As 'domestic extremism' police units are reorganised, we say goodbye to an old favourite of protesters – the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU). Despite the government's attempts to present these reorganisations as 'cleaning up' the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) following the Mark Kennedy scandal, these plans are from before Kennedy was revealed as an infiltrator and the second Ratcliffe Trial collapsed. They are due to be completed by summer 2011. Here we will chart the rise and fall of NETCU and its sister organisations, the effect they have had on protest movements in the UK, and consider what the future might hold.
There is little denying that for a small, secretive off-shoot of the police NETCU has received much attention from the protest movement since its creation in 2004. Its name is invoked whenever non-uniformed police turn up with cameras, knowing too much, at demonstrations and trials. Its logo has appeared on guides to policing protests and its officers have openly colluded with companies taking out civil injunctions against campaigns. NETCU is seen as leading the charge on behalf of government and corporations alike, at the forefront of a political agenda to label and treat all protest, peaceful or otherwise, as extremism if they threaten to become effective. In the struggle for civil liberty, NETCU has been the picture on protesters' dart-board for some time.
However, it appears that it is set to disappear in a significant overhaul of policing operations to be completed by summer this year. While it will not be lamented, there is little doubt that NETCU has contributed greatly to the moulding of protest in the first decade of the 21st Century. Some of the factors contributing to NETCU's demise will be considered at the end of this article, but first we will examine what lead to its creation and the wider context of its work.
1. Special Demonstration Squad
Political policing has been around as long as the police have. However, the start of this particular journey begins in 1968 and the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. With MI5 and Special Branch focused on the organised parties of the Left, they failed to notice the significance of a popular upswing which saw large public demonstrations organised by grassroots groups. This caused them to be wrong-footed when during one demonstration the US Embassy in London was attacked by protesters.
Determined not to be caught out again, Special Branch, working within the Metropolitan Police, set up a unit whose remit was to gather long term intelligence on groups with the explicit aim of predicting which protests were likely to amount to a serious public disorder. The result was the creation of the Special Demonstration Squad, a covert unit which gathered information, ran informers and, in particular, sent infiltrators into organisations. They were given the nick name the 'hairies' as they were exempt from the strict dress code for the police of the time.
Never a large group, they were not interested in solving crime directly but planned for the long term. Operatives would work within movements building up elaborate cover stories over years, taking part in actions and protests, and when the occasion demanded even taking part in committing crimes. Known operatives have been:
a) “Geoff”, a close colleague of future cabinet minister Peter Hain when the latter was running anti-racist campaigns in the 1970s.
b) “Peter Daley”, who infiltrated militant anti-racist groups in the 1990s.
c) Mark Kennedy, a.k.a “Mark Stone” or “Flash”, infiltrated grassroots groups between 2004-2010.
d) “Lyn Watson”, infiltrated grassroots environmental & social justice groups in Manchester & Leeds between 2004-2008.
The SDS targeted groups involved in protest on both ends of the political spectrum. While the name has changed over the years with various reorganisations (as detailed below), the essential work has remained the same: building up profiles on groups and activists in order to understand protest movements. The principle aim was to know where to dedicate resources when it came to large scale protests.
2. Animal Rights National Index & NPOIU
The rise of the animal liberation movement created a new set of challenges for the police. Here was a movement systematically and successfully attacking various industries using militant techniques. It was decided that it needed its own dedicated unit: the result was the Animal Rights National Index [ARNI] at Scotland Yard, established by Detective Constable Colin Wiggins, an Essex officer who became noted for his skill in intelligence gathering. Their aim was developing information on the movement.
In 1998, with the rise of the roads protest movement, another unit, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit [NPOIU] was created under Commander Barry Moss at Scotland Yard, widening the remit to include the monitoring of environmentalists. It brought ARNI, at that time lead by Roderick “Rod” Leeming , and a number of other small intelligence gathering units from around the country under its wing.
