How Eco-terrorism Works

By: Jennifer Horton  | 
Environmental terrorism, or eco-terror, often involves burning down housing developments.
Michael Salas/ The Image Bank/Getty Images

Seattle's Street of Dreams is now a street of nightmares. The collection of multimillion dollar luxury homes was recently burned to the ground by people claiming to be eco-terrorists. Eco-terror, to paraphrase the FBI, is defined as the use of violence against victims or property by an environmentally oriented group for environmental-political reasons. The FBI considers environmental terrorism to be the number-one domestic terror threat facing the United States [source: Fox News].

Acts of eco-terrorism, also known as ecotage (a combination of the prefix "eco" and the word "sabotage"), attack people or things that threaten the environment or the wildlife it supports. Eco-terrorists, or "ecoteurs," as they're sometimes known, profess to value all life, so they don't strike to kill, but instead use scare tactics like arson to discourage their enemies.


Suburban developments like the one in Seattle are common targets because of the land they consume and the nearby ecosystems they threaten. The Seattle subdivision, for example, was built near a stream that supports endangered salmon, and some opponents worried the homes would pollute the creek and nearby wetlands. SUVs, construction equipment and genetically engineered crops also are likely targets.

While they're certainly no al-Qaida, extreme activists acting on behalf of animals or the environment have committed hundreds of crimes over the past two decades and inflicted more than $100 million worth of damage in the U.S. alone [source: Fox News]. Other countries have seen their fair share of terrorist acts as well. For example, a slaughterhouse was torched in the Netherlands, farm equipment destroyed in England and a fur store vandalized in Mexico [source: NAIA].

The increasingly violent attacks of eco-terrorists worry many people. Those familiar with the movement suggest that, although groups are not in the practice of killing anyone, it is only a matter of time before they do. Since these radical environmentalists oppose pretty much anything having to do with development or with the alteration of the environment, they have a lot of potential targets from which to choose.

What drives these extreme activists? Why not just join Greenpeace or the Sierra Club? In this article, you'll learn more about the history, philosophy and tactics of the eco-terror movement, and you'll also get an idea of how it's organized.


History and Philosophy of Eco-terrorism

Some members of the environmental movement, like this woman demonstrating against the U.S. energy policy, protest peacefully, while eco-terrorists take it to the extreme.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Individuals have defended the environment for decades. The Sierra Club and Greenpeace, which formed in 1892 and 1971 respectively, are two activist organizations that have pressured legislators, corporations and individuals to protect the environment throughout their existence -- without resorting to violence.

According to the FBI, eco-terror was born in 1977. In 1980, the group Earth First! came along and raised the stakes by engaging in acts of civil disobedience like tree spiking (the practice of hammering a nail into a tree to prevent it from being cut down, which can severely injure loggers).


The most well-known group linked to eco-terror in the U.S., the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, was formed when some members of the group Earth First! became frustrated with what they saw as an insufficient pace of change and began a group that would engage in more violent, direct action. Like the members of ELF, eco-terrorists are radical environmentalists who believe traditional ways of bringing about change are not adequate. They view politicians as ineffective and believe that if something is to be done, they must do it themselves.

Members of the eco-terror movement liken their predicament to fighting in a war. They suggest that animals and the environment are being attacked by humans and need to be defended. In an interview with National Geographic magazine, Leslie James Pickering, an ELF spokesman, claimed that members are simply defending the Earth and the elements that humans need to survive: "I'm representing a group that is fighting in self-defense, for preservation of our species [and] all species of life on Earth" [source: Foreman].

Other extreme environmental and animal rights groups compare their fight to the struggle to free slaves or to win women the right to vote. Those advocates didn't sit back and wait for their rights to be handed to them, activists say. They fought hard and often broke the law. Pickering seconds this argument, saying that "every successful social justice movement throughout history has had an element of radical activism or radical engagement. We're not gonna stop at what the system tells us to stop at" [source: Foreman]. Eco-terrorists argue that they are not the enemy; the enemy is all the people they are fighting.

But some environmental groups disagree. They fear that the violent extremism displayed by groups like ELF could create a backlash against the entire environmental movement and make it harder for more mainstream groups to effect change.

Some people even look favorably, or at least neutrally, upon groups like ELF [source: Schabner]. After all, they don't seek to intentionally harm anyone, even those they see as "the system." And how bad can they be if they're defending pristine waters, open prairies and cute little bunnies?

Pretty bad, according to the FBI, who considers them a top priority. Bad enough to be charged with federal crimes in some cases and sentenced to decades in prison -- if they can be caught. On the next page, you'll learn more about the organization and tactics of eco-terror groups and why they're so difficult to track down.


Tactics and Organization of Eco-terrorists

This is all that's left of a condo unit that eco-terrorists burned in 2003. A banner left at the site of the fire read, "If you build it, we will burn it," and was signed, "The E.L.F.s are mad."
David McNew/Getty Images

Although eco-terrorists engage in a range of destructive actions, their belief that all life is sacred has thus far kept them from seriously injuring anyone. So while they may have caused some serious financial damage when they torched the Seattle homes, no one was hurt in the fires because the houses were unoccupied.

The preferred method of destruction seems to be arson, probably because it is relatively simple, causes significant destruction and gets a lot of attention. For example, the 1998 firebombing of Vail ski resort to protest further development received a great deal of publicity and caused $12 million in damage [source: Archibold].


