U.S. Environmental Groups and 'Leaderless Resistance'


Jul 1, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review on July 1, 2001.

Reproduced with permission from Jane's Information Group.

Recent developments suggest that the extreme wing of the US environmental movement is becoming increasingly active. Peter Chalk analyses the origins, views and operations of the Earth Liberation Front, regarded as one of the USA's leading domestic terrorist movements.

Late last year, a spate of arson directed against 16 new residential construction projects took place within a 20-mile stretch of the mostly upmarket North Shore on Long Island. Four months later a major fire at a car lot in Eugene, Oregon destroyed at least 30 sports utility vehicles, causing an estimated US$1 million worth of damage. Both actions were claimed by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) - a shadowy entity that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) now officially considers one of the USA's leading terrorist organisations.

The ELF originally emerged as a radical off-shoot of the earlier Earth First! movement in 1992, although its visible actions date from the mid-1990s. It represents an extreme and violent fringe of the US environmental movement whose defining philosophies are formed by an amalgam of two main concepts:

  • Biocentrism, which regards all organisms on earth as equal and deserving of moral rights and considerations, and identifies biodiversity and wilderness as an absolute good against which all other actions should be judged;
  • Deep ecology, which calls for a general rollback of civilisation/industrialisation, the removal of pathogenic and exotic (that is non-indigenous) species, including 'expendable' humans lives and the restoration of the ecological balance.

For the ELF, saving the roughly 10% of American wilderness that remains is not enough. The goal is, and can only ever be, to restore the environment in its entirety: to re-create ecosystems that they believe have been despoiled by the immoral and selfish actions of the human race. This is to be achieved by adopting an uncompromising stance on the environment and by emphasising direct action over lobbying and legal forms of protest (which are generally viewed as biased in favour of government and industry), even if this might result in death or injury.

Underscoring these beliefs is an entrenched radicalism and cynicism that is born of a highly idiosyncratic reading of environmental philosophy and government politics. As Bron Taylor, a professor of religion at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, explains: "You can't understand these guys if you don't understand the ethical and spiritual motivations behind them. There are continuities between their ethical and spiritual motivations, and those that have motivated the environmental vanguard for the last 125 years. You have grafted onto that a particular reading of environmental science and of governmental politics that tends to be on the one hand, apocalyptic of its view of the environment and on the other, deeply cynical in its political analysis."

History of violence

Destructive acts attributed to the ELF since 1997 have caused an estimated $40 million in property damage. The bulk of activity has been concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, with 33 major incidents taking place between 1996 and 1999 alone. Attacks, which have ranged from fire-bombings to tree-spiking - a process that is designed to discourage logging by driving metal pegs into trees scheduled for harvesting - and the mailing of booby-trapped letters, have been designed to disrupt logging, the recreational use of wilderness or the 'exploitation' of animals for food, fur or research purposes.

The ELF's most spectacular incident to date was the 1998 arson attack against the Vail ski resort in Colorado. Justified as necessary to protect lynx wildlife habitats from the destruction wrought by the resort's developers, the assault caused over $12 million worth of damage and has since been catalogued by the FBI as the most destructive act of eco-terrorism in US history.

Vail was just one in a litany of high profile attacks credited to the ELF over the last six years, the most serious of which have included:

  • A 1996 firebombing of a US Forest Service ranger district in Oakridge, resulting in losses that have since been calculated at $9 million. A secondary incendiary device at a facility located 70 miles away failed to detonate.
  • A 1997 torching of a $1.3 million animal slaughterhouse in Redmond, California.
  • That same year, twin arson attacks against two Federal wildlife offices in Washington State that collectively caused $1.9 million in damage.
  • The 1999 destruction of a Boise Cascade Corporation office after the company had announced its intention to form a joint venture to build a strandboard manufacturing plant in Chile. The ELF claimed responsibility for the attack, asserting that the Boise Corporation had to be dissuaded from destroying the virgin forests of Chile after having already ravaged the natural wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. The attack resulted in over $1 million worth of damage.

So far, ELF attacks have not resulted in any human deaths. However, the very nature of the group's actions suggest that this is probably more the result of luck than design. Certainly large-scale fire bombings carry the risk of causing serious injury. The same is true of tree-spiking. While the metal pegs used in the practice cause no direct harm in themselves they definitely do pose a latent threat in terms of splintering chain saws and mill blades and sending jagged pieces of shrapnel into the faces of unsuspecting loggers.

Links to animal rights extremists

A further factor that appears to be increasing the danger of human casualties is the ELF's growing collaboration with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). In 1997, the two movements announced a formal alliance, asserting in a letter to the Williamette National Forest that "solidarity between the two groups was the worst nightmare of those who would abuse the Earth and its citizens". Most commentators now believe there is little practical distinction between the ELF and ALF, with both acting on an anti-humanist agenda aimed at protecting 'Mother Earth' and its ecology from what they perceive to be a tyrannical and potentially cataclysmic industrial onslaught.

US law enforcement authorities have viewed this organisational convergence as a serious development given the ALF's history of active, human-oriented violence. Certainly since allying with the ALF, the ELF appears to have increased the level and scale of its activity, carrying out no less than 12 major arson attacks by the end of 1999 on behalf of either animal or environmental causes. All resulted in at least $50,000 worth of damage and all potentially put human lives at risk.

Reflecting on the potential for human injury, David Szady, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Portland division, has pointedly remarked "its just a matter of time until someone is killed or hurt".

