The Eco-Friendly Eco-Terrorists

Yes, you read it, I just used friendly and terrorist in the phrase. If you see signs posted for meetings with the Earth Liberation Front (EFL) or Animal Liberation Front (AFL) around campus then think twice because these are not your typical environmental student groups and have been claimed to be the cause over $110 million dollars worth of damage between 1995 and 2005 (Senator James Inhofe, 2005, START OB).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines 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” (START OB). Lets look a little closer at exactly who these eco-terrorists are…

Who are they and what to they believe?

Among EFL and AFL, are also lesser known groups such as Earth First!, Earth Night Action Group, and the Environmental Life Force that have been identified in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) and as being a part of the Radical Environmentalist Movement (REM). These extremists groups were not active until the 1970s and in a very short summary, their ideology is that humans and nature are connected, nature has intrinsic value, and cruelty to animals and humans are equal on the moral scale. Eco-terrorist groups use this ideology as a moral justification for their actions and equate their cause to civil rights and anti-slavery movements. Many blame free market capitalism and “the technologically driven, Western, consumer cultures that are cut off from the natural world” as the cause of the mistreatment of the environment and animals but also often reject “mainstream career, oriented environmentalists” as sell-outs (START OB). In an analysis done by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) on ELF and ALF bombings and arson attacks from 1995 to 2010, results stated that “45% of the incidents were motivated by the need to protect animals and/or prevent testing with animals, 23% by anti-sprawl concerns, and 20% by anti-corporation/business development views”(START ELF & AFL). These ideologies are reflected in the 60 Minutes interview with REM group members with words used such as “speciests” or people who discriminate between species of beings.

The two most active Eco-Terrorists groups according to the GTD are Earth Liberation Front (37% of attacks) and Animal Liberation Front (39% of attacks). The GTD does not identify groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) or Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), but these groups have been identified by the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR) who tends to focus on animal research safety (START OB).

Statistics on Eco-Terrorist Attacks

Figure 1: Terrorist attacks from Eco-Terrorist Groups from 1970 to 2016 from the Global Terrorism Database. The groups included are Animal Liberation Front, Earth Liberation Front, Earth First!, Earth Night Action Group, and Environmental Life Force.

When: As seen in Figure 1, Eco-Terrorism peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Any guesses on why that is? Hint: It it NOT because all terrorism in the United States peaked during that time. If you look at all domestic U.S. terrorist attacks from 1970 to 2016 in the GTD, attacks peaked in the 1970s.





Figure 2: REM incidents by target type compiled by the Institute for the Study of Violent Groups (ISVG) from 1981 to 2009. This ISVG focused on a broad range of criminal activity by REM and therefore has more data points than the GTD which exclusively focuses on violent terrorist attacks.


Types of Attacks & Targets: The majority of Eco-Terrorist attacks target infrastructure and not people although people’s’ lives have been threatened. START’s study focusing on arson attacks and bombings only by ALF and ELF states that 62% were bombings and 38% were arsons from 1995 – 2010 (START ELF & ALF). In my research on the GTD of ELF, ALF, Earth First!, Earth Night Action Group, and Environmental Life Force, 10.1% of Attack Types were Bombing/Explosions and 88.5% were Facility/Infrastructure Attacks of which 88% were done with fire-inducing weapons. These studies are not necessarily contradictory but rather have different sample pools and definitions for attack types and weapon types which could overlap.

The START study, using the U.S. Extremist Crime Database, and my personal use of the GTD also give different pictures of the types of places that Eco-Terrorists attack which are shown in Figure 3 and Figure 4.


blog_targets START
Figure 3: Targets of arson and bombings attacks by Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front from 1995-2010. Study done by START using the U.S. Extremist Crime Database.
blog_gtd targets
Figure 4: Targets of the attacks of ELF, ALF, Earth First!, Earth Night Actions Group, and Environmental Life Force from 1970 – 2016 from the GTD.

