How to infiltrate activists

IssueApril - May 2018
Feature by PN

ImageExtracts from Andy Coles’ SDS Tradecraft Manual. See accompanying article for background.

3.8.4. Once you have been armed with an easy to remember personal history you may never use it. It is highly unlikely that within a very short time as a field officer you will face hostile questioning in such depth. Nevertheless, an intensely secretive individual who never gives anything of his or her past is not normal and could easily be treated with suspicion. Equally, a person who is too free with personal details is equally suspicious. What should happen is that little facts about yourself will be revealed slowly to your circle of activists and over time a mutual trust will be built up.

In most of the groups we cover there is a high level of paranoia and suspicion, so you will eventually have to flesh out the bones of your life. For example, after four years in the field, approximately 50% of my wearies knew me only as “Andy Van” because my first name and employment as a van driver were the only details they needed. Others knew my surname, but no one knew the name or home address of the fictitious uncle I used as an excuse to get away from the occasional weekend demonstrations. A few celebrated my duff [fake] birthday with me but only one or two knew I was the father of a REDACTED from a failed relationship.

“Little facts about yourself will be revealed slowly to your circle of activists and over time a mutual trust will be built up”

3.10.1. The major reason why it takes at least three months (or longer) to graduate from the back office to the field is the time it takes for your appearance to change. One should not forget that a tour lasts approximately four years and after that experience you will have to return to a normal life. You must make every effort to ensure that on return the likelihood that your former comrades will recognise you is reduced to a minimum. The best way of achieving this is to change your appearance radically.

For men the addition of a beard and glasses to a normally clean-shaven face, an earring and radically different haircut will make the probability of recognition at a later date almost nil. For women a change in hair colour and hair style is essential. You should try to wear clothes which are similar in style to each other but different from your normal garb – for example, always wear bold checked shirts and jeans, big sloppy jumpers, a distinctive coat or hat or whatever least resembles your own tastes. If you are going to wear laundered and ironed clothes, make sure you have an iron and ironing board in the duff and a washing machine there or in a nearby laundry.

Being a little untidy, smelly and rumpled is a natural state for many of the people in our target groups. Close associates may discern the smell of fresh clothing from the suburban washing line, even as distinct from the (less fresh) smell of launderette washing – so if you are wearing the former but purporting to be wearing the latter, potential for suspicion ....
4.6.1. Imagine you are set up in your false identity, you have wheels, a home and a job, you are a regular fixture at the local [pub] and help mow the grass in the local community centre playground. Now is the time to move onto your real purpose in life – infiltrate the wearies.... There are two methods of entry: in one scenario you enter the field unsullied by political extremism and become educated by the group you have infiltrated. The other possibility is to join your organisation with a level of political sophistication or understanding on an emotional level and become drawn into more extremist views....

4.6.4. The best means of entry to almost any field is on the back of a national or London-wide campaign enjoying the active support of many extremist organisations or large numbers of your target organisation together with support from the general public.... [Y]ou can come to their notice as a stalwart campaigner very quickly. The camaraderie which develops at large demonstrations between the protesters makes the job of infiltration very much easier.

4.6.5. Another, similar method of entry revolves around large anniversary demonstrations or events such as week-long day schools. Each extremist group has some form of regular event which allows entry to their circles.... These events facilitate contact with local campaign groups and enable you to get on a mailing list and get invited to meetings.

4.6.6. ... When the political scene is quiet there is no easy catalyst to facilitate your acceptance of the target group’s more radical beliefs. A good technique to use in these circumstances is to refer to a particularly unpleasant event in your life which has forced you into getting off your bum and into action. These events could be the sudden loss of a job, intimidation by the state, such as an appalling experience at the hands of police [emphasis added] or DSS investigators or seeing a man beating a dog and feeling so much anger you are driven to support direct action for animals.

“Being a little untidy, smelly and rumpled is a natural state for many of the people in our target groups”

5.2.1. As your involvement in a group becomes more serious, it is inevitable that you will experience paranoia. Any fears you may have that your group is talking about you behind your back are well founded, since all groups discuss new members and their potential to the cause in the future. Part of that conversation will certainly include musings as to whether you are an MI5 infiltrator, undercover policeman or paid ‘grass’. Usually you will not become aware of their interest in you until you are a fixture, when you will participate in similar character assassination of newer recruits.... The wearies are generally not sophisticated in their counter intelligence capability.

5.8.1. It is becoming more and more likely that an SDS operative will face arrest during his or her tour. With the change in public order legislation following the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 we will all face the real possibility of arrest, from simple fly-posting up to recordable criminal offences such as criminal trespass, assault or burglary. Additionally, the chance of being ‘fitted up’ by unscrupulous officers is a real if rare event. [emphasis added – ed]

5.8.2. One bone of contention is that if arrested one should plead guilty and cop the fine. Groups such as the Hunt Saboteurs and the ALF will not accept such an approach to arrest in the current climate and expect a colleague to plead not guilty, fight the case strongly and if the case is won the arresting officer’s force will face a claim for compensation in the civil court. More and more groups are following this tendency and unless you intend to fail to appear at court, management should support the field officer’s appraisal of his situation. Each case must be looked at on its merits, so do not expect that you will be able to follow a course of action which will be accepted by your wearies.

