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Crossing the boundary of non-violence

In the 1980's, direct actions carried out in the UK began to flout the Animal Liberation Front's (ALF) original principle of non-violence towards “any animal, human or non-human”. The first of these occurred in 1982, when letter bombs were sent to three political party leaders and a government official. The only injuries sustained were minor burns to a member of staff at Downing Street in London, but the event was significant as the first departure from the code of non-violence by animal rights extremists.

Violent extremismThree years later, in 1985, firebombs destroyed the vehicles of two researchers at the British Industrial Biological Research Association in London. In 1986 a large firebomb was placed under the vehicle of Dr Andor Sebesteny, an animal researcher for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Dr Sebesteny noticed the device before it exploded. The next major attacks on individual researchers took place in 1990, when the cars of two veterinary researchers were destroyed by sophisticated explosive devices in two separate explosions. Both were lucky to escape without serious injury, but in one attack a 13-month-old baby sustained burns, shrapnel wounds and a partially severed finger. A wave of letter bombs followed in 1993, one of which was opened by the head of the Hereford site of GlaxoSmithKline, causing burns to his hands and face. Eleven similar devices were intercepted in postal sorting offices.


The Animal Rights Militia and the Justice Department

The ALF distanced itself from these acts and in some cases, such as the attacks in 1990 that involved the injured baby, it condemned them openly. Responsibility for the letter bombs and car bombs of the 1980s was claimed by a group known as the Animal Rights Militia (ARM). The 1993 parcel bombs were claimed by a group calling itself the Justice Department (JD). These two organisations, whose names have also been used by extremists in the US, are commonly agreed to be spin-offs from the ALF. The JD’s manifesto states that, “The Animal Liberation Front achieved what other methods have not while adhering to non-violence. A separate idea was established that decided animal abusers had been warned long enough.”

The apparent separation between these two groups and the ALF, however, appears to be an intentional smokescreen. There is evidence to suggest that many ALF extremists came to the view that violence was necessary, and that new names were needed in order to keep the ALF’s non-violent reputation intact. An article written in the 1984 ALF Supporters Group newsletter urged the formation of “fresh groups … under new names whose policies do not preclude the use of violence toward animal abusers”.

Like the ALF, both the ARM and the JD are ‘leaderless resistances’ – loose affiliations of active cells with no hierarchy. Robin Webb, the chief press officer for the ALF since 1991 and a former council member of the UK's Royal Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has implied a close link between all three: “If someone wishes to act as the Animal Rights Militia or the Justice Department”, he said in an interview in 2003, “…the policy of the Animal Liberation Front, to take all reasonable precautions not to endanger life, no longer applies.”

The implication is clear: only an extremist carrying out a non-violent direct action can claim to be acting in the name of the Animal Liberation Front, but the same extremist can pursue a campaign of physical violence simply by shifting responsibility to another group. In more recent years, the ALF in the US has publicised violent action under its own name. In one example, it claimed responsibility for a powerful firebomb that was mistakenly placed on the doorstep of a neighbour of Lynn Fairbanks, a researcher at UC Los Angeles, in 2006. The Animal Liberation Front’s US press officer Jerry Vlasak said afterwards: “Force is a poor second choice, but if that's the only thing that will work ... there's certainly moral justification for that.”