Ecoterrorism Research Paper

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The radical environmental and animal rights movement in the United States has received a considerable amount of attention from federal law enforcement since September 11 and the subsequent “war on terror.” In his 2002 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, James F. Jarboe, the Domestic Terrorism Section Chief of the FBI, maintained that this movement was responsible for over 600 criminal acts. In 2006, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller stated that those motivated by a radical environmental and animal rights ideology continued to pose a threat. A survey conducted by Freilich, Chermak, and Simone (2009) found that 60 % of state police agencies in the United States reported that these groups represented a substantial hazard to the safety of their citizens, a threat that was only second to that of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

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Despite tending to be much more cautionary, scholars do acknowledge that these groups pose some threat. In 1996, Eagan felt that this activity had already peaked some 10 years earlier but cautioned that the Clinton administration’s timber plan could lead to an increase in violence. Ackerman (2003), in a risk assessment of the Earth Liberation Front, argued that while this movement was not the most serious domestic threat in the United States, it had the capability to be much more destructive. In 2006, Liddick maintained that the animal rights movement in particular had become increasingly more violent.

Despite these concerns, environmental and animal rights extremists in the US have been a relatively nonviolent threat, responsible for only one suspected fatality and a handful of injuries since 1970. However, members of these groups have been responsible for a large amount of property damage. In fact, one series of arsons targeting a San Diego housing development resulted in over 50 million dollars in damages.

The radical environmental and animal rights movement, at one time classified as a top domestic terrorist threat primarily due to this immense ability to wreak economic havoc on their targets, remains an interesting case study of a homegrown movement that has engaged in terrorist tactics. This research paper provides an overview of this movement with a discussion of the definitional issues involved, motivating philosophies, the group (or lack thereof) structure, preferred targets and tactics, and the federal government’s response.

Definitional Issues

Despite the intense discussion surrounding radical environmental and animal rights groups from federal law enforcement and academics alike, few can agree on how to characterize this phenomenon. Most use the term “ecoterrorism,” although the appropriateness of this phrasing has often been criticized. As defined by the FBI, ecoterrorism is “the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally orientated sub national group for environmental-political reasons, aimed at an audience beyond the target, and often of a symbolic nature” (US Congress, House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health). Several scholars contend that this language is both socially constructed and inappropriate due to the contention that environmental and animal rights extremists rarely target humans or use forceful means. In fact, some feel that using the word “terrorism” to describe the behavior of radical eco-groups has been part of a broader political movement, a movement linking environmentalism with terrorism. There is concern that such a political movement has had larger implications concerning the First Amendment and that labeling environmental and animal rights groups as terrorist organizations is a strategy to minimize their legitimacy. As evidence, many scholars point to the fact that ecoterrorism has only recently been added to the lexicon (per the Oxford dictionary in 1997) and labeled as such after the FBI expanded its own definition to include acts against inanimate objects in conjunction with the 2001 PATRIOT Act.

Thus, the arguments against applying the term terrorism, defined by LaFree and Ackerman (2009) as the “threatened or actual use of illegal force, directed against civilian targets, by non state actors, in order to obtain a political goal through fear, coercion or intimidation” (p. 1), to criminal incidents committed by these groups focus on two central themes. The first is directed toward the nature of the attacks, while the second concerns the intentions of those committing the attacks. Regarding the former, the majority of attacks perpetrated by those that adhere to a radical environmental or animal rights ideology constitute minor property damage rather than violent acts. As noted, only one suspected (and unconfirmed) fatality and a handful of injuries have resulted from radical eco-group incidents. While most attacks do involve property damage and certain incidents have cost victims millions, the nature of most acts is that of economic sabotage.

Second and perhaps more important is the issue of intention: members of radical eco-groups are selective about their targets, and those targets rarely include people. In actuality, only a small minority of attacks perpetrated by members of these groups is directed at specific persons. For the few cases where targets are not inanimate, most involve physical damage to executives’ or researchers’ offices or homes. This pattern is in direct contrast to most high-profile terrorist groups, who rarely have concern for civilian causalities and, in many cases, seek to harm the greatest number of innocent people to get their point across.