Arson is not the only trick up eco-terrorists' sleeves. They also employ other tactics designed to disrupt normal operations at target businesses and to discourage people from engaging in environmental destruction. Eco-terror activists spike roads, disable vehicles, vandalize homes and deliver sewage or dead animals to corporate offices. Since 1976, they have committed more than 1,100 terrorist acts, causing more than $110 million in damage [source: Philipkoski].

Despite all the instances of eco-terrorism, few people have been connected with any crimes. The last big arrest came in 2006 when the FBI shut down a group of people responsible for starting about 20 fires in five states that caused $40 million-plus in damage. This arrest only came about after an intense nine-year investigation called "Operation Backfire" [source: Fox News].

People familiar with the eco-terror movement claim that the structure of the groups is what makes them so hard to penetrate. There is no central leadership to guide actions and no real cohesion among members. In fact, there aren't really even any "members" -- you don't pay a $15 membership fee, get a cute tote bag and receive monthly updates in the mail. All you have to do to be part of the movement is to commit an act in the name of Mother Earth. ELF's Web site claims that members are anonymous even to each other. So even when people are found and arrested, attacks don't decline because the groups are dependent only on each individual's fervent commitment to protecting nature, not on the leadership of any one person.

Although people outside of the movement aren't certain of how eco-terror groups organize and carry out attacks, experts think the groups comprise a series of cells located across the country that recruit participants for specific activities and then disband. This method contributes to making perpetrators hard to catch. They don't stay in one place long enough to be investigated, their targets are scattered and the evidence left behind at the crime scene is limited.

Despite the "eco" prefix, eco-terrorists often take on animal rights causes, as well as environmental ones. ELF sometimes partners with its sister group, ALF, or the Animal Liberation Front, and attacks animal testing sites, fur farms and the like. Learn more about animal rights extremists next.


Extreme Animal Rights Groups: ALF and SHAC

Organizations like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society often defend animal rights by staging protests or placing themselves between hunter and hunted. But groups like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) don't stop there. Their members vandalize things like animal testing facilities, meat packing plants, slaughterhouses and mink farms, causing millions of dollars in damage and disrupting operations.

The U.S.-based ALF originated in England, the offshoot of a 1960s group known as the Hunt Saboteurs Association formed to protest fox hunts. In 1972, some members started the Band of Mercy to undertake more violent actions such as firebombing. ALF migrated across the Atlantic in 1979, and in the last several years, has torched a McDonald's in Arizona, burned down a primate facility in New Mexico and raided a fur farm in Oregon, among other activities.


SHAC also started in the U.K., dedicated to protesting one of the largest contract animal testing facilities in Europe, Huntingdon Life Sciences. SHAC's comprehensive Web site outlines its mission and paints a disturbing picture of the testing lab that houses approximately 70,000 animals.

The organization now has activists working across Europe and in the United States. U.S. activists became involved when HLS moved its headquarters to New Jersey. These activists have gone to great lengths to stop what they label as atrocities at HLS. Not only do they target the facility itself, they also target the business partners of HLS. By closing off the facility's sources of money, the Web site states, SHAC hopes to eventually shut it down. The group maintains a list of the more than 100 companies it says it has forced to stop doing business with Huntingdon.

How do they do it? Unlike extreme animal and environmental activists in the United States, their counterparts in Europe do not shy away from physical violence. Members of animal rights groups in Europe injured several people with letter bombs in the 1990s and beat the president of HLS with clubs in 2001 [source: Anti-Defamation League].

Based on the recent fires in Seattle, it doesn't look as though eco-terror is losing any steam. As long as oil companies continue to drill, construction companies continue to build and loggers continue to log, these activists likely will stick around and continue to fight their war. You can find more information on eco-terror and animal rights groups on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

What are major types of terrorism?
There are four major types of terrorism: domestic, international, state, and non-state.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Anti-Defamation League. "Ecoterrorism: Extremism in the Animal Rights and Environmentalist Movements." 2005. (April 14, 2008) Extremism&LEARN_SubCat=Extremism_in_America&xpicked= 4&item=eco
  • Archibold, Randal C. "Facing Trial Under Terror Law, Radical Claims a New Outlook." The New York Times. May 3, 2007. (April 14, 2008)
  • FBI. "Congressional Testimony of James F. Jarboe: The Threat of Eco-Terrorism." Feb. 12, 2002. (April 7, 2008)
  • Foreman, Tom. "Q&A: Extreme Environmentalist on 'Radical Change'." National Geographic News. April 22, 2003.
  • Fox News. "FBI: Eco-Terrorism Remains No. 1 Domestic Terror Threat." March 31, 2008. (April 7, 2008),2933,343768,00.html
  • Fur Commission USA. "Animal Rights and Eco-Terrorism: The Price We Pay." 2008. (April 7, 2008)
  • Fur Commission USA. "Fur Commission USA." 2008. (April 7, 2008)
  • National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA). "Animal Rights and Environmental Extremists Use Intimidation and Violence to Achieve Their Ends." 2008. (April 14, 2008)
  • Philipkoski, Kristen. "Eco-Terror Cited as Top Threat." Wired. June 16, 2004. (April 7, 2008)
  • Schabner, Dean. "Should Ecoterror Be Treated Like Al Qaeda?" ABC News Internet Ventures. Feb. 26, 2002. (April 7, 2008)
  • SHAC. "SHAC: Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty." (April 7, 2008)