London (CNSNews.com) - Britain is experiencing a resurgence in "animal liberation" activity, ranging from the harassment of a scientific laboratory to mail bombs directed at people accused of animal cruelty.
The domestic intelligence service, MI5, has been called in to help locate activists, and new anti-terrorism legislation - which widens the definition of terrorism beyond action for political ends only - may be used to tackle the phenomenon.
"It's an indication that the animal liberation movement is having a certain level of success," a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, frequently regarded as a front for more militant underground groups, said Tuesday.
Robin Webb said in a telephone interview the security services had started putting their resources into investigating animal liberation groups ever since the Northern Ireland peace process pointed to a "winding down" of their operations there.
Webb, a veteran activist who has four times been prosecuted for his published and stated views, said the ALF had in its quarter-century of existence followed a policy of not endangering life.
That doesn't mean it is opposed to "direct action," however. It had "liberated" - stolen - hundreds of thousands of animals during that time, and had caused millions of pounds of damage against targeted property.
Most recently, Webb said, the ALF claimed responsibility for "liberating and rehoming" a pack of hunting dogs from kennels in Kent county. The dogs' keepers said they were used to living in a pack, and would not likely survive long once they were split up and placed in another environment.
Webb distanced the ALF from a recent series of five mail bombs, sent to a sheep farmer, an estate agent involved in animal markets, a company manufacturing ear-tags for cattle, a pest-control firm, and the owner of a fishmonger store in Wales.
In the Wales incident, last Thursday, store owner Jonathan Davies and customers narrowly escaped serious injury when he opened and detonated a nail bomb packed in a padded envelope.
Webb Tuesday justified the targeting of people involved in the fishing industry. "In the meat industry, there is supposedly humane pre-stunning [of animals before slaughter.] But fish are hauled out of the water into an alien environment where they slowly drown. There's no pretence of a humane slaughter, and it is perceived by the animal liberation people as cruel."
Asked who he thought may have been behind the five bombs, Webb said it could have been one of two more militant outfits, the "Animal Rights Militia" or the "Justice Department."
"Both of these groups said at their inception [in 1984 and 1993 respectively] that they were prepared to physically harm those involved in animal cruelty. Both have sent postal devices of various designs, although so far as I'm aware this is the first time one has contained any kind of shrapnel material."
Asked whether the ALF condoned such attacks, he said it did not, but understood why others took a more militant approach.
"They would say they've looked at just human liberation struggles," he said, citing Nelson Mandela's African National Congress' campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Mandela had originally been reviled as a terrorist, he said, but was later recognized as a statesman.
"Their argument is, short-term violence may be justified in pursuit of a longer-term peace."
The ALF has a presence in many countries, including the U.S. According to an animal liberation Internet website, the "Justice Department" and "Animal Liberation Militia" also operate in the U.S.
The website says the "Justice Department" in late 1999 sent envelopes booby-trapped with razor blades, some coated in rat poison, to 100 farmers and traders involved in the fur trade, and another 88 to vivisectionists.
Another UK campaign underway currently is an effort to shut down a laboratory that carries out tests for pharmaceutical firms, often involving animals like rats, and occasionally birds and fish.
Staff members and shareholders of Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire have been attacked by activists calling themselves the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) group.
At least 10 employees' cars have been firebombed and others have had bricks thrown through their windows.
Recently the anti-vivisectionists turned their attention to shareholders, publishing a list on the internet and urging supporters to harass them.
SHAC's main target has been large corporate shareholders, several of whom have already given in and agreed to sell their stock. The Royal Bank of Scotland, HLS's main financial backer, is now coming under pressure not to renew a loan facility, which expires at the end of this week.
SHAC in a statement urged its backers to step up their actions, and issued a threat to any firm that may be considering bailing out HLS: "Be warned. All the pressure that has previously been divided between [various corporate shareholders] will all be concentrated on you. We are prepared for a long fight and, whilst our goal is HLS, we will take on anyone who gets in our way."
Science Minister Lord Sainsbury warned Monday that UK drug firms may move abroad if HLS was forced to close its doors.
HLS has called for "firm and urgent government action" to stop the campaign.
No exploitation is the ultimate goal
ALF spokesman Webb said there was no stereotypical animal rights activist. They included people from all walks of life - even nurses and policemen - and all social backgrounds.
They also came from most political persuasions, "although I doubt that far-right groups would or should - if one is a racist, it's not logical ... you have to believe in human liberation as well as animal liberation."
Webb spelled out his ultimate aim: to have all exploitation of animals ended, including the meat, egg and dairy industries, vivisection, circuses and zoos, and even the keeping of "domestic pets."
Although he said he "shares home" with several "liberated" animals, they are not fully free, even though he does his best to make them comfortable.
"I regard them as refugees from human cruelty, but they are still not totally free to express their own will. They can still only come and go when I open a door and eat when I feed them."