Networked group

Like many other single-issue groups, the ELF has been quick to make use of developments in information technology (IT), both as a tool of propaganda and, more importantly, as a medium of communication. Activists frequently talk, share ideas/information and plan strategies through internet chat rooms and electronic mail-boards - coming together, not so much physically as part of a structured organised group but 'artificially' through the process of digital integration. In this sense, the movement exists more as a networked entity than as a concrete group with a clearly identified leader and member roll. As Craig Rosebraugh, the owner of a vegan bakery in Portland who acts as the ELF's 'press officer' and unofficial spokesman, explains: "There is no hierarchy, no physical group that they [the FBI] can see. You might have a cell operating, or 57 cells operating, where no one knows each other."

The emphasis on non-hierarchical and unstructured organisational dynamics - enshrined on the American radical right in the concept of 'leaderless resistance' (see box on p.15) - also squares well with the philosophical worldview of extreme environmentalism. For groups such as the ELF, only highly decentralised societies 'work,' as only these provide the necessary latitude of action for the type of small-scale foraging that is able to exist in harmony (rather than against) nature.

The decentralised and disaggregated character of the ELF has greatly compounded the difficulty of carrying out effective police and intelligence surveillance. This has not only limited the ability of law enforcement authorities to gain an accurate picture of either the group's intentions or capabilities, it has also, necessarily, complicated legal efforts aimed at establishing responsibility and culpability for criminal acts. This is readily reflected by the fact that the vast majority of arson attacks and other forms of eco-sabotage claimed by the group, either on its own or in conjunction with the ALF, have yet to be solved, let alone indemnified through arrest and prosecution.

Modus operandi

Although there have been few arrests of ELF activists, a limited profile of the group's attacks and the types of people likely to carry them out has begun to emerge. Perpetrators will generally be in their early 20s, studying at either the graduate or undergraduate level and have a middle or upper class background. They will typically operate either alone or in ad-hoc bands of between two and six members, focusing on hitting high visibility targets mostly at night. Activists will also often travel across state borders to carry out their attacks, viewing this as an effective way to further obfuscate and complicate post-incident investigations.

Once an attack site has been hit, it is 'tagged,' generally by means of a letter to a local paper or via encrypted e-mails sent to news services such as the Associated Press. Announcements are also made through anonymous messages sent to Rosebraugh - who claims not to know the identity of any ELF activists - and subsequently listed in a 'diary of actions' contained on the group's website.

Eco-terrorism and mass destruction?

There has been some suggestion that the Manichean, anti-humanist agenda of groups such as the ELF and ALF naturally lends itself to the type of extremism that could justify the large-scale use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In commenting on terrorism trends in the new millennium, Walter Laqueur, a widely respected academic author on the subject, has proffered that the reintroduction of the smallpox virus could be viewed by some environmental extremists as an effective way of restoring the ecological balance (by killing off surplus human populations).

Along the same lines, Martha Lee has pointed out that diseases such as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) have, from an extreme environmental standpoint, already been explicitly recognised not as a problem but as a viable means for undermining industrialism and preserving wildlife and wilderness areas.

Certainly there have been instances in the past that would seem to suggest a predilection on the part of animal rights and environmental militants to non-conventional tactics and weapons. In 1989, Dave Foreman, one of the original founders of Earth First! pleaded guilty to plotting to blow up nuclear facilities in California and Arizona. In 1991, the ALF was implicated in a highly-publicised product contamination scare involving threats to inject rat poison into soft drink packs as a way of protesting against scientific and animal testing in the UK and the public's complicity in such experimentation.

More recently, in July 2000, animal and environmental extremists left three jars containing cyanide in downtown Minneapolis in protest against animal genetic engineering, asserting that the practice threatens biodiversity, constitutes 'playing God' and pollutes delicate ecosystems.

One can only speculate whether these instances are indicative of a general willingness and/or desire to carry out a true act of mass destruction. For most environmental extremists, who view life in general as sacred, the idea of deliberately causing wholesale destruction of any kind would almost certainly be seen as an anathema.

This being said, there is always the possibility that acutely isolated and unbalanced 'lone wolves' - reflecting an extreme version of Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber) - will subscribe to the general idea of environmental preservation and take it on themselves to save nature by the most radical of means.

This is an inherent danger with loosely affiliated 'networked' organisations such as the ELF where constraining group barriers are either largely absent or totally non-existent. In these instances, extreme violence can easily become the product of individual (or small group) justification and rationalisation - as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City so vividly demonstrated.

Even assuming such a scenario, however, the ability of environmental extremists to proceed to the level of mass destruction remains extremely limited, lacking as they do both the resources and expertise necessary to overcome the technical hurdles associated with chemical, biological or radiological weaponisation. Constructing even a crude nuclear device would require skill and precision equipment of the sort that generally only states have access to.

Chemical weapons, while easier to construct, require enormous quantities of toxic materials (which most non-state actors neither possess nor have the ability to acquire), if they are to affect large, open areas. Although very small amounts of bacterial and viral agents may theoretically be able to kill hundreds and thousands of people, realising this in any meaningful operational sense is highly problematic, largely because microbes have to be dispersed in an aerosolised form - an expensive and technically demanding task.

Should an actual attempt be made by environmental (or animal) extremists to engage in an act of unconventional terrorism, it would almost certainly manifest itself as a limited, small-scale and possibly anonymous operation. While not as immediately threatening as a true WMD release, an assault of this sort would still retain significant psychological and coercive potential, perhaps serving just as well (in terms of provoking fear and panic) as a larger weapon or more ambitious attack with massive casualties.

Peter Chalk is an expert on transnational crime and terrorism at the RAND Corporation, Washington, USA.

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