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Ecoterrorism: The Attacks We Forget

Ask the an average citizen what they think of as terrorism, and they will reply with 9/11, wars in the Middle East, the bombing in Paris, and other traditional right-wing activities. However, there is another category: special interest terrorism. This type of attack rarely makes the news, rarely hits our courts and rarely affects us directly, yet it is a global issue and inadequately addressed.

Image courtesy of Will Potter, © 2008.

Image courtesy of Will Potter, © 2008.

This type of terrorism aims not to force widespread, general societal change as political and religious terrorism do, but instead focuses on one key issue. Eco-terrorism is a prime example. The FBI describes eco-terrorism as:

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, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.

Movements dedicated to environmental advocacy, animal rights, anti-nuclear proliferation, and other  issues fall under this umbrella.Unlike traditional terroristic activities, these groups focus exclusively on property damage rather than casualties.

In the United States, eco-terrorists, most often and most prominently the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), conducted 150 attacks from 1990-2010, prompting major public policy shifts.

The Earth Liberation Front, whose goal is to “inflict economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment” and “to reveal and educate the public on the atrocities committed against the earth and all species that populate it,” was established 1992. It evolved from an organization called Earth First! when the latter’s tactics proved too moderate for several of its members.  ELF has been active both in North and South America and  has committed a number of arsons since 2001 in the United States and Mexico.

The Animal Liberation Front functions as a collection of anonymous underground cells that oppose any form of animal experimentation and perceived mistreatment. Its goal is to rescue animals from “places of abuse” and to “inflict economic damage to those who profit from the misery and exploitation of animals.” ALF cells have claimed responsibility for hundreds of “direct actions,” including releasing animals from their owners and property destruction. While the ALF was founded in England, it has an active presence in North America.  One of its more recent attacks has been a failed firebombing of a UCLA researcher. Academic researchers have since become common targets of the movement.

The United States government has responded to the damage caused by these groups with several pieces of legislation. The Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) of 1992 imposed fines and possible imprisonment if the monetary loss caused by activist action exceeded $10,000. In 2006, the act was replaced with the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which gave the Department of Justice the ability to apprehend, prosecute, and convict those committing acts of eco-terror, including economic damage to animal enterprises. Unlike its predecessor, it also prohibited conspiracy, harassment, and threats of death or serious harm to persons in these industries.

Most recently, the international organization Greenpeace has been under fire for terrorist tactics. The group, who has general consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, has at times resorted to controversial direct actions. After damaging a UNESCO World Heritage site in Peru, India declared Greenpeace “a potential threat to national economic security” and banned them from operating in the country. Indian officials cited instances of financial fraud and falsifying data, which Greenpeace denies. n 2013, Russian security forces took a Greenpeace ship into custody as it was on its way to disrupt work on a controversial oil rig.  Those aboard the Arctic Sunrise had attempted to climb the rig, claiming a desire to hang banners on it.  The ship itself was seized in Russian territory, and its crew was charged with piracy and hooliganism.  However, after international pressure from both state and non-state actors, the crew was released.

Eco-terrorism, while being a serious domestic threat, is largely ignored in the international arena. Countries have a wide range of laws governing this issue, but there is simply no uniformity and no way to adequately enforce combatting measures.  There is, however, some precedent to protect activists from foreign governments as well by utilizing existing territorial laws.  This can be seen in the case of the Arctic Sunrise detention; not only was pressure placed on the Russian government by individuals and the government of Netherlands, but rulings made by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and Permanent Court of Arbitration sent a clear message for release of the vessel.  While litigating through  existing bodies can be helpful in arbitrating ecoterrorism cases, it does seem that more widely accepted international norms regarding ecoterrorism would be beneficial in preventing this time-consuming proceeding.


Beth Bickerton

Beth is an international affairs professional located in Brooklyn, NY. While she can be considered an international relations generalist, she has focused her research on the European Union and especially on France’s role within it. Beth has spent time working for the United States Supreme Court, human rights nonprofits, and social science think tanks. Having a passion for writing, she acted as a staff writer and editor of Seton Hall University’s international relations newspaper as an undergraduate her work was recently featured on Global Public Policy Watch. Beth graduated with a B.S. in Diplomacy and International Relations from the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University. In addition, she holds a minor in French and has studied at La Sorbonne in Paris, France. You can connect with her on Twitter @BethBickerton.
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