Legal Issues

PETA included in counter-terror police watchlist alongside neo-Nazis

Is Animal Rights activism a potential sign of radicalisation?

You might bracket PETA, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion and Stop the Badger Cull together in some kind of general meaningful way. But have you ever put these organisations in the same bracket as neo-nazi and jihadist groups? Well, a list compiled to help the police combat terrorism has done just that. A document entitled Signs and Signals uncovered by the Guardian has bracketed the animal rights activists People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and climate activists alongside far-right extremists and jihadist groups.

Counter-terrorism police have compiled a list of “extremist ideologies” in a 12-page guide dated in November 2019 that could be reported to the authorities participating in the Prevent programme.

Prevent is, according to the government, designed “to safeguard vulnerable people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, by engaging with those who are identified as being vulnerable to radicalisation or targeting by terrorist recruiters”. The programme, therefore, aims to safeguard people from ideological extremism and to identify and catch those at risk of committing atrocities.

The very purpose of the Signs and Signals document, however, begs a lot of complex questions.

Is there an objective definition of “extremism”? Answers on a postcard, please.

The guide is designed to help police officers, teachers and government organisations who are required by law to report concerns about radicalisation. It alerts people to watch for “people who speak in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution”.

The guide urges those in “regular, direct contact with young people or members of the public” to look out for various warning signs and consider a referral to the Prevent programme if they believe someone may be vulnerable to extreme or violent ideologies or may be likely to falling prey to “ideological extremism”. 

The guide warns citizens to watch out for young people who “neglect to attend school” or “participate in planned school walkouts”. That would immediately earmark Greta Thunberg and thousands of UK school pupils as potential threats.

Are animal welfare activists “extremists”?

The very idea that non-violent groups are being monitored by the police in this way is troublesome. It is as though the police are monitoring people’s opinions. Will categorising PETA as an extremist ideology really help fight terrorism?

PETA, an activist organization that works to educate people about the reality of cruelty to animals, claimed the development was ‘dangerous’. Of course, not all vegans and animal rights activists are totally enamoured with PETA. Their actions are often questioned and sometimes the organisation may cross a line that is controversial. Nevertheless, PETA does adopt a creed of peaceful and nonviolent action. It “does not advocate actions in which anyone, human or nonhuman, is injured”.

An executive director of Greenpeace, John Sauven, has made his displeasure at the document known, stating that it ‘tars environmental campaigners and terrorist organisations with the same brush’.

Should the police, government partners and teachers be concerned about people who use emotive terms to condemn the treatment of animals?

After the Guardian’s article on this issue, there appears to have been some backtracking by the police. Dean Haydon, deputy assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police has clarified that the police do not consider such non-violent groups to be extremists or a ‘threat to national security’. So a reader of this blog can rest assured that if he or she is a member of PETA that this in and of itself is not worthy of a referral to the Prevent programme.

So why was the document created in the first place? The stated purpose is to help counter-terrorist police and police in general understand and identify the kinds of groups that they may come across in the course of their duties. Mr Haydon states that Counter-Terrorist officers, police and partners need to be able to understand what organisations people may be affiliated with whether their aims and activities are lawful or not.

“But the guidance document in question explicitly states that many of the groups included are not of counter-terrorism interest and that membership of them does not indicate criminality of any kind. To suggest anything else is both unhelpful and misleading” said Mr Haydon.

Whilst accepting that dealing with terrorism is an enormously complex issue, there does appear to be some quite muddied thinking here.

It would appear that the authorities believe that being concerned about the welfare of animals is not in itself extreme. However, animal activists may encourage people, vulnerable or otherwise, to perform acts of violence and thereby become “radicalised”. The activists may even commit such acts themselves. So we have a position whereby a philosophy that is based on non-violence and compassion towards animals is in some instances taken up by people with some violent inclinations and this apparently may make a minority of animal welfare rights activists “radicalised” to such an extent that they are considered a terrorist threat.

Or have I completely misunderstood the official position?

There is a danger in debasing the meaning of the term “radical extremist”. It may make some people not take the term sufficiently seriously in cases where it should be.

Are readers of Vegans Be The Change really a hotbed of radical extremists? In the insane world that we inhabit, the idea of spreading love and compassion might just be a little too radical for some.

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Nicholas Orosz

Nicholas is a former City solicitor and Cambridge graduate. He has a long-standing interest in health & nutrition, the environmental movement, green politics & digital publishing. He has always loved crafting words. His transition to a vegan perspective has been gradual and an ongoing process of self-discovery. Contact:
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