Opponents of fracking in Scotland are considered “domestic extremists” by Police Scotland, despite Home Office advice that campaigners should not be bracketed alongside the likes of Islamic State and neo-Nazis under counter terrorism strategy.

Official documents also reveal that Police Scotland has been trying to infiltrate communities near the Ineos petrochemical plant at Grangemouth in order to glean information on people involved with peaceful anti-fracking groups.

The revelations by research group Spinwatch have prompted a furious response from anti-fracking groups, who are calling on the justice committee at the Scottish Parliament to ask Police Scotland to urgently change its approach.

Police Scotland said in response that it “supports the public’s right to protest”.

Over the past five years, at least seven of the 11 regional units that form the UK’s National Counter Terrorism Policing Network, have either carried out surveillance and/or “unjustifiably smeared” anti-fracking campaigners, says Spinwatch.

This controversial approach ignores advice from the Home Office in 2016, which said that “support for anti-fracking is not an indicator of vulnerability” under the UK Government’s Prevent strategy, a policy introduced to combat terrorism.

The UK’s National Counter Terrorism Policing Network involves specialist officers working with MI5 and “other partners” to find information to “thwart terrorist planning and help bring perpetrators to justice”.

There are eleven regional counter terrorism units and intelligence units, who work with a range of partners to prevent terrorist activity, according to the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

These regional Counter Terrorism Units seek intelligence in their areas, with the Scotland Counter Terrorism Intelligence Unit gathering information north of the border.

Until early 2018, Police Scotland was headed by Chief Constable Phil Gormley, a former Met Special Branch chief of two undercover policing units, including the notorious Special Demonstration Squad that infiltrated and spied on environmental protest groups.

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In his foreword for Police Scotland’s Annual Police Plan for 2017/18, Gormley outlined how Scottish policing would be delivered over the coming year in alignment with a long-term strategic vision.

On tackling counter terrorism and domestic extremism, the plan says: “In 2017/18 we will continue to pursue terrorists and those who sponsor them and explore all opportunities to disrupt and detect such activities.”

While referring to the “so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)” and “Northern Ireland Related Terrorism”, the document labels anti-fracking groups and hunt saboteurs as a “Domestic Extremism” (DE) threat, placing them alongside banned neo-Nazi terrorist groups, Scottish Dawn and National Action.

Police Scotland’s report says: “The DE threat within the UK remains dominated by Extreme Right Wing (XRW) activity and the impact on public order. This has the potential to increase significantly based upon the emotiveness of current affairs, particularly in relation to anti-Muslim sentiment amongst XRW individuals as a result of recent terrorist events and the large number of migrants displaced from Syria, North Africa and the Middle East regions as a result of ongoing conflicts.”

The report continues: “Extreme Left Wing activity in Scotland has been observed over animal rights, particularly in relation to hunt saboteurs. There continue to be protests around shale oil and gas extraction and unconventional oil and gas extraction, both commonly referred to as ‘fracking’. In 2017/18, we will continue to closely monitor individuals and groups that are involved/ suspected to be involved in the DE arena and explore all opportunities to disrupt and detect their activities.”

Police Scotland’s Local Police Plan 2017-20 for the Falkirk region similarly brands anti-fracking protest as a potential threat, in its discussion of counter terrorism risks in towns close to the Ineos Grangemouth plant which is classified as critical national infrastructure.

The plan says that one strategy is to gather intelligence from local communities.

Under the heading, “Counter Terrorism”, Police Scotland says: “Seeking the support of communities to develop the national intelligence picture around terrorism, domestic extremism and potential protests around fracking, shale oil and gas extraction given the nature of our commercial business infrastructure located in the Grangemouth area.”

Iain Livingstone replaced Phil Gormley as Scotland’s Chief Constable in August this year.

Chief Constable Livingstone also has links to counter terrorism units, as reported by The Ferret in 2016. A freedom of information request revealed he had attended meetings of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Terrorism and Allied Matters Committee, aka ACPO TAM.

ACPO TAM was responsible for counter terrorism and oversaw the UK’s national domestic extremism units whose activities are being investigated by Lord Justice Pitchford.

The committee’s remit covered undercover officers with the Metropolitan Police who infiltrated campaigning groups and spied on animal rights activists and environmentalists, among others deemed domestic extremists.

Official documents reveal similar approaches by other UK police forces. In the Midlands, a key fracking battleground, Special Branch officers have provided significant intelligence support for the policing of anti-fracking demonstrations.

There are two regional counter terrorism units covering the East and West Midlands who spy on the anti-fracking movement.

The West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit labels environmental groups taking part in “anti-fracking protest camps and coordinated direct action” as potential domestic extremists alongside lone wolf and far-right actors.