As a substitute for ecoterrorism, scholars have offered up alternatives like Vanderheiden’s (2005) “ecotage,” defined as the “economic sabotage of inanimate objects thought to be complicit in environmental destruction” (p. 432). The distinction here is viewed as a moral one, where once again targeting is focused on inanimate objects rather than people. Tree spiking is one example where such a moral distinction has been drawn. These devices, used to prevent the cutting down of trees, became responsible for injuring loggers, including a nearly fatal incident involving George Alexander, who was almost decapitated when his chainsaw struck a spike. As a result of this particular event, Judy Bari, a prominent leader of Earth First! at the time, acknowledged that changes needed to be made. She was later behind a larger nonviolent movement that publicly denounced tree spiking as a tactic through a partnership with the loggers. Nonetheless, and despite this development, tree spiking continues to be used as a tactic. In fact, environmental extremists have been known to use ceramic spikes in the place of metal ones in order to avoid detection.

Although the majority of scholars have argued against classifying attacks by radical environmental and animal rights groups as terrorism, few feel that this behavior can legitimately be construed as a form of civil disobedience. Others have pushed for labeling it as “political resistance.” These terms, especially that of ecoterrorism and ecotage, are imperfect in that they do not represent the totality of behavior perpetrated by these groups. In other words, while there may be debate surrounding the applicability of the word terrorism to incidents involving these groups because of rare participation in events that fit the definition, this does not mean that these events never occur. On the other hand, several illegal activities do not meet the threshold of terrorist conduct; nonterrorist criminal incidents committed by radical eco-groups are nearly five times more common than terrorist attacks. Instead, as operationalized through Eagan’s (1996) criteria (a position that will not compromise, status as a grassroots organization without any clear chain of command or any pay/benefits involved, and time and funds directed toward direct action rather than aimed at lobbying), this behavior is best referred to as the “illegal activities” or the “criminal conduct” of members of radical environmental and animal rights groups, environmental and animal rights extremists, or members of radical eco-groups. In addition to being less politically charged, the aforementioned terminology references the full spectrum of criminal behaviors, both terrorist and otherwise, committed by these groups.

Philosophical Underpinnings: Deep Ecology, Biocentrism, And Green Anarchy

Members of radical eco-groups are often motivated by the ideas behind “deep ecology” or the related concept of “biocentrism,” a philosophy based on the belief that humans are only one element of the environment, an element that is not more important than any other but rather should peacefully coexist with all species. Consequently, biocentrism promotes the protection of all nature, as each species is vital to the survival of the ecosystem as a whole. Somewhat troubling about this philosophy is the implications it can have regarding the human population. What believers view as the ultimate goal (a pristine, preindustrial environment) is also an environment in which there are fewer people. However, there is little evidence that environmentalists interpret the canons of deep ecology in a way that would promote or justify violence.

The same cannot be said of the related albeit more extremist philosophy of green anarchy. Although sharing many of the same premises as deep ecology, green anarchy is blended with a much stronger anti-modernization and anticapitalist ideology. Developed in a magazine published in Eugene, Oregon, by the same name, this brand of thinking is tied to the promotion of harsher, sometimes even violent, strategies. The combination of standard environmental principles with a larger anarchist mentality expands the range of targets and encourages followers to work outside of the legitimate system. In fact, it is the legitimate legal, political, and economic system that with green anarchists take issue. Overall, there is some debate as to where the lines should be drawn between pure environmental versus animal-related versus anarchist philosophies, but most scholars maintain that there is considerable overlap.

Radical Environmental And Animal Rights Groups

As previously noted, Eagan (1996) argues that there are three main elements that all radical environmental and animal rights groups share: an uncompromising position, status as a grassroots organization without any clear chain of command or any pay/benefits involved, and time and funds directed toward direct action rather than aimed at lobbying. However, the environmental and animal rights extremist movement is, for the most part, just that a movement rather than a set of organized, hierarchically structured groups. There is often no one central leader, and the groups are predominantly composed of individuals or clusters of individuals who work separately without a formal chain of command. The cells share an ideology, but often attack independently and without knowledge of each other.

This lone wolf style has allowed for members of the radical fringe to maintain a certain amount of anonymity and, thus, avoid detection. This is perhaps best represented by the overall lack of successful convictions in comparison to the total amount of criminal activity perpetrated by environmental and animal rights extremists. However, the absence of a formal structure can also limit the amount of influence members have on each other. The one major exception to this informality is the “Family,” an organized cell responsible for several arsons contributing to millions of dollars in damages and, consequently, the largest federal prosecution involving members of radical eco-groups in US history.

Two of the most prolific movements in the United States have been that of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). ALF, originally formed in the mid-1970s in the United Kingdom as a splinter of the Hunt Saboteurs Association, has a primary objective of ending what it terms the “property status” of nonhumans. ALF encourages direct action in order to accomplish this mission, mainly through the rescue of animals and/or economic sabotage to the property of “animal exploiters.” Their specific goals include liberating laboratory animals from suffering, causing economic harm to those that profit from animal exploitation, and bringing awareness to the plight of abused animals.

