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Eco-terrorism involves crime or violence committed in the service of environmental or animal-rights ends, such as attempting to stop destructive development, animal testing, pollution, or the like. Although the great majority of environmentalists and animal-rights activists are nonviolent, a handful of activists have destroyed property. Acts against property have ranged from acts of minimal violence, such as defacement with paint or cutting fishnets at sea, to arson and bombing.

Although the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) uses the term eco-terrorism, the application of the word terrorism to crimes directed solely against property is controversial. As of mid-2008, no persons characterized as eco-terrorists in the United States or elsewhere had been accused of injuring or killing a human being, deliberately or accidentally. Nevertheless, persons characterized by the government and media as eco-terrorists destroyed approximately $100 million in property from the late 1980s through the early 2000s, and a number of U.S. states have either passed or are considering legislation targeting eco-terrorism. From 1996 to 2002, the FBI listed over 600 incidents of eco-vandalism causing about $43 million in damage.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Tactics of modern eco-terrorists began with a 1960s group in Great Britain known as the Band of Mercy, two of whose members were jailed in 1975 for fire-bombing a research center that performed research surgery on live animals (vivisection). One of the two, Ronnie Lee, co-founded the leaderless group or movement ALF (Animal Liberation Front), which since 2005 has been listed as a domestic terrorist group by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In 1977 members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society cut driftnets at sea. (Driftnets are mile-wide nets that have entangled and drowned dolphins and turtles in addition to catching targeted fish.) This act, although not characterized as terrorism at the time, was mentioned by the FBI in 2002 as an early example of eco-terrorism. In 1979 activists broke into the New York University Medical School and released five experimental animals. Many other animal-liberation break-ins followed, leading the U.S. Departments of Justice and Agriculture to speak in 1993 of ALF as a significant domestic terrorist group, citing over 300 incidents of vandalism, theft, and arson committed by ALF members and other animal-rights activists since 1979. For example, in 1987, ALF-led arson at a veterinary laboratory at the University of California-Davis caused $3.5 million in damage. Activists, for their part, argued that the animals they were freeing were sentient beings with a right to decent treatment. In some cases, they presented secretly filmed video footage of research personnel kicking, punching, and mocking laboratory animals, or dissecting them in a conscious state.

David Foreman (1947–), co-founder of the radical, nonviolent environmentalist organization Earth First!, advocated a technique called tree-spiking in his 1985 book Ecodefense. Tree-spiking involves driving nails or spikes into trees so that chain-sawing or milling them is likely to damage saws. Processing spiked trees can also be dangerous to loggers and mill workers. Foreman advocated marking spiked trees so that loggers would know not to harvest them, and argued that the health hazard to loggers was small even if they did harvest spiked trees. However, because of the potential for injury, the FBI and other critics of the practice have characterized it as eco-terror. At least one lumber-mill employee in California has been severely injured by a spiked tree. Tree-spiking has been a federal offense in the United States since 1988.

In 1992 a group modeled on ALF, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), was formed to use vandalism to oppose what it considered to be environmentally destructive development. In 1998 ELF took credit for the $12 million arson of a ski resort in Vail, Colorado. In 2003 ELF activists set fire to an unfinished housing complex in San Diego, California, causing $50 million in damages. In March 2008, three luxury show homes were burned by persons who left a message signed “ELF.” The homes were apparently targeted because, although they were billed as green and featured water-saving toilets, heavy insulation, and efficient appliances, they were also very large (4,000 square ft/372 square m) and some had 4-car garages. The message left by the arsonists at the site of the burned-out buildings read, “Built green? Nope, black!” A number of self-identified ELF activists have been jailed for similar crimes. Together, ALF and ELF took credit for 137 acts of property destruction in the United States in 2001 alone.

Illegal actions on behalf of animals have also continued. In 1998 a new animal-rights group was formed with the aim of interfering with the use of animals by the British company Huntingdon Life Sciences, which tests chemicals on about 70,000 animals, including dogs and baboons, each year. The new group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, proceeded both to conduct legal protests and to commit a number of illegal acts, including arson and making threats against employees of Huntingdon and of Marsh Inc., a company that insured Huntingdon. One Marsh employee was sent a letter saying, “You have been targeted for terrorist attack.”

