A major review of security was under way 35 years ago today when a parcel bomb exploded inside 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British Prime Minister.
Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister at the time, was at home when the bomb went off, but in a different room. The padded envelope containing the explosive device had been addressed to Mrs Thatcher in person.
Luckily no-one was seriously hurt, although a member of the Prime Minister’s staff received treatment for burns. Also in the package were letters from a group calling itself the Animal Rights Militia, although mainstream animal welfare organisations said they had never heard of it.
The Downing Street bomb was part of a terror campaign orchestrated by the animal activists, with four more bombs sent to senior politicians across all parties. They were Labour leader Michael Foot, SDP leader Roy Jenkins, Liberal Party leader David Steel and Home Office Minister Timothy Raison. Thankfully all four of these devices were intercepted before reaching their intended targets.
The package had aroused suspicions when it arrived at 10 Downing Street. It was being examined by office manager Peter Taylor when it suddenly flared up, burning his hands and face. He was taken to hospital for treatment, but was discharged after a few hours and returned to work with bandaged hands.
Specialist police officers who examined the remains of the package said the device inside was gunpowder-based. It was either a very amateurish bomb or had been specifically designed to burn rather than explode.
Mrs Thatcher had been working in her study when the bomb went off and was not in any danger from it. However, the fact that an explosive device had made it inside the Prime Minister’s home raised serious concerns and triggered a thorough review of security, both at Number 10 and other potential targets for letter bombers.
Part of the investigation focused on how the package had made it through the rigorous checks already in place for all mail sent to 10 Downing Street, while another part looked at how those checks could be strengthened.
During Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Mrs Thatcher told all MPs they should be on their guard against similar attacks: “Letter bombs anywhere are most distressing and I’m afraid we’re all vulnerable,” she said.
A police investigation was also launched to identify the group which had sent the letter bombs. It was the first known action by the Animal Rights Militia (ARM), but there were more over the years that followed, including more letter bombs and arson attacks. It is widely believed that ARM is a splinter group of the Animal Liberation Front, which has a strict policy of causing no harm to any living being, including humans.
Unlike the Animal Liberation Front, ARM is prepared to use direct action and tactics which either deliberately target human life, or endanger it. As well as using letter bombs, it has placed incendiary devices under cars and in buildings, set fire to property, sent death threats, contaminated food products and even desecrated a grave.
Members of mainstream animal welfare groups have strongly and publicly condemned such tactics, which they believe taint their cause.