ELF is based on a similar premise to that of ALF, also promoting the destruction of the assets of those who, in their minds, threaten the environment. ELF, which splintered from Earth First! in the early 1990s in the United Kingdom, seeks to bring publicity through their various tactics to acts of environmental destruction. Perhaps most influential to the development of ELF was Edward Abbey’s book, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which has become a guidebook of sorts to environmental extremists. ELF has focused its efforts primarily on combating the timber industry and, more recently, what they view as urban sprawl. ELF also claims to be strictly against any form of violence, but does promote illegal tactics if they are necessary to bring attention to, or to stop in some way, environmental harm. ELF has made the leaderless resistance style famous through its utilization of anonymous communique´s, sent to group spokesman Craig Rosebraugh and Leslie James Pickering and then later published on their website. Rosebraugh and Pickering claimed not be involved in the criminal activity, only to publicize it. Both have subsequently left to start another broader-based leftist organization that they named “Arissa.”

The most recent addition to the environmental and animal rights extremist scene is the group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC. SHAC was created in 1998 in the United Kingdom after a documentary aired on Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) that demonstrated its profound mistreatment of animals. Once the company moved its headquarters to New Jersey, SHAC became active in the United States through a series of incidents involving the harassment of HLS executives. SHAC has also been known to target businesses or organizations that support HLS, perhaps most famously was the campaign directed at Stephens Inc. After a series of incidents including the construction of a “StephensKills” website, the financial organization sold its shares of HLS. A similar situation then ensued with Marsh Inc., HLS’ primary insurer. The repeated harassment of employees, including a forced evacuation due to two smoke bombs, required the company to sever ties with HLS. The most important incident perpetrated by SHAC splinters occurred in 2003, when two pipe bombs were set off at Chiron, a biotechnology company and known associate of HLS. Although no one was injured or killed, the suspected mastermind Daniel Andreas “San Diego” was later added to the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. The arrest of several SHAC leaders in 2006 (including the president Kevin Kjonaas) has limited its overall capabilities, even leading current president Pam Ferdin to maintain that the US branch would be disbanded. In fact, SHAC did not claim a single successful attack in either 2006 or 2007.

Targets And Tactics

As previously noted, the targeting of persons occurs in a minority of attacks perpetrated by members of radical environmental and animal rights groups, as do incidents involving violence. When people are targeted, everything from harassment (as with the aforementioned SHAC events) to the extensive damage of a researcher’s office is a strategy invoked by the radical fringe of the movement. In 1990, animal rights extremists were suspected in the shooting of a dean at the University of Tennessee due to the many threats he had received from these extremists prior to the incident. No one was ever charged with the homicide and the FBI has not directly connected the incident with a radical animal rights group. A handful of events committed by members of these groups have involved injuries, including the previously discussed nearly fatal incident involving George Alexander.

While violence directed at people has been a relatively infrequent occurrence, threatening violence has not been. Many scholars feel that the sentiment in communique´s and other propaganda from members of the movement has become increasingly radical and intolerant over time. Although seemingly hypocritical to a biocentrist ideology, the radical contingent of the environmental and animal rights movement has justified threats of violence by maintaining that certain corporate and government officials are beyond redemption. However, and despite this increasingly aggressive rhetoric, the behavior of members of radical ecogroups up to this point in time has remained mostly nonviolent.

A much more popular strategy of extremists is the targeting of symbolic entities in the form of physical structures; McDonald’s is one favorite of animal rights extremists. Other common targets include fur farms and research facilities, where a number of animal releases have taken place over the years. Radical environmentalists most often target the timber industry in one form or another, but have expanded in recent years to attacks on automobile dealerships and housing developments. One tactic specific to this movement is the use of the previously described tree spikes; long metal, or ceramic spikes driven into trees to prevent their removal. Upon contact with a chainsaw, as in the case of Alexander, tree spikes can be extremely dangerous.

A tactic common to both the radical environmental and animal rights movements is that of arson, the most destructive being the Vail ski resort attack in 1998 perpetrated by members of the Family and causing over 12 million dollars in damages. The burning down of urban sprawl targets, like the 2003 destruction of luxury homes under construction in Carmel Valley, California, is also a preferred strategy. Members of radical environmental groups have also turned their attention to setting car dealerships on fire, especially those that sell SUVs.