Impacts and Issues

Terrorism is an emotionally charged word. In international law, definitions of terrorism usually equate terrorism with acts of violence that deliberately target noncombatant persons (innocent bystanders). For example, in Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change (2004), the United Nations states that “Any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non combatants, with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”

However, in U.S. discussions of eco-terrorism, terrorism is extended to cover crimes that are designed to damage property as well. For example, the 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 a symbolic nature.” By this def-


VIVISECTION: The dissection of a living animal. Until the twentieth century, it was practiced without anesthesia, so it was torturous for the subject animal. Vivisection is still practiced in medical research, but ethical guidelines require the anaesthetization of the animal.

inition, a threat to damage property, if made “to intimidate or coerce,” is terrorism, even if no action is taken and no lives threatened. Nor does the definition specify that the damage must be severe, or the property valuable, for damage or threat of damage to constitute terrorism.

FBI Domestic Terrorism Section Chief James Jarboe told Congress in 2002 that “ALF is considered a terrorist group, whose purpose is to bring about social and political change through the use of force and violence,” while at the same time acknowledging that “its operational philosophy discourages acts that harm ‘any animal, human or nonhuman.”’

Civil-rights activists contend that officials reveal a politically biased double standard by being eager to brand eco-motivated property crimes as terrorism, while being reluctant to apply the same label to direct attacks on human beings carried out by some activists in other politically and emotionally charged issues, such as abortion. In 1984 FBI Director William Webster stated in a TV interview that “Bombing an abortion clinic is not an act of terrorism.” In 2007 the Seattle Times published FBI data showing that from 1980 to 2004 the FBI did “not classify the vast majority of attacks on abortion clinics as acts of domestic terrorism,” although it did list numerous acts by ELF and ALF as terrorism. In fact, ELF and ALF were the perpetrators listed most often for 1994–2004.

Environmentalists and civil libertarians argue that fear of terrorism is being manipulated by anti-environmentalists to criminalize almost any sort of environmental protest. For example, on April 14, 2006, Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell signed into law a bill establishing the offense of eco-terrorism. The bill, Rendell wrote in his signing message, “defines ‘ecoterrorism’ as the commission of specified offenses against property intending to intimidate a person who is lawfully participating in an activity involving animals, plants, or natural resource facilities or preventing or obstructing an individual from lawfully participating in those activities.”

Under these terms, a person who obstructs an individual from access to a natural resource facility (for example, a state forest) could be guilty of eco-terrorism. This may open passive road-blockers or tree-sitters—

people like Julia Butterfly Hill, who inhabited a California Redwood tree for over 2 years in the late 1990s to prevent it from being cut down—to the charge of being a terrorist. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a 2005 statement criticizing the then-proposed Pennsylvania eco-terror law as “a threat to the First Amendment rights of all Pennsylvanians who wish to express their views on matters of public policy.” Environmental activists frequently use the term eco-sabotage (or ecotage) for criminal actions taken on behalf of the environment instead of the term eco-terrorism.

Despite the wrangling over definitions of what constitutes eco-terrorism, incidents of criminal actions committed by environmental extremists are on the rise. From 2003 to 2008, over $220 million in damages resulted from acts of eco-terrorism in the United States alone.

Primary Source Connection

In February 2002, James F. Jarboe, Domestic Terrorism Section Chief, Counterterrorism Division, FBI, testified before the U.S. Congress Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health regarding how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines eco-terrorism. Based upon the FBI definitions and operating policies, Jarboe also gave examples of prior incidents and investigations.

Environmental activists often dispute the label eco-terrorist, and there is often vigorous debate over the definition and proper classification of terrorist acts.



Before the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health

February 12, 2002

The FBI divides the terrorist threat facing the United States into two broad categories, international and domestic. International terrorism involves violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any state, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or any state. Acts of international terrorism are intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government, or affect the conduct of a government. These acts transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate, or the locale in which perpetrators operate.

Domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States (or its territories) without foreign direction, committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

During the past decade we have witnessed dramatic changes in the nature of the terrorist threat. In the 1990s, right-wing extremism overtook left-wing terrorism as the most dangerous domestic terrorist threat to the country. During the past several years, special interest extremism, as characterized by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), has emerged as a serious terrorist threat. Generally, extremist groups engage in much activity that is protected by constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly. Law enforcement becomes involved when the volatile talk of these groups transgresses into unlawful action. The FBI estimates that the ALF/ELF have committed more than 600 criminal acts in the United States since 1996, resulting in damages in excess of 43 million dollars.

Special interest terrorism differs from traditional rightwing and left-wing terrorism in that extremist special interest groups seek to resolve specific issues, rather than effect widespread political change. Special interest extremists continue to conduct acts of politically motivated violence to force segments of society, including the general public, to change attitudes about issues considered important to their causes. These groups occupy the extreme fringes of animal rights, pro-life, environmental, anti-nuclear, and other movements. Some special interest extremists—most notably within the animal rights and environmental movements—have turned increasingly toward vandalism and terrorist activity in attempts to further their causes.

Since 1977, when disaffected members of the ecological preservation group Greenpeace formed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and attacked commercial fishing operations by cutting drift nets, acts of “eco-ter-rorism” have occurred around the globe. The 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.

In recent years, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) has become one of the most active extremist elements in the United States. Despite the destructive aspects of ALF’s operations, its operational philosophy discourages acts that harm “any animal, human and nonhuman.”Animal rights groups in the United States, including the ALF, have generally adhered to this mandate. The ALF, established in Great Britain in the mid-1970s, is a loosely organized movement committed to ending the abuse and exploitation of animals. The American branch of the ALF began its operations in the late 1970s. Individuals become members of the ALF not by filing paperwork o paying dues, but simply by engaging in “direct action” against companies or individuals who utilize animals for research or economic gain. “Direct action” generally occurs in the form of criminal activity to cause economic loss or to destroy the victims’ company operations. The ALF activists have engaged in a steadily growing campaign of illegal activity against fur companies, mink farms, restaurants, and animal research laboratories.

Estimates of damage and destruction in the United States claimed by the ALF during the past ten years, as compiled by national organizations such as the Fur Commission and the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), put the fur industry and medical research losses at more than 45 million dollars. The ALF is considered a terrorist group, whose purpose is to bring about social and political change through the use of force and violence.

Disaffected environmentalists, in 1980, formed a radical group called “Earth First!” and engaged in a series of protests and civil disobedience events. In 1984, however, members introduced “tree spiking” (insertion of metal or ceramic spikes in trees in an effort to damage saws) as a tactic to thwart logging. In 1992, the ELF was founded in Brighton, England, by Earth First! members who refused to abandon criminal acts as a tactic when others wished to mainstream Earth First!. In 1993, the ELF was listed for the first time along with the ALF in a communique declaring solidarity in actions between the two groups. This unity continues today with a crossover of leadership and membership. It is not uncommon for the ALF and the ELF to post joint declarations of responsibility for criminal actions on their web-sites. In 1994, founders of the San Francisco branch of Earth First! published in The Earth First! Journal a recommendation that Earth First! mainstream itself in the United States, leaving criminal acts other than unlawful protests to the ELF.

The ELF advocates “monkeywrenching,” a euphemism for acts of sabotage and property destruction against industries and other entities perceived to be damaging to the natural environment. “Monkeywrenching” includes tree spiking, arson, sabotage of logging or construction equipment, and other types of property destruction. Speeches given by Jonathan Paul and Craig Rosebraugh at the 1998 National Animal Rights Conference held at the University of Oregon, promoted the unity of both the ELF and the ALF movements. The ELF posted information on the ALF web site until it began its own web site in January 2001, and is listed in the same underground activist publications as the ALF.

The most destructive practice of the ALF/ELF is arson. The ALF/ELF members consistently use improvised incendiary devices equipped with crude but effective timing mechanisms. These incendiary devices are often constructed based upon instructions found on the ALF/ELF web sites. The ALF/ELF criminal incidents often involve pre-activity surveillance and well-planned operations. Members are accused of collecting intelligence gathering against potential targets, including the review of industry/trade publications, photographic/video surveillance of potential targets, and posting details about potential targets on the internet.

