Eco-Terrorism

Our two previous posts in this series (Types of Terrorism and Causes of Terrorism) have broadly outlined the different kinds of terrorism and some of its causes. This post will focus on one kind specifically that the general media often overlook. Eco-terrorism is today one of the most threatening forms of terrorism that the United States faces. Carried out not by foreigners but by citizens within America’s own borders, eco-terrorism has been used over the past decade through hundreds of attacks responsible for tens of millions of dollars worth of damage across the U.S. 

History of Eco-Terrorism

Eco-terrorism has been around the UK since at least the late 1960s, migrating to the United States around a decade later. Over time eco-terrorism has grown into two primary sister organizations, The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and The Earth Liberation Front (ELF). The origins of ALF lie in British activists, who, in a non-violent manner, attempted to disrupt foxhunts in the late 1960s. From these activists came a more hardcore group willing to use violent tactics against those they see as harming animals. This group, called The Band of Mercy became one of the original implementers of fire bombing as a tactic first used at a research center in 1974. After two years the group’s most dedicated members created ALF. Around 1979 the movement migrated to the U.S., first with “liberation” actions aimed at releasing lab animals that then spread and grew into more violent actions, such as arson. Between 1979 and 1993 there were 313 such actions carried out by ALF and other related groups.

The Earth Liberation Front came about under similar circumstances. It evolved out of a group called Earth First! created in 1979.  Earth First!’s actions ranged from peaceful, such as “tree sitting”, to more violent, like “tree spiking” in which nails are placed in trees so that they create shrapnel when hit with chainsaws by loggers. In 1992, similar to the formation of ALF, several more radical members in favor of the more violent tactics created ELF. Throughout the 1990’s ELF carried out attacks in coordination with ALF, as well as its own towards the end of the decade.

Since their creation, ALF, ELF, and the offshoot organizations that have appeared with them have continued to use violence against property as a means of coercing corporations and the government into following actions more in line with their environmental philosophies. During a 2004 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee the then Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI stated that around 1,100 criminal acts with damages estimated at $110 million had been carried out in the United States by such organizations since 1976.

Tactics and Targets of Eco-Terrorism

On their websites both the ELF and ALF have stated three primary goals:

  • Educate the public about actions against animals or the environment that ELF/ALF perceive as immoral.
  • Carry out attacks that bring about economic damage to those who they see as taking any such actions.
  • Take all precautions possible to make sure that no animal “human or non-human” are injured.

In order to achieve their goal of inflicting economic damage in order to coerce, eco-terrorists commonly employ three kinds of actions. Most frequently vandalism is used in the form of spray painting slogans or breaking windows. According to the ELF’s own “Diary of Actions” on its website many of their early activities consisted mainly of gluing door locks and spray-painting messages at targets such as gas stations or fast food chains. Almost just as frequently, and to greater effect, these groups employ arson against structures that they see as detrimental to animals or the environment. The most notable of these actions were the attacks on Vail Ski Resort, Colorado in 1998 that cause around $26 million in damages and the 2003 burning of a La Jolla, California condominium complex with damages near $50 million. Finally sabotage is used to disrupt economic activity by damaging property ranging from equipment to buildings. ELF’s action diary describes a number of these in which vehicles at construction sites are rendered unusable in order to slow or halt housing developments perceived as urban sprawl.

The Threat

To date there have been no known fatalities from eco-terrorist attacks within the U.S. or U.K. These organizations tend to focus on property destruction in the hopes that their economic impact will deter the sort of behavior they oppose. However, these groups, or at least individuals within them, have threatened in the past to use violence against human targets. In 2003 the anonymous perpetrator taking responsibility for bombing a California company involved with animal research ended their message with “… There will be no quarter given, no half measures taken. You might be able to protect your buildings, but can you protect the homes of every employee?” The risk of these groups, or individuals, deciding to escalate their violent actions to include attacking civilians is therefore plausible.

Many of the people within these groups hold philosophical beliefs that oppose capitalism and modernization. Some also believe that human civilization should shift back to pre-industrial times as to preserve the environment. This could lead to individuals holding these beliefs to pursue more extreme tactics aimed at curbing population growth or causing mass damage to markets in an attempt to fight capitalism, which they see as detrimental to the environment.

Finally, as many within these movements oppose non-green energy sources, they may attempt to attack nuclear power facilities, which could lead to loss of life and major repercussions for surrounding areas. In 1989 four members of Earth First!, including one of its founders, were arrested by the FBI on charges of conspiracy to sabotage nuclear facilities. With the recent gulf oil spill and disaster at the Fukashima nuclear plant in Japan, eco-terrorists may see energy companies and infrastructure as a bigger threat to the environment than ever, thereby making them a bigger target.

Policy Responses to Eco-Terrorism 

The main difficulty in responding to groups like the ALF or ELF is their lack of a hierarchical structure. They have set themselves up as a cell structure in which each part of the group works independently of the others, often with no contact between them and no knowledge from one cell to the next. According to the organizations’ web sites, to join, an individual only needs to organize a cell and carry out an attack. However, this is also their weakness. As Jones and Eilstrup-Sangiovanni argue in “Assessing the Dangers of Illicit Networks”, cell networks are less effective than hierarchical organizations because they have little to no central planning causing a lack of direction by more experienced operatives and poor dissemination of information. As well, cells tend to exhibit poor decision-making capabilities due to the lack of clear authority or leadership and therefore take excessive risks. Finally, such small group structures can lead to factions with their own ideologies that may splinter off.

While the lack of centralized leadership makes these movements hard to take down as a whole, it also makes them easier to catch individually. One of the original American eco-terrorists, John Hanna in an interview with a supporter, responds when asked how he got caught for some of his 70s arson activities: “Good old-fashioned investigative techniques…”. While seemingly simplistic, such policing techniques are the best ones to use in the face of such a decentralized domestic terrorist organization. Since these groups are decentralized, underfunded, and under trained they are also prone to mistakes. These mistakes can be exploited by investigators at the FBI, and subsequent arrests result in causing the collapse of individual cells.

Therefore the best way to respond to domestic eco-terrorism is to provide law enforcement, particularly federal law enforcement, with enough resources so that they may concentrate on individual cells that form and carry out attacks. Target hardening is also a good response for businesses and other targets of these groups. Better security, fire retardant structures, and other such measures will make it more difficult for them to be attacked and will minimize damage done when they are.

Want to know more?

An excellent documentary has been released on ELF and we highly recommend it. You can find If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front on Amazon here.

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