Bombings are a much less popular tactic despite the easy accessibility of how-to manuals on the Internet. Several incidents have been thwarted by police efforts or have taken the form of hoaxes rather than genuine attacks; the use of fake bombs may be more common than actual devices. Nonetheless, SHAC’s use of pipe bombs against the Chiron Corporation and Shaklee Corporation parallels a number of other attacks using crude devices like the 2000 attack on luxury homes in Mount Sinai, NY, and the 2002 explosion of a poultry plant truck.

The use of CBRN weapons (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) by environmental and animal rights extremists is also relatively rare in the United States. The most serious of these types of incidents involve the pouring of various acids (including muriatic and sulfuric) on researcher’s equipment. One notable plot is the case of a small group of radical environmentalists in the 1970s that sought to eliminate the human race (save a select few that would not destroy the environment) through the release of infectious diseases, despite lacking the technical sophistication to be successful. Most of the significant cases of CBRN cases involving members of radical eco-groups have occurred outside of the United States, including one that utilized anthrax in a protest against the British government. However, scholars have cautioned that the use of CBRN weapons by environmental extremists could be a bigger issue in the future, despite philosophies that would seem to otherwise oppose the release of chemicals into the environment. If extremists felt it would further the cause in some way and save the earth from further destruction, they may employ these more serious tactics, particularly those groups that hold a more anarchist ideology.

Countermeasures And The Radical Environmental And Animal Rights Movement

Federal Legislation

The US governmental response to the criminal activities of members of radical environmental and animal rights groups has primarily come in the form of legislation. Two attempts at federally criminalizing this behavior, mainly due to their issues with the First Amendment, were unsuccessful: the Stop Terrorism Property Act of 2003 (STOP) and the Ecoterrorism Prevention Act of 2004. However, the tree-spiking clause added to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (ADA), along with the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 (AEPA) and its amended Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006 (AETA), were all signed into law.

All three of these federal sentencing acts have their own unique history and political context, yet all three share the same implication, namely; the use of sentencing enhancements for crimes, many of which were previously considered to be vandalism. Thus, this legislation has implications for a defendant’s treatment and outcome in criminal justice proceedings. Most importantly, AETA in particular has consequences through treating environmental and animal rights offenders as terrorists in the federal system. Those charged as such, as shown in previous work, already receive longer sentences. In addition, the label of political criminal has been demonstrated as the most significant predictor of sentence length. After conviction, there are additional corrections-based consequences associated with those convicted including a significant loss in privileges. Therefore, ADA, AEPA, and AETA can all add to the offender’s sentence through either prosecution under the specific legislation or through treating the offender as a political criminal in the courts and corrections systems.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (ADA), as it name implies, was initially unrelated to radical environmental and animal rights groups. Motivated by the nearly fatal injury of Alexander, Idaho Senator James McClure proposed the inclusion of an addendum to the drug legislation that would federally criminalize tree spiking. Based on this single incident and despite the renunciation of the tactic by Bari and others, legislators argued that environmental extremists had injured a number of loggers and needed to be held accountable. ADA sets a penalty of up to 20 years in prison for the use of a “hazardous or injurious device” aimed at stopping the timber harvest in some way. The passing of this legislation was significant in regard to the rather large penalty tacked on to an act that was previously considered to be a misdemeanor. However, ADA’s primary importance is tied to a larger political movement targeted at the radical environmental and animal rights movement; its hearings became the first public invocation of the term ecoterrorism. Therefore, while this act is focused on tree spiking, it was part of a broader effort to symbolically legislate the criminal conduct of members of radical environmental and animal rights groups at the federal level.

The Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) is another important legislative countermeasure that increased penalties on anyone that disrupts an “animal enterprise.” These disruptions include the stealing or damaging of property, including the animals, that leads to a total loss of $25,000 or more (or that conspires to do so). Sentences are based on a four-tiered classification system (economic damage, major economic damage, serious bodily injury, and death), with a spectrum of punishments from fines and restitution to life imprisonment. Many activists were concerned about First Amendment violations after AEPA was passed, but supporters contend that legal protesting is not an act that is punishable under this part of the legislation.

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006 (AETA) served as an extension to AEPA, primarily in response to SHAC’s strategy of targeting third parties. AETA once again enhanced penalties for disruptions of animal enterprises, but added language that penalized activities that lead to “reasonable fear” of an enterprise’s owner. AETA also lowered the damage limit to $10,000 and broadened the offense categories of AEPA with a focus on interstate travel and the mail service. Most importantly, AETA specifically addressed the problem of third-party targeting by expanding the definition of animal enterprises. By passing AETA and increasing its scope, federal prosecutors hoped to have a much more useful tool for combating the problem of environmental and animal extremists.