Leeming, a Special Branch officer, appears to have risen to the head of NPOIU , but left the force in 2001 to form Global Open Ltd , a private security firm openly marketing itself as a resource for companies affected by protest. The revolving door between police specialising in protest movements and these companies is another story waiting to be told.
A new political strategy: 'domestic extremism'
However, ARNI failed to stop the growth of the animal rights movement, which if anything was getting stronger. After a decade of victories and high profile campaigns the crunch came in 2003/4 when large pharmaceutical companies started threatening to pull out of the UK in the face of sustained campaigns from the likes of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and others. Tony Blair met with representatives of the pharmaceutical companies and the security agencies at a secret meeting in Oxford. A new strategy was being created, one that gave birth to NETCU.
The aim was to explore new, political ways in which campaigns and protests could be countered and marginalised. It would actively work with the media, lawyers and corporations to achieve this. Protest groups were to be re-branded as “extremist”, starting with the animal rights movement – the whipping boy used to justify bringing in various measures curtailing protest in general. 'Domestic extremism' has no legal definition, as opposed to 'terrorism' which does. However, in the words of NETCU, it is defined by the police as:
“... generally used to describe the activity, individuals or campaign groups that carry out criminal acts of direct action in furtherance of a campaign. These people and activities usually seek to prevent something from happening or to change legislation or domestic policy, but attempt to do so outside of the normal democratic process.” 
As, however, the intention behind it was inherently political, an arms-length approach was needed. The solution was to do it under the aegis of the Association of Chief Police Officers [ACPO]. Its membership consists of all the top ranking police officers; it is also an independent organisation providing consultancy work to the various police forces and the Home Office. As such, it is not actually part of the police and does not have to answer Freedom of Information requests. This is despite the large number of police seconded to work for ACPO, and the fact that many of its operations are based at police headquarters. One of its units is the Terrorism and Allied Matters committee, which provide advice and oversight for these new developments, and it was as a part of this that the new units for countering 'domestic extremism' would be formed. By 2010 they had a budget of £8.1 million and approximately 100 staff.
Several units were formed including NETCU and the National Domestic Extremism Team [NDET]. All this was to be overseen by the National Domestic Extremism Co-ordinator [NDEC], who was Assistant Chief Constable Anton Setchell. NPOIU would also be brought into the fold, with the SDS now morphing into a sub-unit known as the Confidential Intelligence Unit [CIU]. ‘Confidential intelligence’ being a euphemism for ‘human intelligence’, that the CIU ran the infiltrators and informers focused on protest movements. All the units are based at Scotland Yard, with the exception of NETCU which was head-quartered at Hinchingbrook police station in Cambridge.
Setchell, formerly of Thames Valley Police, cut his teeth overseeing the policing of animal rights protests , in particular those against the building of a new animal laboratory at South Parks Road, in Oxford. His old unit, known as “Operation Rumble”,  has since gone on to become regular visitors to various grassroots protests. This is a phenomena that has been repeated across various police forces. For instance, Chief Inspector David Bird who led Staffordshire Polices' animal rights taskforce, “Operation Tribune”, during the Newchurch Guinea pig Farm campaign subsequently appeared with his familiar sidekicks at other protests including Sequani in Herefordshire and the Camp for Climate Action. Other forces such as Kent and Surrey likewise have their own dedicated units which started with the policing of animal rights protests, but soon widened their remit to other campaigns. These units would form the footsoldiers of the likes of NETCU and the domestic extremism units.
Another unit which is part of the Metropolitan Police has the job of carrying out on the ground policing of demonstrations in London, and with whom NETCU and NPOIU are often associated. Called Central Operations 11 [CO11], also called the ‘Public Order Operational Command Unit’, it is the unit that runs many of the Forward Intelligence Teams [FIT], that are now regular features at protests. Currently it is lead by Chief Supt. Ian Thomas, who was a commander during the Heathrow & G20 Climate Camps. His deputy is Supt. Julia Pendry, another familiar figure at London protests.
Another name that appears regularly is Commander Robert “Bob” Broadhurst, who is in charge of Central Command Operations [CO1]. CO1 is the unit which has oversight of large scale operations of all kinds in London and its environs, which includes large scale protests, though it will deal with many other types of public events as well.
