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Revealed: Police may be assessing climate protesters for terrorism

Counter-terror police are being sent intelligence on activists who threaten businesses amid crackdown on protests

Jack Barton
13 December 2022, 10.51am

Intelligence on protesters who target large companies is being handed to counter-terror police

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Vuk Valcic/Alamy Live News

Police could be labelling climate activists whose actions ‘threaten businesses’ as potential terrorists, according to secret documents obtained by openDemocracy.

Intelligence on protesters who specifically target large companies is being handed to counter-terror police (CTP) to see if their activity could “indicate a path towards terrorism”.

Public order and protest-related duties were removed from CTP’s remit in April 2020, following reviews of intelligence handling and sharing in the wake of the 2017 terror attacks in London and Manchester.

But documents seen by openDemocracy show intelligence about protests is still being shared with CTP HQ – a Metropolitan Police department that coordinates a national counter-terror network – on a range of grounds, including if it could cause “large-value loss” to a business.

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Campaigners say this latest finding follows a “disturbing pattern” of “escalating government rhetoric against non-violent protest”. Government politicians including the home secretary have made references to activists as “extremists” in recent months.

The documents – obtained under Freedom of Information law – do not indicate whether CTP is retaining intelligence or acting upon it when demonstrations are being planned. CTP HQ told openDemocracy that intelligence is collected only if “relevant to [its] core mission.”

Marked “official sensitive”, the documents include an intelligence-sharing ‘Matrix’, designed to help officers decide which policing body is responsible for handling intelligence about upcoming demonstrations.

Further guidance on how to use the matrix states that activism can reach the threshold of ‘substantial’ – meaning it is relevant to CTP – if it “causes cross-regional or national harm to a business/businesses that places their ability to operate in significant peril”.

How long before ministers call in the SWAT team on people waving placards?

Doug Parr, Greenpeace

Speaking to openDemocracy, Emily Apple, communications coordinator at police monitoring group Netpol, said: “It comes as no surprise that maintaining corporate interests is a priority in defining what actions are classed as aggravated activism and what actions reach the threshold of interest by counter-terrorism policing.”

In a 2018 paper, the government said CTP have “a range of tactical and technical capabilities at their disposal to disrupt terrorist activity, including covert human intelligence sources, surveillance assets and the lawful intercept of communications”.

openDemocracy’s latest findings suggest these measures could be being used against direct action groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, which regularly target oil giants or other major businesses with links to fossil fuel firms.

The groups’ members have been involved in protests such as blocking the entrances to offices of organisations including the Bank of England, NewsCorp, Shell, Ferrari and Bentley.

A spokesperson for Just Stop Oil told openDemocracy they had “no option but to continue” these activities despite the risk of being assessed by the CTP.

They added: “The coming terror [the climate crisis] is being driven by the policies of the current government, right now it is planning to destroy the Global South and low-lying states, to destroy farming, to destroy the rule of law, democracy, culture and tradition.”

openDemocracy contacted the government over this allegation but did not receive a response.

‘A disturbing pattern’

Last month, Just Stop Oil activists staged four days of protest on the M25, repeatedly shutting down parts of the motorway that encircles London.

At the time, home secretary Suella Braverman criticised police commanders for not taking a firmer line against demonstrators, whom she branded “extremists”.

She said: “In recent months and years we have seen an erosion of confidence in the police to take action against the radicals, the road-blockers, the vandals, the militants and the extremists.”

Two days before Braverman’s speech, police had preemptively arrested three people they believed were planning to demonstrate on the M25. At the time, the Met said police were “acting on intelligence”, though it’s not known whether this was intelligence from or shared with CTP.

The Met says it has arrested 755 people in relation to activism led by Just Stop Oil since 2 October. Hertfordshire Police also arrested three journalists covering the demonstrations, though the force later apologised after an independent review found the arrests “were not justified”.

Braverman is pushing to hand police more powers to confront activists. The Public Order Bill currently going through Parliament contains measures to restrict protest activity and increase police powers. It criminalises ‘locking on’ and interfering with infrastructure – protest tactics popular among climate activists – as well as introducing protest-related stop-and-search powers and ‘serious disruption prevention orders’, which prevent individuals with previous protest-related offences from protesting.

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Speaking to openDemocracy, Doug Parr, the policy director at Greenpeace, said: “There’s a disturbing pattern emerging of escalating government rhetoric against non-violent protest, which appears to be having consequences on the ground.

“In the space of just a few days, the home secretary has branded climate activists as ‘extremists’, journalists have been wrongfully arrested for reporting on climate protests and a Conservative MP has suggested a leading climate group should be banned under terrorism law.”

“Now we learn that counter-terrorism police bosses want to see intelligence about non-violent demonstrations if they have an impact on businesses. How long before ministers call in the SWAT team on people waving placards?”

In October, openDemocracy revealed that police chiefs have requested closer monitoring of social justice activists and surveillance of environmental demonstrators. One campaigner said the “horrifying” findings exposed “British policing’s priority: to protect state and corporate interests, no matter how unjust, discriminatory or destructive, from scrutiny or public opposition”.

Apple from Netpol said: “The entire basis of protesting is not to ‘spread terror’ but to challenge an injustice when powerful interests ignore public concerns, whether that's fracking or the climate emergency.”

A spokesperson for counter-terror policing said: “Counter-Terrorism Policing are purely focused on countering the most serious threats to our national security. The public expect us to seek intelligence on those intent on committing terrorist acts.

“We do not seek to collect or hold any intelligence that is not relevant to our core mission. The responsibility for assessing and responding to public order risk remains with mainstream policing.”

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