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Ecoterrorism: threat or political ploy?

A contractor walked in August 2003 through Clippinger Chevrolet in West Covina, Calif., where Earth Liberation Front members allegedly vandalized more than 120 sport utility vehicles. (AP File Photo)
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In 2004, John Lewis, deputy assistant director of the FBI Counterterrorism Division, declared in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee: “the FBI’s investigation of animal rights extremists and ecoterrorism matters is our highest domestic terrorism investigative priority.” To most Americans this statement, if it had been given serious attention by the U.S. media, would have come as a surprise. Having been bombarded with articles and public warnings about “jihadist terrorism” ever since 9/11, the average American would not have expected the primary domestic terrorist threat to come from groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which are largely unknown to the broader public. In fact, the statement would have likely stunned most academic scholars of political violence and terrorism, who until recently have devoted little attention to the phenomenon of “ecoterrorism.”

In a recent article in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, we assessed the phenomenon of ecoterrorism, both in the United States and globally, by categorizing the types of the actions of the Radical Environmentalist and Animal Rights (REAR) movement, assessing their relative importance within the broader arsenal of actions of the whole movement, and evaluating them on the basis of a clear definition of ecoterrorism.

The REAR movement is a highly diverse, international network with an unknown number of activists and supporters worldwide. “Cells” can be found in at least 25 (mostly Western) countries. While radical environmentalists such as the ELF and Earth First! are more broadly focused on the entire ecosystem, radical animal rightists like the ALF and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are concerned more narrowly with sentient beings. Still, they regularly collaborate and claim joint responsibility for actions. Despite the diversity of ideas and ideologies, there are three main characteristics that all activists and groups share: an uncompromising position, status as a grassroots organization and direct action. In many ways, the REAR movement is best described as an idea; it is a collectivity in the most limited and virtual sense.

A recent publication shows that radical environmentalists and animal rights activists have been responsible for 1,069 criminal acts in the United States between 1970 and 2007 (see below). The authors categorize three actions as assassinations (0.3%), 44 as armed assaults (4.1%), 55 as bombings/explosions (5.1%), 933 as facility attacks (87.3%), 30 as unarmed assaults (2.8%) and four as unknown (0.4%).

As no cross-national dataset for criminal acts of the whole REAR movement exists, and even national dataset are lacking in most countries, we developed an original global dataset of criminal acts of the radical animal rights movement in the period 2003-2010. Given that animal rights activists are responsible for the vast majority of criminal acts of the broader REAR movement, and have a roughly similar pattern of activities as environmentalist activists, the findings should be largely representative of the broader REAR movement.

Following previous research, the dataset was constructed on the basis of the information posted on the website of Bite Back magazine, which is both internally and externally seen as “the news magazine about the radical animal rights movement worldwide.” The information on the website is mostly provided directly by activists themselves. Given that the media are highly selective in their coverage of these kind of actions, and law enforcement does not systematically collect data in most countries, this imperfect dataset is the best available to date.

We counted a total of 5,578 criminal actions by radical animal rights activists worldwide. Most actions took place in the United Kingdom (994), Sweden (769), Italy (458), the United States (446), and Germany (379). Using a slightly elaborated categorization, we counted 247 acts of arsons (4.4%), 0 assassinations (0%), 3,695 of vandalism (66.2%), 808 house visits (14.5%), 690 animal liberations (12.4%), 80 bombs (1.4%), and 58 cyber crimes (1%).

The question which of these actions constitutes terrorism obviously depends upon the definition used. There has been much discussion among scholars about a working definition of terrorism, and many different ones have been offered. We argue that terrorism goes beyond mere political violence; terrorists terrorize. Essential to terrorism is a psychological process based on the power of fear, more specifically fear for the physical wellbeing of (a subset of) the population. Consequently, we define terrorism as a strategy that employs the threat or use of force or violence to instill fear in (a subset of) the population with the ultimate aim of achieving political goals. In the case of ecoterrorism, these political goals are the ending of environmental destruction and animal rights abuse.