The ALF and the ELF have jointly claimed credit for several raids including a November 1997 attack of the Bureau of Land Management wild horse corrals near Burns, Oregon, where arson destroyed the entire complex resulting in damages in excess of four hundred and fifty thousand dollars and the June 1998 arson attack of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Damage Control Building near Olympia, Washington, in which damages exceeded two million dollars. The ELF claimed sole credit for the October 1998, arson of a Vail, Colorado, ski facility in which four ski lifts, a restaurant, a picnic facility and a utility building were destroyed. Damage exceeded $12 million. On 12/27/1998, the ELF claimed responsibility for the arson at the U.S. Forest Industries Office in Medford, Oregon, where damages exceeded five hundred thousand dollars. Other arsons in Oregon, New York, Washington, Michigan, and Indiana have been claimed by the ELF. Recently, the ELF has also claimed attacks on genetically engineered crops and trees. The ELF claims these attacks have totaled close to $40 million in damages.

The name of a group called the Coalition to Save the Preserves (CSP), surfaced in relation to a series of arsons that occurred in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. These arsons targeted several new homes under construction near the North Phoenix Mountain Preserves. No direct connection was established between the CSP and ALF/ELF. However, the stated goal of CSP to stop development of previously undeveloped lands, is similar to that of the ELF. The property damage associated with the arsons has been estimated to be in excess of $5 million.

The FBI has developed a strong response to the threats posed by domestic and international terrorism. Between fiscal years 1993 and 2003, the number of Special Agents dedicated to the FBI’s counterterrorism programs grew by approximately 224 percent to 1,669—nearly 16 percent of all FBI Special Agents. In recent years, the FBI has strengthened its counterterrorism program to enhance its abilities to carry out these objectives.

Cooperation among law enforcement agencies at all levels represents an important component of a comprehensive response to terrorism. This cooperation assumes its most tangible operational form in the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) that are established in 44 cities across the nation. These task forces are particularly well-suited to responding to terrorism because they combine the national and international investigative resources of the FBI with the street-level expertise of local law enforcement agencies. Given the success of the JTTF concept, the FBI has established 15 new JTTFs since the end of 1999. By the end of 2003 the FBI plans to have established JTTFs in each of its 56 field offices. By integrating the investigative abilities of the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, these task forces represent an effective response to the threats posed to U.S. communities by domestic and international terrorists.

The FBI and our law enforcement partners have made a number of arrests of individuals alleged to have perpetrated acts of eco-terrorism. Several of these individuals have been successfully prosecuted. Following the investigation of the Phoenix, Arizona, arsons noted earlier, Mark Warren Sands was indicted and arrested on 6/14/2001. On 11/07/2001, Sands pleaded guilty to ten counts of extortion and using fire in the commission of a federal felony.

In February 2001, teenagers Jared McIntyre, Matthew Rammelkamp, and George Mashkow all pleaded guilty, as adults, to title 18 U.S.C. 844(i), Arson, and 844(n), Arson Conspiracy. These charges pertain to a series of arsons and attempted arsons of new home construction sites in Long Island, New York. An adult, Connor Cash, was also arrested on February 15, 2001, and charged under the same federal statutes. Jared McIntrye stated that these acts were committed in sympathy of the ELF movement. The New York Joint Terrorism Task Force played a significant role in the arrest and prosecution of these individuals.

On 1/23/2001, Frank Ambrose was arrested by officers of the Department of Natural Resources with assistance from the Indianapolis JTTF, on a local warrant out of Monroe County Circuit Court, Bloomington, Indiana, charging Ambrose with timber spiking. Ambrose is suspected of involvement in the spiking of approximately 150 trees in Indiana state forests. The ELF claimed responsibility for these incidents.

On September 16, 1998, a federal grand jury in the Western District of Wisconsin indicted Peter Young and Justin Samuel for Hobbs Act violations as well as for animal enterprise terrorism. Samuel was apprehended in Belgium, and was subsequently extradited to the United States. On August 30, 2000, Samuel pleaded guilty to two counts of animal enterprise terrorism and was sentenced on November 3, 2000, to two years in prison, two years probation, and ordered to pay $364,106 in restitution. Samuel’s prosecution arose out of his involvement in mink releases in Wisconsin in 1997. This incident was claimed by the ALF. The investigation and arrest of Justin Samuel were the result of a joint effort by federal, state, and local agencies.

