In the 1990s, the UK, very briefly, enjoyed a unique period in its modern history.
For a little while at least, Britain appeared to lack an enemy. Communism had been defeated, collapsing in on itself. The Irish peace process, whilst experiencing fluctuations was at making the possibility of a world without Northern Ireland terrorism possible. No one had heard of Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and few, outside of Foreign Office Arabists or his London associates, of Osama Bin Laden.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some began to look rather crititically at the police Special Branches, and in particular at the domestic security service, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Who were these guys? What did they get up to? And how did they manage to spend so much of our money doing it? Whether related to such questions or not, these actors suddenly began to branch out, offering their expertise in other areas. The danger of emerging Russian organised crime (to take just one example) was presented as a mortal threat to our communities, and MI5 began to target alleged British gangsters such as Paul Massey in Salford.
Suddenly we were being told in the media that the UK was awash was the potential threat of domestic terrorism. Be it from the far-right (who remembers Combat 18?) from the Animal Liberation Front, to deep greens and environmentalists. There was even a nasty World In Action hit piece on anti-fascists, never mind the usual scare stories about Anarchists. One of the few people to really research all this at the time, certainly in book form, was Larry O'Hara in his 1994 "Turning Up The Heat: Mi5 After the Cold War" - others, at some stage will no doubt follow. I certainly intend to.
Many of 'green terrorist' scares in the UK came courtesy of the Sunday Times. Eventually sustained police action followed the media, leading to the failed prosecution of the Green Anarchist group in the Gandalf Trial. I am not as familiar with the environmental movement in the United States, so do not know if the US political fringe experienced a similar odysessy in the early to mid 1990s. What did happen in the United States is a much more substantive radical environmentalist movement emerged, for example in the shape of the Earth Liberation Front.
On Monday 13 February at 10pm BBC4 is showing Marshall Curry's documentary "If A Tree Falls - A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" which covers the ELF, its actions and the states response to it. This is part of BBC2's Storyville series.
In teaching Terrorism Studies, one of the tools I have used in recent years has been to get students to consider groups like the Animal Liberation Front or SHAC and ask - is this terrorism? Is there a line where political violence is crossed, and terrorism begins?
This attempts to circumvent the rather sterile formula of students struggling with the countless definitions of terrorism and going round and round in circles chipping at them, as it allows the discussion of actual recent cases. Marshall Curry's documentary takes a similar path - it focuses on ELF activist Daniel McGowan and the arson attacks he was accused of.
Over to you. Is this terrorism?