The most straightforward positive case of terrorism is, of course, assassinations. They are the most obvious example of the use of violence against human beings. Moreover, because the assassinations are politically motivated, and victims are selected on the basis of political motivations, they instill fear in the subset of the population that meets those political motivations. The most straightforward negative case is animal liberations, which clearly do not constitute acts of terrorism. While pure animal liberations might create some economic costs, i.e. cutting fences and breaking locks, they do not instill fear, as there is no threat of force or violence to human beings. Similarly, vandalism and cyber attacks, of and by themselves, do not meet the definition of terrorism, even if they could have a more direct personal impact, through the invading of privacy. Even tagging (i.e. spraying graffiti) at or mass mailing to a home address is not instilling fear, as long as it is not linked to other acts, which are (considered as) threatening to the targeted human beings.

This leaves three types of acts that are less clear-cut: arsons, bombings, and house visits. The case for arsons and bombings is pretty similar. In both cases the question is whether the particular act can be considered threatening to the physical integrity of humans. For example, a car bomb threat at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP-16) in Cancun, Mexico was clearly threatening to all humans inside the targeted building and therefore constitutes a terrorist act. However, the torching of a truck belonging to the municipal dog pound in Bariloche, Argentina, in May 2013, was not, because the arson was done in the night and the truck was not close to a private residence.

More problematic are the various cases of arson that target properties close to private residences and include thinly veiled threatening messages. For instance, in October 2012, Swedish ALF activists set fire to one of the cars of the owner of a fur store in Kumla. Not only was the car torched in front of the home of the target, the ALF included the following message: “This is just a warning of what is coming if you don’t end your involvement in the bloody skintrade[sic] NOW!!!.” The last type of action, house visits, is even more complex, as it is often not only aimed at the actual target, but also at her friends and family. Many house visits are legal, such as demonstrating on public streets outside of a private residence. Others are illegal, but not necessarily threatening, such as demonstrations at a private residence. Even actions that expose (young) individuals to gruesome pictures of experiments on animals are not necessarily illegal or threatening. However, relatively harmless acts can become terrorist acts if they are accompanied with threatening messages.

So, where does this leave us with regard to the term ecoterrorism? There is no doubt that certain acts of the REAR movement are terrorist. And there are some small groups within the movement that do not exclude terrorist acts. But despite ongoing radicalization within the movement, the vast majority of REAR activists and ‘groups’ are not involved in terrorist acts. While it is difficult to exactly establish the proportion of terrorist acts within the total action repertoire of the REAR movement, we estimate that less than 10 percent of all criminal actions of the movement can be categorized as “ecoterrorist.” Note that criminal acts constitute only a minority of all acts of both the environmental and animal rights subculture in general, and the REAR movement in particular.

Every major social movement includes moderate and radical individuals and groups, including often a small violent (terrorist) minority. This was the case in, for example, both the recent anti-globalization movement and the historical civil rights movement. No one would classify these movements, as a whole, as terrorist. Today, the U.S. anti-abortion movement includes a significant and very active radical wing that is involved in criminal acts and even terrorism. Unlike the REAR movement, academics, government agencies and politicians hardly ever refer to the radical anti-abortion movement as terrorist.

Similarly, the label “ecoterrorism” should not be used for the whole REAR movement, but only for some of its actions, individuals and groups; this also holds for the most active ‘groups’ within the broader movement, i.e. ALF and ELF. Obviously, counterterrorist measures should only target these terrorist minorities, rather than the broader movement. Just as every radical anti-abortion activist is not a (potential) terrorist, neither is every radical environmentalist or animal rights activist.

Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler is an assistant professor in the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. She works on political extremism and political violence, with a particular emphasis on Israel.

 Cas Mudde is an associate professor in the School for Public and International Policy at the University of Georgia. He is the author of “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe” and editor of Youth and the Extreme Right. He is a member of theScholars Strategy Network and can be followed on Twitter @casmudde