PHILADELPHIA -- Violence by environmental and animal rights extremists against U.S. drug makers has increased so much in recent years that it's currently the FBI's top domestic terrorism issue, a top agency official says.
"There has been an increase in the use of incendiary devices as well as explosive devices," said John Lewis, FBI deputy assistant director in charge of counterterrorism. "There's a very clear indication that there's no move to slow down or stop - in fact, just the opposite is true."
The agency has about 150 open cases of arson, bombings and other violent crimes associated with militant environmental and animal rights activists protesting the experimental use of animals in medical research, he said.
Lewis made the comments Monday in an address to some of the 18,000 biotechnology executives gathered here at the four-day Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual convention.
Some of the same groups associated with the wave of violent attacks on biotechnology companies said they planned demonstrations outside the convention center Tuesday.
Though the protesters vowed to be peaceful, convention organizers and Philadelphia police were taking no chances.
Security was high inside and outside the convention center. A helicopter hovered over the National Constitution Center on Sunday night while police on the ground formed a corridor through a small smattering of jeering demonstrators to ensure the conventioneers could arrive unmolested to a party inside.
As the attacks nationwide increase, along with hits to companies' bottom lines and worker morale, industry leaders and their crisis consultants are advocating a radical shift in strategy. They are beginning to fight back aggressively.
Chiron Corp., of Emeryville, Calif., which was bombed in 2003 and is still the subject of actions that include credit card fraud against some of its employees, won a restraining order in a California court against a group allegedly involved in much of the activity.
The company also refused to renounce its ties to the protesters main target: Huntingdon Life Sciences, a Millstone, N.J. laboratory that does animal experiments for biotech and drug companies.
"We believe if we just kept our heads down, it would go away," said John Gallagher, director of Chiron's corporate communications. "That was unrealistic."
Gallagher said the attacks have cost Chiron at least $2.5 million, much of it associated with heightened security at public company events such as analyst meetings.
"That money would have been much better spent on drug development," Gallagher said.