Eco-terrorism describes the violent activities some environmental activists perform to thwart the actions of people and corporations they believe harm nature and its components. You can also refer to eco-terrorism as ecological terrorism or bioterrorism.
These violent acts include burning properties, contaminating water and products, animal liberation, targeted threats, bombing, and many more acts of civil disobedience. The goal is to punish and ruin targeted corporations so they cannot cause any more environmental harm.
Eco-terrorism is a major headache for enterprises around the world. The FBI prioritized it as a major domestic threat due to the damage it causes to the economy and the environment.
This article will discuss the origins of eco-terrorism, eco-terrorist groups, and their harmful activities. We will also explore the attempted solutions directed at curbing eco-terrorism.
When the world realized the harm our activities cause to the environment, we saw the need to create environmental laws and organizations. The United States government passed laws like the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act of 1972, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA). These laws help us regulate and protect our environment. However, some people didn’t find these laws and environmental organizations satisfactory.
The dissatisfaction gave way to radical environmentalism. Some environmental activists believe it is impossible to achieve positive changes given corporations that benefit from the destruction of the environment. Radical environmentalists believed that nature has an inherent value, so we should value all life forms and processes, which is correct. But, a sub-set of radicals include illegal tactics in their eco-protection approaches.
As the direct actions of these activists grew, an anti-environmental activist known as Ron Arnold created the term eco-terrorism. He defined eco-terrorism as crimes perpetuated to save nature. He is among the many people who described eco-terrorism as any act of violence against an organization, property, or person to protect animal and environmental rights. Eco-terrorism gained traction five years after Arnold coined it. It appeared in congressional testimony about radical environmentalism in 19883.
In 2002, Jame F. Jarboe, the Domestic Terrorism Section Chief of the FBI Counterterrorism Division, stated that eco-terrorism is the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons.
Environmental terrorism also aims at an audience beyond the target1, often of a symbolic nature Critics think radical environmentalists are not terrorists because they do not murder humans and other living things. However, the law states that environmentalists’ actions of physical disruption that cause damage to animal enterprises are eco-terrorists.
Individuals have established various groups of eco-terrorists since on set of eco-terrorism. However, the three main terrorist groups at the forefront of environmental terrorism are:
The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) is a decentralized organization that operates in over 40 countries. They are a group that claims to protect natural resources and animal rights without the use of violence.
We can trace their origins back to the creation of the Hunters Saboteurs Association in December 1963. A British journalist, John Prestige, created HSA when he watched hunters hunt a pregnant deer at a Devon and Somerset Staghounds event.
From the group’s name, you can tell that John formed it to sabotage hunters5. The group then grew to be multiple groups under different titles. Two people, Ronnie Lee and Cliff Goodman, brought back Band of Mercy2. Band of Mercy is the name of a royal society for preventing cruelty to animals in the 19th century.
The Band of Mercy perpetuated acts of violence to stop the hunters from hunting animals. Their violent activities included slashing the hunters’ tires and damaging their windows. Also, they set fire to buildings and caused property damage. The band’s first act of arson was at a research facility near Milton Keynes in 1973. In June 1974, the band also set fire to boats in the annual sea cull at the Coast of Norfolk.
After these violent events, they staged about eight raids against animal-testing laboratories, chicken breeders, and gun shops. Their criminal acts mainly involved arson causing property damage. The group members also freed half a dozen guinea pigs from a pig farm in Wiltshire, causing the owner to go out of business. However, the Hunters Saboteurs Association did not support the violent methods of the Band of Mercy.
During the spring of 1976, Lee formed the ALF because he wanted a name that would threaten people who violated animal rights. He began the group after he finished his prison sentence.
He and his partner, Goodman, were arrested during a raid at the Oxford Laboratory Animal Colonies in Bicester. The court sentenced them to 3 years imprisonment, after which they received parole for 12 months. During these times, Lee believed more strongly in his cause. So, he gathered 30 members that entered his new group. Some of these members were old members of the Band of Mercy and newly recruited about two dozen new members.
The group’s aims were:
Despite the group stating that it would not use violence to forward its cause, most of its members will do whatever it takes to push its agenda. They did not consider their acts of vandalism, burning, and bombing as violent because they didn’t cause the death of humans and animals. It is why critics refer to them as an eco-terrorist group.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies listed ALF as a top group that perpetuates domestic terrorism due to the frequency of burnings and bombings they organized.