On April 20, 1997, Douglas Joshua Ellerman turned himself in and admitted on videotape to purchasing, constructing, and transporting five pipe bombs to the scene of the March 11, 1997, arson at the Fur Breeders Agricultural co-op in Sandy, Utah. Ellerman also admitted setting fire to the facility. Ellerman was indicted on June 19, 1997 on 16 counts, and eventually pleaded guilty to three. He was sentenced to seven years in prison and restitution of approximately $750,000. Though this incident was not officially claimed by ALF, Ellerman indicated during an interview subsequent to his arrest that he was a member of ALF. This incident was investigated jointly by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

Rodney Adam Coronado was convicted for his role in the February 2, 1992, arson at an animal research laboratory on the campus of Michigan State University. Damage estimates, according to public sources, approached $200,000 and included the destruction of research records. On July 3, 1995, Coronado pled guilty for his role in the arson and was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison, three years probation, and restitution of more than $2 million. This incident was claimed by ALF. The FBI, ATF, and the Michigan State University police played a significant role in the investigation, arrest, and prosecution.

Marc Leslie Davis, Margaret Katherine Millet, Marc Andre Baker, and Ilse Washington Asplund were all members of the self-proclaimed “Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy” (EMETIC). EMETIC was formed to engage in eco-terrorism against nuclear power plants and ski resorts in the southwestern United States. In November 1987, the group claimed responsibility for damage to a chairlift at the Fairfield Snow Bowl Ski Resort near Flagstaff, Arizona. Davis, Millet, and Baker were arrested in May 1989 on charges relating to the Fairfield Snow Bowl incident and planned incidents at the Central Arizona Project and Palo Verde nuclear generating stations in Arizona; the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Facility in California; and the Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility in Colorado. All pleaded guilty and were sentenced in September 1991. Davis was sentenced to six years in federal prison, and restitution to the Fairfield Snow Bowl Ski Resort in the amount of $19,821. Millet was sentenced to three years in federal prison, and restitution to Fairfield in the amount of $19,821. Baker was sentenced to one year in federal prison, five months probation, a $5,000 fine, and 100 hours of community service. Asplund was also charged and was sentenced to one year in federal prison, five years probation, a $2,000 fine, and 100 hours of community service.

Currently, more than 26 FBI field offices have pending investigations associated with ALF/ELF activities. Despite all of our efforts (increased resources allocated, JTTFs, successful arrests and prosecutions), law enforcement has a long way to go to adequately address the problem of eco-terrorism. Groups such as the ALF and the ELF present unique challenges. There is little if any hierarchal structure to such entities. Eco-terrorists are unlike traditional criminal enterprises which are often structured and organized…

James F. Jarboe


See Also Environmental Activism; Environmental Crime



“Chronological FBI Summary of Terrorist Incidents, 1980–2004.” Seattle Times (May 7, 2006).

Scott, Joni. “From Hate Rhetoric to Hate Crime: A Link Acknowledged Too Late.” The Humanist (January 1, 1999).

Stone, Andrea. “Eco-Terror Suspected in Seattle Blazes.” USA Today (March 3, 2008).

Web Sites

American Civil Liberties Union. “ACLU Criticizes Pennsylvania Eco-Terrorism Legislation as Part of Government’s Crackdown on Political Dissent.” (accessed April 30, 2008).

Anti-Defamation League. “Ecoterrorism: Extremism in the Animal Rights and Environmentalist Movements.” (accessed April 30, 2008).

CounterPunch. “The Eco-Terror Hoax.” (accessed April 30, 2008).

Jarboe, James F. ldquo;The Threat of Eco-Terrorism.” (accessed April 30, 2008).

Southern Poverty Law Center. “From Push to Shove.” (accessed April 30, 2008).

United Nations General Assembly. “Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.” (accessed May 4, 2008).

Larry Gilman

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