A Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) “quarterly threat assessment” dated January 2016 and marked “unclassified/not for public release,” but posted publicly online, lists “animal rights and environmental extremists” and “anarchist extremists” as “groups [that] represent a significant domestic terrorist threat.” Animal rights activists, environmentalists, and anarchists are featured along with homegrown violent extremists inspired by al Qaida and ISIS, sovereign citizen extremists, and anti-abortion extremists as groups that “represent the most prominent known threat to the US” in the category of domestic terrorism. The quarterly threat assessment also describes foreign terrorist threats including ISIS, al Qaida, Jabhat al Nusra, and al Shabaab.
The Boston Police bulletin features a “threat matrix” chart, which it describes as a “snapshot of the groups that are assessed to pose a significant threat to the [Metro Boston Homeland Security Region].” The chart describes the intent, capability, and opportunity for groups ranging from al Qaeda and ISIS to animal rights and environmental extremists to attack targets in the Boston area.
The international terrorist group al Qaida killed nearly three thousand Americans on 9/11. ISIS has in recent months been responsible for horrifying violence in Iraq, Syria, France, and Belgium. But according to “green scare” scholar Will Potter, animal rights and environmental “extremists,” who over the past few decades have occasionally been convicted of destroying property, have never killed a single human being in the United States. Despite this profound difference between terrorist groups like al Qaida and ISIS, which explicitly and intentionally aim to kill civilians, and animal rights and environmental activists, who explicitly and intentionally aim not to harm human beings, the Boston Police Department lists the groups in the same terrorism “threat matrix” chart.
Here in Boston, the FBI investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev before the Boston Marathon attacks. His name and information about the terror investigation were included in a terrorism database to which Boston police officers assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force had access. Similarly, in Paris and Brussels, the attackers were on the radar of law enforcement prior to their murderous assaults. As the New Yorker pointed out, the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the West committed by militant Muslims have been orchestrated by people who prior to their attacks were known to Western law enforcement or intelligence agencies. How can it be that people police or spies know or suspect to be dangerous continue to get away with killing people?
One likely answer to this puzzling question is that police and spies in Western countries, having been granted near carte blanche since 9/11, are watching too many people and casting too wide a net to meaningfully keep track of the people who may be truly dangerous. When police distribute bulletins listing “animal rights and environmental extremists” in the same terrorism “threat matrix” as ISIS and al Qaida, they are wasting their time documenting, tracking, and monitoring dissidents who pose a threat to the existing political or social order—and maybe to property—but who have no intention or plans to harm living human beings.
This isn’t the first time the Boston Police Department has smeared dissidents as potential terrorists. In 2012, the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Boston office of the National Lawyers Guild jointly published a report describing BPD “intelligence” files listing anti-war groups like Codepink and Veterans for Peace as “extremists” and domestic homeland security threats.
When government agencies conflate dissent with terrorism, it’s not just civil liberties and freedom that lose. Public safety takes a major hit, too. The Boston Police Department would do well to take notice, and to stop associating explicitly non-violent activity like animal rights and environmental organizing with murderous terrorist groups like al Qaida and ISIS.