Their activities have caused financial damage to companies, organizations, and the government. On the 17th of November, 1984, ALF announced to media outlets that it had contaminated Mars Bars with rat poison to stop the company’s test activities on monkeys.
This cost the Mars company $4.5 million as they had to remove millions of Mars Bars from the market7. Another example is ALF’s raid at the University of California on the 20th of April 1985. The attack caused $700,000 in damages and the disappearance of 468 animals.
The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is similar to ALF. It is an independent eco-terrorist group that indulges in terrorist acts under the guise of environmental protection. The organization evolved from an eco-terrorist organization known as the British Earth First Movement in 1992 in England. They supposedly created ELF to allow the use of violence and direct action tactics to further their eco-terrorism cause because the British Earth First Movement wanted to focus on civil disobedience and mass demonstration tactics6.
Most of their aims and actions were similar to that of ALF. Over time, the organization’s influence spread out of Brighton, Europe, to over 17 countries. ELF members spread throughout Europe, North America, and South America. So, you will find ELF’s eco-terrorists in the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Russia, Poland, Spain, France, Finland, and many more countries.
ELF focuses on organizations involved in logging, deforestation, genetic engineering, GMO crops, urban sprawl, rural cluster, and other activities that ELF believes are exploiting the earth, human beings, and its other inhabitants.
As mentioned earlier, they are an autonomous group that works together in cells. A cell contains two or more persons, while individuals are one-person terrorists. These cells support themselves financially. Members of this eco-terrorist group often claim that arson isn’t a violent act because they make sure there are no living things present. The members of ELF are politically motivated people with various ideologies that bring them together. Some are animal liberationists, anti-capitalists, green anarchists, deep ecologists, and eco-feminists.
ELF’s main terrorist tactic is to cause damage to properties by using firebombs. They burn research laboratories, businesses, and homes of people they think are causing harm to the environment. Their criminal acts also include vandalism and bombing.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) listed ELF as a top domestic terrorist organization in February 2001. Law enforcement agencies started a campaign to stop them from pursuing more eco-terrorism acts. They were United States' top domestic terrorist threat in February 2001.
The eco-terrorist group caused damages worth an estimated value of $100 million. They destroyed three 345,000-volt power poles near Moab, Utah, in July 1981. Also, there were reports of nine crimes in Northern California between November 1989 and December 1990.
They burned six stores that sold fur clothing, destroyed power lines in Watsonville, and incurred $1.9 million in damages at Boonville’s logging centers. In 1998, the ecological terrorism group burned a ski resort built in Vail, Colorado. The raid cost $12 million in damages.
ELF and ALF have worked together in the past, as they both lay claims to eco-terrorist acts. In March 1997, ALF sent a letter to the supervisor of Willamette National Forest announcing an official alliance with ELF. After ALF and ELF announced their alliance, there were 12 arson attacks and up to $17.9 million in damaged property. Furthermore, they burned Two Elks Lodge at Vail, Colorado, on the 19th of October, 1998.
ELF claims that their criminal acts don't cause bodily harm to human beings. However, there have always been close calls, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) feared it would get out of hand one day. For this reason, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies tried to stop their terrorist attacks.
Paul Watson co-created Greenpeace in 1972, but he was expelled from the board of Greenpeace because they didn't acknowledge his direct action tactics, which clashed with the group's pacifist tactics. So, he left and created Sea Shepherd in 1977-1978 to pursue his combative beliefs of executing eco-activism. The organization charged itself with the task of protecting the environment.
To be precise, the group sought to prevent drift net fishing and whaling and protect the marine environment. The group employed violence because Paul believed that direct action tactics were more effective. So, they damage their foe’s property to prevent them from performing the actions that supposedly harm the environment. They’d ram into whaling ships, damage whale meat by throwing rancid butter into whaling ships, and damage ship propellers to prevent movement.
While the media praised the organization for its civil disobedience, some governments labeled the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as an ecological terrorist organization.
SSCS believes that avoiding violence allows the perpetuation of violent acts on the environment, humans, and animals. They insist on using violence to protect the marine environment regardless of the critic's opinions.
The eco-terrorist groups’ first attack was against seal hunting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, in March 1979. They disrupted the hunting party by throwing red dye on seal pups to make them unfit for commercial sales. In Sierra, the eco-terrorists attacked an unregulated whaling ship by making a 6-foot hole in the vessel. Also, SSCS sank two whaling vessels known as Isba I and Isba II at the Spanish harbor of Viga.
