are not currently being targeted. There is very little proactivity, still less much strategic co-ordination (as opposed to tactical information sharing) between companies. Some companies employ investigators to tell them what the main ARE groups are doing, but - for reasons of competitiveness and perhaps also pride - the information is not shared with other companies in the sector.

    Signs of progress

    The picture is not all bleak in the battle against ARE. The establishment of a National Co-ordinator for Domestic Extremism in the Police (Assistant Chief Constable Anton Setchell) is a positive sign - although it would be more positive still if he had an adequate budget and clear lines of responsibility and authority, not to mention a higher profile for ARE within the National Policing Plan. Many forces that do well against ARE do so as a result of individual officers taking the initiative and raising the profile of ARE within their force area. This ad hoc arrangement is not good enough, as the police as a whole needs to take a grip of the issue. It has started to do so, by improving co-ordination mechanisms such as the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU), but this focuses on bilateral communication between the police and companies, rather than on lateral communication between companies themselves.

    Another recent improvement has been the shift towards tackling ARE via civil, not criminal, law. The use of civil injunctions and the sequestration of assets has caused much consternation and practical difficulty for ARE hardliners, while not curtailing the right of lawful protest by animal rights activists. This is to be welcomed.

    Some templates for true co-operation

    In truth, defeating ARE is not a competitive issue and co-operation is essential. Everyone shares a common threat environment, so needs to share information about it. This is not a new concept and has been practised before in other contexts:

  • in 2003 the UK government took all the counter-terrorism analysts from different ministries and combined them in a new Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC). This pooling of expertise prevented wasteful duplication of effort, drew together all the threat information in one place and ensured that the 'clients' - in this case, the contributing ministries - received a single, commonly agreed expert view of the problem; and
  • in Iraq there is a common threat environment for reconstruction firms, private security companies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the military, and a need to share that information in order to save lives. There, the US has established a co-ordinating mechanism (the Reconstruction Operations Centre, or ROC), which exists to collect, collate and analyse security information from all participants, and to disseminate it to them as required.
  • JTAC and the ROC work for a number of reasons: all participants recognise that they face a common threat; they realise that security is a non-competitive issue; and that it is more effective to pool resources.

    There is no reason why such a pooling effort should not work for UK industry to counter the common ARE threat. The companies in different industries already talk to each other to some extent on security matters, so lines of communication exist. Companies also talk, separately, to the police, both nationally and locally.

    Creating a pooled resource - 'ARTAC'? - for companies threatened by ARE is not easy, and there are many obstacles. Who would the stakeholders be? How big would it be? Who would staff it? Who would fund it? To whom would it report? There is also the crucial aspect of creating trust among all stakeholders. For example, many of the specialist ARE investigation companies would be nervous about losing revenue under a pooling system, and large corporations might wish to maintain an independent collection capability as well as a pooled one.

    These concerns are essentially implementation issues, although admittedly complex ones. But the ARE threat is so great that it would be foolish not to at least explore the feasibility of such a system. If the ARTAC concept worked, it could, in time, lead to a co-ordinated approach to other aspects of anti-ARE work, such as industry-wide public relations, support for victims, and security advice to suppliers and staff. The US is ahead of the UK on this. But the first step is for industry to realise that it needs to stand together and treat the ARE terrorists not as 'supermen' but as bullies picking on the vulnerable. If it tackles them in a concerted way it can defeat them; if it does not, the ARE threat will grow until it becomes unmanageable.

    Mark Stollery is Deputy Director for Research and Intelligence at Aegis Defence Services, a London-based business risk consultancy.

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