While these Eco-Terrorism groups have committed acts of arson and bombings, in my research, I sensed that the truly violent nature of these REM groups is debated along with the definitions of “violent” and “terrorism”. Among REM group members themselves, some say attacks are planned with intricate detail so people are not hurt while others have made statements about taking people’s lives and have targeted specific people. No deaths have been recorded on the GTD for eco-terrorist attacks in the United States and the large percentage of attacks have not harmed people although their attacks do put people’s’ lives at risk, could incite fear and psychological trauma, and destroy property (START OB, 60 Minutes). Some group members are upset with the label as “terrorists,” but these groups are currently listed in the Global Terrorism Database which means they fit GTD’s definition of terrorism found on page 9 of the GTD Codebook .

Now that you know a little about Eco-Terrorism, ask yourself some questions and post below! How does this affect policy? Do we, people with a formal environmental education, have a role in this issue? Any controversies? Feel free to post experiences, new information, or even disagree!

Want to learn more? Other Food For Thought and Useful Websites:





21 thoughts on “The Eco-Friendly Eco-Terrorists

  1. The dissent into terrorism seems to be a road people only take when they are either “fed up with the system” and are looking to bring the institution down or are convinced that their actions will bring attention to whatever issue they are mobilizing against. The former view may sound good if performed as a punk rock song and the latter may accomplish the feat in attracting attention, however both ways of thinking only serve to divide any public unity on tackling the subject – in this case environmental issues like how to prevent forests from being cut down for timber. As discussed in Chapter 3 of our book, the best way to bridge support for policy to moderates requires wedging away the fringe. Even though the book was reviewing how the Tea Party Republicans can be wedged out, could a similar tactic in distancing from radical eco-terrorist ideas help? In my opinion, potentially. Even with these fringe idealists causing damage to the environmental agenda in hurting public support, cunning political responses to their attacks may actually bring moderates to listen to rational policy proposals. To note though that the key word there is “rational,” as we more often find the most extreme responses to events to be the ones getting the most attention. If played correctly, a more moderate liberal who supports environmentally geared policy may be able to draw in moderate conservatives if they properly denounce the eco-terrorists – as in focus on attacking their actions rather than their views.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To begin, I would have to agree that the GTD is correct when labeling groups like ALF and ELF as eco-terrorist organizations. However, I disagree somewhat with the contention that the actions of these groups (being primarily arson and destruction of property) are violent. Like many words, the definition and perception of the word “violence” is relative, and the fact that no human life has been extinguished by the action of eco-terrorist groups leads me to think of their actions as destructive rather than violent. This is not to say that I agree with the actions of eco-terrorist groups, in fact I wholeheartedly disagree with their methods. Radical actions rarely breed compromise or collective initiative, so I think it is important for the eco-terrorist groups to reconsider their methods when trying to bring attention to environmental issues, because destruction of property is more likely to disincentivize sympathetic liberals and moderates, rather than motivate them to joining their cause. A large portion of people probably agree with some or all of the core beliefs of these radical eco-groups, however most people do not have the luxury of being able to risk their livelihood and that of their loved ones in order to set a building ablaze to hinder the testing of animals or some other reprehensible practice present in modern U.S. industry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe I just didnt search hard enough, but while the government had some standards for the definition of terrorism, I did not see any standard for the definition of violent which I think is needed. From my lifetime, ive heard a range of definitions of the word from something that only causes physical harm to just simply speaking in an attacking manor.

      Another point one of the articles I read made was that while many have the same core beliefs as this group, many dont destroy buildings – so what divides the terrorists from the non-terrorists? I think a look at the profiles, demogrpahics, and psychology of these people may provide the answers.


  3. If these eco-terrorist groups equate their cause to the Civil Rights Movement, it is curious why they don’t take follow the example set by Marin Luther King. Yes, the violence and destruction will bring attention to you and your cause, but it will only serve to provide stronger support against both. Even more importantly, the destruction sheds bad light on peaceful advocacy groups who hold similar values but take different action. It seems like a very counterintuitive plan to promote policy and drives a deeper divide between people with similar beliefs when they should be working together to combat these problems. Powerful, united, and diverse demonstrations of support cause change, not intermittent destruction.


