BioWorld International Correspondent
PHILADELPHIA - With calls of "murderers" and "torturers" still ringing in their ears, delegates at the final session of BIO 2005 were told they have more to fear than the chants of animal rights protesters, such as those outside the convention center.
"I have testified [on Capitol Hill] that it is sheer luck that there have been no fatalities so far," said John Lewis, deputy director at the FBI and head of counterterrorism. "It is no longer enough to break windows or spray paint cars. Now there are explosive devices and incendiary devices."
There are 150 current investigations into terrorism attacks. "Cases are ongoing everywhere. This activity spans the continent of the U.S.," Lewis warned delegates.
Lewis spent two days at BIO with the intent of building better relationships with biotech companies. "Our business is all about the collection of intelligence. Information you might not think is relevant could be relevant to things you don't know about." He promised to return the emails of anyone who got in touch with information, or to air their concerns.
There are 400-odd FBI officers in 56 field stations working on the issue. FBI agents will visit sites to brief companies on attacks in their area.
"If there is lower-level harassment or violence in any area, it is important you know about it. It doesn't always make the papers or CNN, but it is happening," said Lewis. Last year the FBI declared animal rights extremism and ecoterrorism to be the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat. Lewis said that by mobilizing nationally the FBI can keep out in front.
A lack of such coordination between the 43 police forces in the UK allowed the activists to get the upper hand, Anton Setchell, assistant chief constable of Thames Valley Police and national coordinator on domestic extremists, said at the conference.
"What we saw in the past was lower-level offending, criminal damage, vandalism, etc., which fell below the level of priority for the police," he said.
Since his post was created a year ago, police forces have worked together, and with the Crown Prosecution Service, to ensure cases are not presented as isolated incidents but as part of an organized criminal conspiracy. "There is no point in bringing a criminal damage case with no reference to the context, " Setchell told delegates.
As a result more cases are being brought to court and tougher penalties are being imposed such as a 6.5-year prison sentence handed to a woman who damaged two cars belonging to the CEO of a company with indirect ties to Huntingdon Life Sciences, the animal testing company that is the target of the majority of attacks in both the UK, continental Europe and the U.S.
Setchell underlined the need for international collaboration. "I apologize that the most pernicious forms of animal rights extremism were exported from the UK. We know there are close links between extremist groups in the UK and U.S. and increasingly continental Europe. It is imperative we cement the working relationship between law enforcement agencies."
New laws are soon due to come into effect in the UK creating a new offense of causing economic damage, and Setchell said in advance of that, extremists are changing tactics. The latest group to emerge, called Gateway to Hell, is targeting airports, seaports and carriers that move research animals around. "We have seen a number of large multinational airlines withdraw their freight services as a result," Setchell said.
An even more ghoulish tactic involved the exhumation of the mother-in-law of the owner of a guinea pig farm in Staffordshire. "The remains have been distributed around the UK and a series of ransom demands sent saying they will return the body when the owner closes the farm," Setchell said.
Timothy Morris, director of animal policy at GlaxoSmithKline plc, said animal rights extremism has become a global issue. He told BioWorld International the police in the UK have recognized the scale of the issue and while the new legislation is good, a "vital" task remains in implementing it.