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Anti-fracking campaigners based in Scotland said in response that Police Scotland must change its strategy.

Penny Cole of Frackwatch Glasgow said the her group’s main activity in the last two years has been to inform people in Glasgow of the “negative aspects of fracking and encourage them to respond to a Scottish government consultation”.

She added: “We did it through fliers, postcards, badges, public meetings, street stalls, film shows, social media and fun events. Now it seems the members of Frackwatch might be under surveillance – what might that be? Being followed, our phones tapped, our activities filmed?

“What possible justification is there? It is totally undemocratic and the Scottish Parliament justice committee should tell Police Scotland to stop it at once.”

Donald Campbell, chair of the Broad Alliance, a coalition of Scottish communities opposed to unconventional oil and gas development, also said the justice committee should urge Police Scotland to change policy.

He added: “Can Police Scotland point to one example of illegal activities by any individual in the Scottish anti-fracking movement, or any of the groups that make up the Broad Alliance? In the recent consultation, 60,000 people told the Scottish government to ban fracking – are they all “domestic extremists”?

“The Broad Alliance are stakeholders in the decision-making process over fracking, at the request of the Scottish Government. What does it say about our consultation system if the very people asked to contribute, on behalf of communities, are then characterised as extremists?”

John Finnie MSP, the Scottish Greens’ justice spokesperson who sits on the parliament’s justice committee, said that citing anti-fracking protests as examples of domestic extremism is “frankly absurd”. He claimed this means that “Greens, other political parties and even government ministers, must all have been monitored for campaigning against fracking”.

“I will be writing to Police Scotland asking for a fuller explanation of why the anti-fracking movement is deemed as ‘Domestic Extremism’; the extent that individuals and groups have been monitored and a judgement on whether this has been excessive and a waste of police time and resources.

“Of course, to the delight of communities throughout Scotland, fracking is banned, in spite of Police Scotland’s best efforts to disrupt the activities of environmental campaigners,” he added.

Russell Scott of Spinwatch said that fracking critics were being “unfairly labelled” as domestic extremists which “raises some serious concerns”.

He added: “The fact that the Scottish Government and large swathes of the local community opposes fracking hasn’t deterred Police Scotland from closely monitoring opponents of shale gas extraction, neither has it stopped the police from branding anti-fracking campaigners as a potential ‘domestic extremism’ threat.

“Maybe it’s time the Home Office intervened again as Police Scotland and other forces across the country are ignoring the 2016 Statement.”

Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “It is extremely alarming that ordinary people who have defended their communities from the environmental harms posed by fracking could be branded as domestic extremists in this way.

“Fracking threatens people’s health and the climate and the courageous individuals who dedicated years of their life to peacefully resisting the imposition of this industry on their communities deserve more respect than this.

“The vilification of frontline anti-fracking activists could have a serious chilling effect on people who see injustice and environmental damage and want to speak up. At this critical stage in the fight to stop climate catastrophe, we need to be encouraging more people to step up to take action, not labelling them as a danger to society.”

Police Scotland said in response: “Police Scotland supports the public’s right to protest against anything that concerns them, and will facilitate peaceful protests as long as these are conducted within the law.”

The Scottish Government said: “Operational policing is a matter for Police Scotland. Both the Scottish Government and Police Scotland support the public’s right to peaceful protests that are conducted within the law.”

Other forces named by Spinwatch include Sussex Police, Surrey Police and Kent Police.

North Yorkshire Police was also highlighted, one of seven police forces in the North East Counter Terrorism Unit.

Spinwatch said that a Counter Terrorism Local Profile developed for York and North Yorkshire, identified anti-fracking protest as “a key risk to York alongside activities relating to Syria, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), anti-Israeli/pro Palestinian, hunt saboteurs, animal rights, and extreme right-wing groups”.

Spinwatch says that a presentation on Prevent in 2016 by Merseyside Special Branch – given to schools, governors, colleges and childcare providers – labelled anti-fracking campaigners as potential domestic extremists on a list of extreme right-wing groups including the English Defence League and 65 international extremist groups.

Peaceful campaigners branded terrorist threats

The Ferret revealed in 2015 that animal rights activists and both environment and anti-nuclear campaigners were all deemed potential terrorist threats by Glasgow City Council.

Using Freedom of Information legislation, details were obtained of an internal GCC course entitled Protect Against Terrorism, which was produced to advise the council’s 20,000 employees on potential terrorist threats.

In a section entitled, What is Terrorism? GCC cited “animal rights”, “environmental” and “anti-nuclear” under a sub-heading, “Who Are Our Current Threats?”. This was alongside a mention of neo-Nazi David Copeland, who murdered three people and injured more than 100 others when he detonated a nail bomb in Soho, London, in 1999.

This story was also published in the Sunday National on 16 September 2018.