  4. This is a perfect example in my opinion of how the polarized minority and give an entire group a negative public opinion. In this case it is the eco-terrorists who are giving all environmentalists a bad name. These extremist groups are actually hurting their cause more than they are helping it. Also I think it is important to note that there have been human deaths in these terrorist acts. I do believe that this was not the primary intention of these eco-terrorists and that many may go out of their way to avoid murder, but it does and has happened. I think that protest without destruction or violence is the best way to sway people to your cause without also generating strong opposition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ben, I agree with you. This is a perfect contributor to the polarization of ideas such as environmental protection and animal rights. When groups such as these cause danger to others and infringe on their right to freely run a business or do things that are within legal bounds it just creates more division. At that point, outsiders look at the radical group and see a moral inconsistency and it drives them further away from the actual goal that is trying to be accomplished.


    2. I didnt comment much on human deaths because I could not find unanimous statistics so I felt it was out of my knowledge range to make a comment. while the gtd has no deaths recorded for the US, I would not be surprised if there has been. an article did state that in london, a few people were targeted and killed in a eco-terrorist related attack. and as I said, human violence and lives have been at least threatened


  5. Just like all terrorism, their means to an end always fails. I listened to a lecture once about the history of terrorism (1800’s anarchists, IRA, Al Queada, etc.), and the main point was terrorism has never claimed a political victory. In almost 200 years of history, the modern day equivalency of terrorism has never won to be frank. If you look at legitimate environmental advocacy groups (NRDC, EDF, and even PETA), they have scored hundreds of victories over the years from civil, non-violent action. If they do want to equate themselves with the civil rights movement, they are equating themselves with early radical abolitionists in the 1850’s like John Brown. Again, they didn’t achieve their victory either.

    Overall, eco-terrorism draws the attention of the public away from the legitimate organizations and the issues they are championing. Instead, the public starts associating “environmentalism” with words like “radical”, “in your face”, “violent” and “cruel.” Environmentalism, in this age of hyper polarization, needs all the good will and news coverage it can take. The environmental movement has been demonized by the right for over twenty years now, and eco-terrorism gave them extra ammunition (pun not intended). Environmentalism can achieve its victories over the long-term when we organize, set concrete goals, and constantly fight in a civil, peaceful, and educated way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Grant, I’m glad you went to that lecture and shared that bit of info with us. I most likely would not have made that point clear in my own mind (since I don’t study terrorist movements…). But, to your point, I agree that it only serves to hurt the perception of those who hear of these activities, as well as takes away valuable infrastructure useful for our economy. I am extremely curious, though, to know what exactly is going on in their minds… I have heard that fanaticism to a certain point abandons logical conclusions in order to hold fast to the moral values or ideologies of the movement. I have also heard that fanaticism, at some point in history, will breed fanaticism of the opposite position. If that holds true for the eco-terrorists, that won’t be a good thing for those of us headed to a career with a heavily environmentally focused company or branch of government. And the trend of that sort of activity has gone down, so thats good right?


  6. Personally I feel that eco-terrorists only serve to undermine the mission of the environmental movement. Their actions provide give a bad name to the broader environmental movement and provide a justification for groups who seek to discredit environmentalists. Much in the same way that far right wing groups tend to give a bad name to more moderate conservatives eco-terrorists give a bad name to the majority of liberals. I think more needs to be done to denounce these groups.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Daniel, I agree with you. If we don’t do more to combat these groups then there is no telling what could happen. These groups are planting the wrong idea into many peoples minds that this is what the environmental movement is all about, I believe that we as informed students should speak up and inform others on what the environmental movement is really all about.

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  8. These groups seem like they are fighting fire with fire. Although they may not be physically harming humans, psychological trauma and displacement/damage of important infrastructure has a profoundly negative impact on people’s day to day lives. One of the reasons we want to protect our environment is so that we can live safely and peacefully and sustain the progress humans have made to this point. Destroying progress to make a statement is no better than mother nature answering global climate change with destruction.