There are a number of FIT officers who, given their wide-spread experience of protests – in many cases starting with animal rights demonstrators before broadening their work – appear to have been seconded pretty much permanently to NPOIU. For example, Ian Caswell, Ian Skivens and Mark Scully are officers who are seen at protests across the country.
Curbing protest: NETCU gets to work
While the other units focused on a variety of protest groups across the spectrum, it was clear from the beginning that NETCU was tasked with focusing on animal rights, despite attempts to avoid the impression it was biased. Its particular target was Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty [SHAC], campaigning against Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire.
On paper the primary purpose of NETCU was to provide advice and support to police forces on dealing with protest and campaign groups, and to engage in preventative measures. Lead by Supt. Steven Pearl, it developed links with the pharmaceuticals industry, the press and with lawyer Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden. It even had a presence at security exhibitions and conferences.
The advice it gave police forces, in particular through its widely distributed handbook , was how to curb and prevent lawful protest. Officers were given guidance on what excuses they could utilise to make arrests or disrupt a protest. This changed the nominal tone of policing, from one in which protest was a protected right under the European Convention to one in which protest was seen as inherently unlawful. Essentially the argument was that successful protest has a flip-side: the harassment of a person or corporation, and it could thus be viewed as falling foul of the Public Order Act 1986 and other laws.
It was on this point that NETCU formed its infamous alliance with lawyer Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden. The Protection from Harassment Act of 1999  was the “stalkers law,” brought in by New Labour to give protection to women. Lawson-Cruttenden worked out that it could also be used to 'protect' corporations from demonstrations by seeking civil injunctions against protesters. The arrival of NETCU meant Lawson-Cruttenden now had a friendly police organisation to go hand in hand to companies, encouraging them to seek civil injunctions under the act, severely curtailing the right to protest in the process. When campaigners started to poke holes in the use of this law, the government of the day had little qualms about bringing in amendments to the law in favour of corporations.
Lawson-Cruttenden did not stop at working on behalf of companies being targeted, but actively prepared and hawked injunctions, at the same time as NETCU was encouraging companies to take them out. For instance, documents released during the infamous Heathrow Climate Camp injunction  indicate that Lawson-Cruttenden was preparing documents five months before it was even decided that Heathrow would be the target.
The main target of the injunctions was SHAC, with statements from Supt. Steven Pearl as to why the police needed the injunctions becoming a standard part of the approximately 25 cases brought against the group. One campaigner involved in the injunctions said of his experience:
“Basically, the police had a problem in that the protests were legal and the law said that they were bound to facilitate them. Pearl came forward saying that as demonstrators were not breaking the law this gave the police concern. This despite there being already enough criminal law to deal with any of the illegal activity used to justify the injunctions. What they needed was the power of the Protection from Harassment Act civil injunction, the breach of which, even if it was for stuff that was normally legal, would give the police immediate powers of arrest.
It was a very effective way to undermine the right to protest. What is more, it was all done through the civil courts so they could avoid scrutiny in the criminal courts and large companies could throw a lot of money at it to get them through. For the most part we were repeatedly turned down for legal aid. With only a few notable exceptions, the High Court justices went for it - with demonstrations limited to strict times, to as few as six people hidden out of sight, megaphones for at most fifteen minutes, protest was turned into a farce and NETCU were happy they had ‘prevented’ a crime. More than anything, it has had a chilling effect on protest. The work of NETCU and Steven Pearl was crucial in achieving this.” 
The relationship became closer when NETCU began passing confidential police files and case documents to Lawson-Cruttenden to help prepare the injunctions. Only when activists from SHAC and SmashEDO challenge this was this successfully stopped.
Meanwhile, for many years, NETCU's website had a dedicated page with copies of all the injunctions issued. Its links page was dominated by organisations explicitly set up to combat the effects of animal rights campaigns. Of course, though it was staffed by police and had access to all the police intelligence it needed, as a part of ACPO it was not a police organisation but a private one. Only after embarrassment and challenges were the injunctions and other obvious signs of bias removed from their website.