The Japanese government has a problem with the SSCS. They labeled them as eco-terrorists because there are often clashes with the Japanese whaling industry. SSCS claimed that Japanese whalers are not whaling for research purposes. Instead, they are whaling for commercial purposes.
Paul Watson claims that the eco-terrorist group cost the Japanese government about 888 whales between 2005 to 20094. He actively tried to sabotage them because he wasn’t satisfied with the International Whaling Commission’s tactics in curbing whale poachers. The Japanese government is within its rights to accuse Sea Shepherd of eco-terrorism because their actions fit right into the descriptions of eco-terrorism.
Sea Shepherd’s other tactics include threats and intimidation, disrupting the entrance of ships into harbors, destroying whale processing plants, and lobbying government officials. The fight between SSCS and Japanese whalers is going strong, as the latter claims to feel threatened by the multiple attempts made by SSCS. There were various instances whereby Sea Shepherd risked the lives of Japanese crews and personnel.
While the SSCS fights for the right cause, their eco-terrorist methods are unacceptable. They’d gain the support of other government institutions if they didn’t practice eco-terrorism. The absence of deaths during battles for a safer environment isn’t enough to absolve the group of its ecological terrorism acts.
The government has tried to curb eco-terrorism through legislative laws. These laws protected the interests and profits of private institutions from eco-terrorists. So, let’s examine the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) and Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA, also sometimes referred to, incorrectly, as the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act).
Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) is an amendment of the first law, AEPA, passed in the United States. Initially, the parliament passed AEPA in 1992 to curb the destruction of commercial properties, but it was vague. The Act defined animal enterprise terrorism as the intentional disruption of companies and enterprises dealing with animals. The interference often leads to property damage, serious harm, or death.
AETA further expanded the eco-terrorism grounds that it covers. In 2006, AETA included interference with the operation of animal enterprises and their third-party partners. The act also includes companies that sell animals and animal products in its definition of eco-terrorism while increasing the penalties of the previous Act, AEPA.
However, people criticized the act. They claim it is too vague and unnecessarily harsh on animal rights and other environmental protests. Both Acts are neutral toward the issues of animal welfare. Instead, it offers protection for owners of animal enterprises and scientific research laboratories.
According to Edward Walsh, the Court of Law is yet to prosecute criminals under the provisions of the Act. It means that the tenants of the Act are ineffective. It is obviously not a working solution looking at the increase in eco-terrorists attacks after the introduction of AEPA and AETA.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its supporting law enforcement agencies made other efforts to reduce the terrorist acts perpetuated by eco-terrorists. FBI created Joint Task Terrorism Forces (JTTF) in about 44 countries to combat international and domestic terrorism. The task forces curbed eco-terrorism by combining the FBI’s investigative abilities and local law enforcement’s expertise.
The task forces arrested some members of eco-terrorist groups, and they faced prosecution. Some of their arrests were:
The majority of the arrests were possible because of the cooperation of all levels of law enforcement agencies- local, state, and federal levels.
Further reading: The National Animal Interest Alliance has a useful compilation of resources highlighting the case against animal rights and environmental extremism.
There are lots of mixed opinions regarding eco-terrorism. Some think it is an accurate term that describes the activities of environmental activists that risk their lives and other people's lives to amplify their message. Others think it's a derogatory term, and the rules set to reduce eco-terrorism affect peaceful environmental protesters.
In reality, there are better ways to advocate for the safety of the environment and its life force without destroying properties and putting lives at risk. Violence removes the world’s focus from the change you're striving to achieve.
James F. Jarboe, (February 12, 2002). The Threat of Eco-Terrorism. (FBI)
Gerald Nagtzaam, (January 27, 2017). Cage fighting: the Animal Liberation Front.
Smith, R. K. (2008). “ECOTERRORISM”?: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE VILIFICATION OF RADICAL ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISTS AS TERRORISTS. Environmental Law, 38(2), 537–576. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43267209
Andrew Hoek, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society v. Japanese Whalers, the Showdown: Who Is the Real Villain?, vol 3 Stanford Journal of Animal Law & Policy 106 (2010).
Steve Poole, (April 8, 2008). The History of Hunt Saboteurs Association.
Michael Marotta, (2008). The Earth Liberation Front.
H.C. Deb, (November 19, 1984). Confectionery Poisoning.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.