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  9. This is a very difficult situation because it is almost impossible to control at this point in time. The members of these groups are often fueled by misleading information and blatantly incorrect trash that circulates through social media and through various news outlines. Currently, there is no real way to filter through fake news that is posted on Facebook articles or Twitter feeds. Because of lack of media control, more and more people who are psychologically vulnerable will fall into these terrorist groups and carry out violent actions. I would be very interested to see how this changes in upcoming years as far as censorship of social media posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. false media is a huge driver in extreme attitudes. i think its really important that at a young age in our public school systems, we are teaching about credible vs non-credible sources and facilitating critical thinking about the media and rhetoric.


  10. Trey, while I find your comment about fake news and social media insightful, I do have to disagree with your assertion that they alone are the path to radicalization. We saw the largest spike in environmental terrorism in the 70s, back when people mainly got their news from the paper and TV. In my opinion, people who want to commit terroristic acts will find some school of thought or rhetoric that justifies their actions, through many avenues, not just social media. These “eco-terrorists” could have been any other sort of terrorists had they found those ideologies and groups first. Perhaps some of them might actually be motivated to help the environment, but as many people have said, they are doing far more harm than good if that’s actually their goal. In short, this is just a different sort of greenwashing. Instead of companies branding their products “all natural” to increase sales, it’s groups of violent individuals using the environment as an excuse for their crimes. These people have no place in the wider environmental movement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kelly, you brought up a few important points. 1) In PIRUS and the empirical assessment of domestic radicalization, the sources say that the number one reason that people join eco-terrorist groups is peer to peer contact, which is why (I think) more terrorist attacks are in liberal areas in country. So social media is not all to blame and we should still be paying a great deal of attention to the everyday rhetoric that americans use around environmental issues. Although I do think social media is an important factor and that people who feel different, alone or misunderstood in their communities turn to the internet to find like minded groups. 2)Im curious about your comment of the environmental terrorism spiking in the 1970s: according to the GTD, eco-terrorism spiked in the early 2000s while overall terrorism in country spiked in the 1970s. Do you think this is because eco-terrorists were under the identity of overall left winged groups? If you disagree with the GTD, let me know what you think its faults are on this issue! 3)Im glad someone finally mentioned other ways of greenwashing like products being labeled as “all natural” because I as well think these less violent forms of environmental miscommunication also heavily contribute to political divides (if not more so.


  11. This seems so backwards to me. I’m really happy to hear that no one has been killed through these bombings and arson. I guess they are just trying to make a point and take a stance. I’m honestly shocked that environmentalists and peace seeking people would take their protest to such violent matters. Do we know if they have felt victorious through any of their actions? Have any of these protests led to policy changes or environmental activism? I’m curious if they’ve actually made a positive impact for environmentalism through their violent actions.

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  12. Eco-terrorism distracts the public and gives them a false image from what legit organizations are doing. I believe these attacks and malicious behavior is too extreme and needs to be handled in a different way. Violence is never the answer and it saddens me to know that some organizations or group feel the need to result to this in order to get their point across. I believe environmentalism can start to become more prevalent in the world in the long haul, but they must be persistant and set clear goals and know when and how to pick their fights, but in a civilized manner.


  13. I personally do agree with labeling these groups as terrorist groups. I also do not really understand the line of thinking that makes these groups turn to bombings and starting fires. From my point of view, doing things like this does nothing to help your cause. In fact, I feel like if anything, it can only hurt your cause. The reason for this is because as soon as you engage in these kinds of actions, you are immediately labeled by the majority of people as radical, crazy, and in this case, terroristic. People tend to not really care what a person like this is trying to say and alternatively care more about that person being held responsible for their crimes.


  14. I just realized that the “United States only” variable was not set in my graph for incidents overtime. The good news is that the world and the US graph look fairly similar, but here is the link to US only incidents:


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