On the street, so to speak, NETCU intended to disrupt the lawful activities of campaign groups. This often included low-level nuisance tactics to hamper day-to-day work and fundraising. Polices forces were briefed to treat all protest as potentially dangerous and illegal.
Elsewhere, it was engaged in briefing the press, planting stories designed to discredit groups and cause infighting. It is believed that NETCU was behind various stories in the Evening Standard and Daily Mail. These attempted to smear activists using details that could only have come from infiltrators or the police. Other times it was simply to stir up political pressure and alienate groups from the wider public. One notorious Observer article in November 2008 quoted NETCU sources as saying that Earth First! activists were seeking to kill people. It was later withdrawn as unfounded.
One of the reasons why 'domestic extremism' was used as the main label was because it was an alternative to the word 'terrorism'. Labelling groups such as SHAC as terrorist was backfiring as it created too much of a culture of fear among targeted companies. As one campaigner from NETCUwatch told us:
“Labelling us as 'extremists' meant we were dangerous and criminal enough to warrant hammering; they did not want to call us terrorists as that would frighten away investors.”
By normalising the use of the terms 'terrorism' and 'extremism' the way for the introduction of laws such as sections 145 to 149 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005  was paved. These are an outright attack on the ability to protest and can be extended to other groups besides animal rights. These restrictions would have struggled to get through Parliament without this redefinition.
The other effect of NETCU and its sister organisations is the refinement of 'intelligence-lead policing'  around protests, which is now being extend out to environmental, anti-fascist, student/cuts protests and also to right wing groups such as the EDL. This focuses on particular groups and individuals, and is reflected whenever the police mention a 'small number of individuals'. One can see how easily this can be adapted to those with a more political agenda. Groups such as NETCU and the NPOIU build up profiles of protests (allegedly they hold images of 1822 separate individuals ) in order to identify and focus on people they believe are 'ring-leaders', with the belief that dealing with them will solve the 'problem'.
“Experience shows that the same people are involved in demonstrations - whether it's disruption of building works and motorways, runways, live animals for export, or people 'reclaiming' the streets. It tends to be the same people who support them and travel around the country. It's about keeping a database on them - identifying the main individuals.”
Assistant Commissioner Anthony Speed 
All this cemented NETCU's reputation within activist circles as a group of police to watch out for. In 2006 following a series of raids in relation to a campaign against the Sequani animal testing laboratory in Hereford, a number of activists established NETCUwatch, a website dedicated to monitoring its activities and to counter the propaganda being put out on NETCU's own website.
The role of NETCU, and the political policing it was undertaking, was becoming increasingly acknowledge by those taking part in demonstrations, though there was often confusion between NETCU officers and those from local forces who were simply doing its bidding. With pressure from the likes of Tony Blair to ease the protest against pharmaceutical and arms companies, and extra funds being channelled their way because of it, police forces found NETCU a useful tool. Quite a few officers saw working on behalf of NETCU as a good way to get a promotion, something it is rumoured has lead to anger among the ranks.
This backfired somewhat when its guide to policing protest was exposed, complete with its biases and mistakes, revealing that the police were bent on suppressing all protest, lawful or otherwise. The sensitivity of the booklet was acknowledge when the police refused to release it under Freedom of Information Act requests – one activist being told that it was considered highly confidential by Bedfordshire police. None of this prevented copies of it being released on Indymedia. It is believed that court cases failing due to bad advice and subsequent suing of the police has lead to three forces ceasing to use the handbook or to work with NETCU.
At the same time as awareness of NETCU was growing, the reaction against Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) was also taking place. Though connected, and with overlapping purposes, there has been a steady confusion that FIT and NETCU are one and the same, perhaps giving NETCU a more fearsome reputation than it otherwise might have. FIT are as likely to be working for or in conjunction with the NPOIU.