“The camaraderie which develops at large demonstrations between the protesters makes the job of infiltration very much easier”

5.8.3. Having painted the worst picture, I must say that arrest is not difficult to cope with. One should never allow one’s desire to assist a fellow officer in an investigation to impede your anti-establishment attitudes! [M]ost of us who have been arrested have quite enjoyed the experience. It is not difficult to give your name, date of birth and address, then say “no comment” to any further questions. You may spend from 6 to 12 hours in a cell but you are in no danger and the wearies will find it harder to believe any rumours that you are an infiltrator after you have gone through arrest and a court appearance.

5.9.1. It must seem odd to consider the possibility of facing boredom in this sort of work, but boredom is as much part of the experience as the exciting bits. You should always be prepared for the tedium of waiting for a weary to knock on your door, sitting outside a police station for 12 hours until your last comrade is released or taking part in a week of mind-numbing discussions on political theory.

7.2.1. Anarchists come in many forms. They range from anarcho-syndicalist middle class squatters to nihilistic crusty low-life. As far as anarchist organisation in London goes, they are organised locally (although they occasionally have nation-wide links) and concentrate on a plethora of interests. They are interested in unemployment issues, squatting, anti fascist activities, They are all anti wealth, anti property ownership, anti party politics, anti establishment and anti control of any form. The ‘crusty’ type will happily riot against those in positions of power within society but a number of so-called anarchists are incapable of outright attacks on the status quo due to their middle class roots.

7.2.2. The anarchists are also concentrated in geographic areas. The heartlands of the London anarchists are Brixton and Hackney but they will deign to live in neighbouring boroughs. All of the groups I have come into contact with believe in becoming involved in any street protest, especially if there is the possibility of it ‘kicking off’. The crusty types will happily get as drunk as skunks and attack anyone in authority (usually uniformed police officers) while those with middle class roots will happily watch from the sidelines until law and order is lost, when they can get involved in criminal activity with little fear of arrest.

7.2.3. The ridiculous assertion by uniform that all outbreaks of violence on demonstrations are orchestrated by Class War is absolute nonsense. I suppose they feel better to be able to blame a handful of newspaper producing anarchists for their own deficiencies in policing anarchist crowds but the reality is that there is rarely coordination at demonstrations where violence breaks out. The simple truth is that crusty types exploit perceived weakness in police and one or two will start the ball rolling by throwing the first stone or spitting at or kicking an officer.

“An infiltrator should not be surprised when male and female comrades hug him or her to their bosom.”

7.2.4. Infiltrating anarchists is relatively simple at the beginning since you only need to show a hatred for organised politics and an angry presence on the streets. However, the anarchist lifestyle can be uncomfortable. There is little permanence in squatting and from time to time you will face reduction of dole money, arrest for shoplifting or suspected burglary while attempting to open a new squat. However, the anarchists seem to have a ‘blitz spirit’ and are relatively easy to get on with once they accept you.

7.2.5. The crusty lifestyle in particular is really unpleasant. You will be expected to eat food you wouldn’t put in your own bin, drink tea from cups which appear to have grown their own beards and sit on furniture which is alive. The squatters are notorious for taking people for all they can get and if you appear to be prepared to help them in a move or to drive them somewhere they will use you until you drop. Worst of all, they smell disgusting in the summer months! However, these people are the ones who will cause the trouble and you need to get reasonably close to them if you are infiltrating the anarchist field.

7.2.6. Of all groups, the anarchist field is the easiest to leave. They regularly disappear in summer to attend the free festivals and often travel abroad. In this form of lifestyle, permanent ties are few and far between.



Andy Coles/Davey (left) with ‘extremists’ Ernest Rodker (centre) and ARROW Audrey Schmitt (right) in 1991. Photo: Noor Admani


[This section may draw on Andy Coles’ infiltration in early 1991 of the London-based nonviolent direct action affinity group, ARROW, which had about 15 members. PN author Andrea Needham, PN volunteers David Polden and Susan Johns, and PN workers Emily Johns and Milan Rai were all members of ARROW at the time.]

7.5.1. Pacifists tend to come to the fore only when a specific military issue comes to the fore. The last upsurge in pacifist activism was during the Gulf War, when large demonstrations in London were complemented by small scale occupations and invasions of military and military-industrial targets. The pacifists tend to be robust but vehemently anti violence – they will criticise you wholeheartedly if you suggest using force against police lines.

7.5.2. Coupled to the anti violence attitude is an all-pervasive martyrdom complex. The activists appear to believe in the process of law and follow Gandhi’s policy of passive resistance. They will break simple laws such as trespass, obstruction and minor criminal damage but wait for arrest and look forward to proselytising in the dock of a magistrates court. They also have a disconcerting Christian approach to violence perpetrated by security staff – they often accept injury and assault, preferring to ‘turn the other cheek’. In fact, some of the most active pacifists are motivated through strong religious beliefs – the Quakers being strongly represented. Although there is a strong anarcho-pacifist element, the anarchism is more of an affectation than a deep understanding of anarchist theory. Outside the UK, the anarchist involvement in the anti-militarist movement is much more robust and aggressive.

7.5.3. Most street active pacifists work in small affinity groups of about 15 people and spend a great deal of social time together. It is important to sort out your pacifist history as they will discuss the minutiae of their political awakening to excess. They tend to be very loving and an infiltrator should not be surprised when male and female comrades hug him or her to their bosom.