Given this expansion, AETA has been the most controversial of the federal sentencing acts aimed at members of radical eco-groups. In a letter to Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contended that AETA criminalizes rights protected under the First Amendment, such as peaceful demonstrations and boycotts. The ACLU argued that because the legislation was broad and somewhat vague given the terminology of “disruptive activities,” it could be misused for the surveillance of law-abiding animal rights groups.

The cases of U.S. v. Buddenberg and U.S. v. Demuth demonstrate the controversy associated with AETA. In the former case, four individuals were charged under AETA based on the contention that they had trespassed, intimidated, and harassed University of California researchers and their families. Although some of their actions were criminal, many other actions listed in the indictment were protected by First Amendment rights including protesting, chalking a sidewalk, chanting, leafleting, and using the internet to find out information regarding biomedical researchers. The case was later dismissed without prejudice, giving the government power to charge the defendants in the future.

The latter case, that of U.S.A. v. Demuth, involves a sociology graduate student charged under AETA after refusing to testify about a 2004 laboratory break-in at the University of Iowa. Demuth was conducting research on environmental and animal rights activists at the time and would not divulge sources nor relay any information he received from his contacts. Using statements like “it’s almost been a year since Iowa” from Demuth’s social networking sites and his journal, the FBI maintained that he was involved in the break-in in some capacity. Several activist groups and his former academic advisor have protested the indictment.

Key Prosecutions

Given the FBI’s focus on the radical environmental and animal rights movement, it is not surprising that over 30 individuals have been indicted since 2005. Perhaps the most well-known of these cases is the charging of members of the Family in connection with 17 attacks from 1996 to 2001, including the Vail ski resort arson. Coined “Operation Backfire,” several FBI field offices and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms worked with local law enforcement to get defendants to plead to lighter sentences in exchange for information regarding the others involved. Most of the defendants were sentenced in 2007 and are serving anywhere from 37 to 188 months in a federal penitentiary.

Another notable conviction involves Eric McDavid, a green anarchist sentenced to 20 years in prison for plotting to sabotage the Nimbus Dam in California. The FBI used an informant to infiltrate the plot and arrested McDavid after he and his coconspirators bought bomb-making equipment. Although his defense claimed entrapment, McDavid’s appeal has subsequently been denied.

A third and final important prosecution involved the aforementioned leadership of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, termed the SHAC- 7. Notable as the first case charged under AEPA, six members of SHAC were sentenced to 3–6 years each and ordered to pay a million dollars in restitution for their involvement in a website that posted home addresses of HLS employees. Although the most direct link to criminal activity involved a phone call Kjonaas had made, members of the group were held responsible for the site that the prosecutor claimed incited violence. As previously mentioned, this high-profile prosecution was enough to disband the US chapter of SHAC despite the vocal opposition to the case from many free speech organizations.

The Future Of The Radical Environmental And Animal Rights Movement

The 2010 hostage-taking situation involving James Lee, an activist described by some news outlets as an “environmental militant” and compared in others to the Unabomber, forever damaged perceptions of the environmental and animal rights movement. Lee, upset with the change in Discovery Channel programming to what he viewed as pro-birth and diversions to the global warming crisis, strapped a homemade bomb to himself and took three people hostage. In the end, only Lee was killed, but the real damage to the legitimate and law-abiding contingency of the environmental and animal rights movement was done. Despite any group taking responsibility for his actions, Lee became the new face of the movement, a movement that has long encouraged lone wolf type attacks and, consequently, had a difficult time defending itself from this attack.

All in all, cases like the one involving James Lee have been few and far between over the years. The environmental and animal rights movement, even its more radical and anarchist fringe, has thus far not proven to be a violent threat. What it has been, to many of its corporate targets, is an economic one and very destruction at that. Estimates range into the billions of dollars in damages, with some companies permanently destroyed from attacks.

The real question remains whether Lee will continue to be the exception rather than the rule. Although some scholars cite an increase in violent rhetoric, particularly among the green anarchists, counterterrorism experts maintain that the focus should be on past behavior rather than language, as the former is a much stronger predictor of what is to come. The rather steady decrease in total criminal incidents perpetrated by members of radical eco-groups since 2001 is additional evidence that this threat may be dissipating. Given these considerations, it may be best for US counterterrorism efforts to focus more on other homegrown threats that have proven to be more violent over time, such as the radical right-wing movement. It is possible that the environmental and animal rights extremists will be responsible for violent acts in the future, but it is likely that those acts will be very uncommon.


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