However, the campaign against the FIT lead by FITwatch  brought not just active resistance to the police's attempts to gather information on demonstrators, but raised the profile of the reasons for it. This dovetailed with NETCUwatch's effort to bring NETCU and the reclassification of campaigning as domestic extremism to a wider audience. Ultimately, the combination has been greater awareness of the nature and unaccountability of political policing in Britain among grassroot campaigners.
It is worth pointing out that another victim of the policy of reclassifying protest as 'domestic extremism' has been the civil liberties lobby. By initially demonizing the animal rights movement many innovations in repressing protest were brought in without a peep from the erstwhile guardians of civil liberty. Many fell for misinformation spread about animal rights groups which justified the weakening of the right to protest. By the time people started to notice, the precedents were already set. The campaign group Liberty itself appears to have been nobbled early on when in 2005 it had a private meeting with leading members of the pharmaceutical industry lobby group Victims of Animal Rights Extremism. Subsequently, it has been very quiet on the implications of the policing of animal rights protesters, despite various attempts at raising the issue with them.
The downfall of NETCU
Late 2010 it emerged that the domestic extremism units were to be merged, and brought back ‘in-house’. That meant that they would no longer be independent of the mainstream police forces by being part of ACPO. In 2009 the 'Inspectorate of Constabulary' produced a report which criticised the grey area in which ACPO operated, including the domestic extremism units and the “lack of clarity” over the role of FIT. Key findings were:
“Uncertainty about the governance and accountability mechanisms best suited to support public order policing at both the national and local levels: the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) must have transparent governance and accountability structures, particularly when it is engaged in quasi-operational roles, such as the collation and retention of personal data. There is a need to clarify the monitoring role for police authorities in relation to large scale public order operations – currently there is no guidance for them.
Review of the status of the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure transparent governance and accountability structures, especially in relation to its quasi-operational role of the commissioning of intelligence and the collation and retention of data.”
It is believed that this report led to the re-organisation which will see the units brought back under the aegis of the Metropolitan Police  due to be completed by the summer. Setchell and Pearl were both effectively sacked, with Det. Chief Supt. Adrian Tudway taking over from the former as National Domestic Extremism Co-ordinator. Comments from Pearl in the Telegraph  from November 2010 indicate that this was also in part due to a desire to cut costs.
Though it is impossible to know the exact reasons for the re-organisation of the domestic extremism units, it is likely to be a combination of several different factors:
1) NETCU had effectively shot themselves in the foot by focusing almost exclusively on SHAC. With the multiple imprisonment of SHAC activists over the last couple of years NETCU claimed victory, yet that meant that their job was done. If it was not a victory, then they failed – and indeed SHAC continues.
2) NETCU was never at the centre of power – New Scotland Yard. It was located in a couple of portacabins in rural Cambridgeshire. It was never going to be part of the Metropolitan Police / Special Branch clique that controlled things in London. With the re-organisation, and funding cuts to boot, a unit stationed outside the Capital no longer made sense.
3) With increasing focus (and increased funding – costs doubled in four years ) being directed towards the environmental movement from 2007 onwards, the animal rights aspect no longer held the same clout. The focus of the CIU and the background of officers currently leading various units is the Climate Camp rather than SHAC.
4) The police face growing embarrassment and political pressure as the civil liberties lobby increasingly question the expansion of surveillance of protest groups to include people who have not done anything illegal. As we write the Mark Kennedy / Stone infiltrator affair  is rumbling on and causing acute embarrassment for his employers at the NPOIU. This is shining a spotlight onto the usually murky role of undercover police in protest movements, and with it public outcry. The decision to reorganised the units preceded this, yet with the IPCC now investigating the role of NPOIU and Mark Kennedy  in the collapse of the Ratcliffe trial , how this will play out remains to be seen.
However, it is unlikely that the role that NETCU has been performing will disappear entirely, though they may go quiet for a while. Police and politicians will not give up such tried and tested tactics easily. It remains to be seen whether they will simply become even more secretive, or whether some more rigorous oversight of intelligence-gathering and undercover operatives in protest movements be put in place. The debate is ongoing.