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UK National Counter-Terrorism Awareness Week Included an Event on Protecting Your Fertilizer From Terrorists

Police visited schools, train stations were leafleted and citizens were told to 'make a plan and stay safe.' Critics have called it scaremongering. But farmers at the launch of the 'Fertilizer Security Five-Point Plan' disagree.

by Sally Hayden
Dec 1 2014, 6:20pm

Image by Sally Hayden

It's a grey morning on a farm in Lincolnshire, a county some 140 miles north of London. The farm can't be named for security reasons. The press release that the selected attendees are given has been approved by the British Home Office.

Last week was National Counter Terrorism Awareness Week, and on Friday selected members of the agricultural and counter-terrorism communities met to hold a launch event aimed at educating farmers about the risk that terrorists pose to their fertilizer.

The government has warned: "There is no doubt that terrorists will target those things that are easy to obtain." In this case, that's ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer, of which the UK currently manufactures or imports 4 million tons annually — making its soil the most ammonium nitrate-loaded in the world.

In Lincolnshire one in 10 people work in food or farming. Jo Gilbertson from the Agricultural Industries Confederation told VICE News: "Lincolnshire is the heartland of farming. If you want to make a statement about agriculture in Britain you come here."

A senior policy maker in the agricultural industry spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity. He said: "If you can imagine a terrorist wants to make a bomb and the shopping list of things that they might use to create that bomb: fertilizer is on it."

Of course it's not just farmers who have been targeted during National Counter Terrorism Awareness Week. Schools were treated to visits from police and theater groups, officers warned university students about the dangers of being drawn into extremism, and information sessions were run for charities on ways to donate money without inadvertently funding terrorism.

Authorities distributed a large quantity of instructional material, including warnings about bombs on public transport, firearm attacks in shopping centers, and reminders that the threat level to the UK from international terrorism is severe — meaning an attack is "highly likely." Days were themed under headings like "terrorist financing" and "preventing violent extremism." The UK police released a list of "potential targets,"  including cinemas, sports stadia, hotels and public houses. Citizens have been instructed to "make a plan and stay safe."

UK bans insurance firms from paying ransoms to terrorist groups. Read more here.

The message of the week was that citizens must be vigilant and proactive in the fight against terrorism. National Policing Lead for Gangs and Criminal Use of Firearms, Deputy Chief Constable Dave Thompson, said that it wasn't sufficient to simply limit access to the means to cause harm. "Terrorists can use ordinary objects such as kitchen knives and other items as weapons, so we need people to report any concerns they have about anyone who is showing signs of extremism." The National Counter Terrorism Security Office said that attentiveness is incredibly important, as it can deter "those with hostile intent who may be watching."

Leaflets showing Mumbai-style terrorist attacks were handed out on the London tube. Photo via National Counter Terrorism Security Office.

Citizens were encouraged to be alert not only to threats from outsiders, but to each others' behavior, including that in the workplace. The Center for Protection for National Infrastructure warns against "insider" activity, which is what happens when a previously trustworthy individual becomes disillusioned and evolves into a potential terrorist. Businesses have been told to be "prepared for the worst."

Farmer Sarah Dawson, who attended the launch in Lincolnshire, told VICE News: "I think the threat is around us all the time in one guise or another. In terms of our responsibility as farmers, we take it very, very seriously."

Critics have claimed that some of the initiatives for National Terrorism Awareness Week constitute unnecessary and ineffective scaremongering.

"This campaign isn't really about doing us any collective good. It's about an institution justifying and aggrandizing its position. Those who are planning what they'd do in a firearms and weapons attack are not questioning police powers and funding, and are unlikely to oppose their increase," David Mitchell, a comedian and columnist, wrote in the Guardian. "The people behind this campaign are using fear to get what they want. I thought that was the kind of thing we didn't give in to."

But Dawson rejected such contentions as ridiculous. She insisted: "We're really proud to be able to say that we're doing the best we can to safeguard our fertilizer and any future terrorism approaches in relation to farming.

"We as farmers, or just general citizens, have to be vigilant and we have to be practical and real about what threats there are out there. Not just in terrorism, in life, there are a lot of threats. And this is one thing where farmers can really get behind a great initiative in collaboration with some local organizations and national police to say that we absolutely take our responsibilities seriously."

Chris Godson, a farmer from Lincoln and the National Farmers Union county chairman, said he hasn't had any fertilizer stolen, and doesn't know anyone who has. But he still feels a level of responsibility, he told VICE News.

"You stand here in the middle of rural Lincolnshire and you're not thinking terrorism, but when you have one of the components of something that can cause an awful lot of harm then obviously you've got to take it seriously," he said.

"I can't say I feel under attack here, but it's a real threat and we see it on the news, and when you see on the news that your fellow countrymen are under threat, if you have one of the components (of that threat) you kind of take it seriously."

Godson said that everyone has a part to play in keeping the country safe. "You've got to take all the little bits. You take all those little pieces together and perhaps we'll be living in a safer country."

A photoshoot in Lincolnshire to promote the fertilizer "five-point plan," aimed at warning farmers of the risk that terrorists will steal their fertilizer.

Driving through the flat Lincolnshire countryside on Friday, Adrian Parker, counter-terrorism adviser for the East Midlands Special Operations Unit,  gestured at the fields stretching out on either side. The farms range from 30 to thousands of acres, he said, and grow "mainly arable crops. Towards the coast you have your greens."

"All of these farms around us now would be stocking up on fertilizer now in time for spring."

Parker noted that there have been a number of threats in the area which the police have taken proactive action to stop. Safeguarding fertilizer, he said, is "no more important or less important than any of the other issues, all of which are quite important. So I don't rate it on a rating, but it's equally as important as any other sector of this week's campaign."

"I think there's concern," he added. "I think people are looking at it in a common sense manner and would like to be informed, and I think it's the right thing to do to inform them. We're asking for the public's help at the end of the day in trying to counter terrorism, to report anything suspicious and to remain vigilant in their workplace or elsewhere."

The attendees at the Lincolnshire launch denied that telling people to be constantly on their guard was akin to creating unnecessary fear. But, Godson acknowledged that there was a balance to be struck. "If we spend our whole time being anxious the terrorists have won," he said.

New counter-terrorism bill will prohibit "extremist" speakers from British universities. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd