Ecoterrorism, The U.S.’s Most Pressing Form of Terrorism?

By Fabiola Galguera*

Since the horrific attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, international terrorism has been amongst the top priorities for the United States government,[i] as evidenced by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).[ii] International terrorism has overshadowed the form of terrorism that categorically impacts the U.S. most frequently: ecoterrorism.[iii] According to the Global Terrorism Index, when it comes to terrorism, “attacks by Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) combined accounted for 40 per cent of all attacks but none of these attacks resulted in any deaths.”[iv] When defining an attack, the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) states it is “an intentional act of violence or threat of violence by a non-state actor,” in conjunction with some additional criteria (the attack must be intentional, must entail violence or some threat of violence, and the perpetrators must be sub-national).[v] The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines ecoterrorism 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.”[vi]

The intensity with which international terrorism is discussed and addressed can be quite shocking when juxtaposed with the FBI’s own statement that it has made “the prevention and investigation of animal rights extremists/eco-terrorism matters a domestic terrorism investigative priority.”[vii] Taking these facts into consideration, ecoterrorism is hardly ever discussed in the media and even authorities like academics, police, and government agencies seem relatively quiet on the matter. The absence of ecoterrorism from everyday headlines and media can be attributed to the narrow tailoring given to definition by the FBI, which puts a large emphasis on physical injury to individuals.[viii] The FBI may have to change their current – and seemingly successful – approach on fighting ecoterrorism, however, because the activity by these groups may become exceedingly more dangerous in the near future.

While the definition offered by the FBI dictates how ecoterrorism is addressed in the U.S., there is no unified definition for the crime of ecoterrorism that dominates how the U.S. approaches the issues; neither the FBI or Congress in multiple acts warranting a definition have agreed on one universal definition. The FBI defines it in the way quoted above. Under the U.S. Code, Congress defines domestic terrorism – under which ecoterrorism is housed – as activity “that involves acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State” and “appear[s] to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping” within the territorial U.S.[ix] The GTD defines a terrorist attack as the “threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”[x] Some researchers believe that this definition, along with criteria offered by the GTD, excludes a large amount of ecoterrorism attack from being terrorist in nature.[xi] Out of the 1,069 criminal acts perpetrated by groups affiliated with ecoterrorism from 1970 to 2007, one study suggests that only 17% of the incidents can be properly classified as terrorist under the definition offered by the GTD.[xii]

Ultimately, multiple sources have different definitions, stemming from the base conceptualization of terrorism. For the purposes of this blog, the definition offered by the FBI will be used because it contains a complete and specific definition outlining the fundamental of the crime.

Ecoterrorism, as the FBI’s definition points out, is the “use or threatened use of violence” against people or property.[xiii] That being said, an overwhelming amount of the activity of ecoterror groups focuses on property damage.[xiv] Of 1,069 reported criminal actions in the U.S. between the years of 1970 to 2007, 87.3% of the attacks were on facilities themselves compared to the 7.2% which were perpetrated against people, including armed assaults, unarmed assaults, and assassinations.[xv] These groups tend to direct their followers to commit criminal acts, ranging from vandalism to arson.[xvi]

One explanation for why ecoterrorism is less covered in the media is that property damage is less attractive to everyday consumers of news than stories containing clear threat to human life, a phenomenon popularly known as “if it bleeds, it leads.”[xvii] A story is more likely to make headlines if it shocks the reader.[xviii] The unfortunate killing of innocent people would attract more readers or followers to the story in general than reading about the costs of property damage. The day-to-day activities of ecoterror groups do not stir up as much passion as bigger attacks because they look a lot like typical crime such as destruction of private property, breaking and entering, and theft. The acts may cross the line from petty crime to danger against the public, but attacks like the one on Vail, a popular Colorado ski resort, are far and few in between.[xix] Individuals with allegiance to the ELF lit multiple fires all around resort, effectively burning destroying 3 buildings and 4 chairlifts. Notably, the attacks against the ski resort caused about 26 million dollars’ worth of property damage.[xx] This level of attack is arguably successful in catching the attention of the public by being a very real threat to people’s lives, adding the level of appeal necessary to engross news consumers.

Some insight on how our country fights these attacks can shed some light on the hushed nature of this form of terrorism. Because ecoterrorism is embodied under the FBI’s definition of terrorism, it has the authority to battle ecoterrorism in the same way it battles other forms of terrorism.[xxi] The FBI disseminates the information gathered from investigations on ecoterrorism to the Joint Terrorism Task Forces in order to promulgate the information to multiple law enforcement agencies. Additionally, they use strategies familiar to those popularly used in headlining counterterrorism procedures, monitoring of financial information, monitoring of communications amongst known members of the organizations, investigations into people who may be affiliated, and increased punishments for those who are caught. The familiarity and acceptance of these techniques – in comparison to drone monitoring and preemptive strikes which are more regularly seen in international terrorism – makes the FBI’s behavior in this area seem docile, less flashy, and less appealing to report on.

An example on how the FBI has formalized its tactics against ecoterrorism is Operation Backfire. Operation Backfire was created by the FBI in response to the lack of success state and federal agencies were having in investigating and prosecuting The Family, an organization supported by the ALF and ELF in perpetuating criminal violence to achieve their goals.[xxii] In starting Operation Backfire, the FBI centralized the power and resources necessary to prosecute the perpetrators of ecoterrorism as well integrating flexibility into their model to allow for adaptation in matching the volatile nature of these criminal groups.[xxiii] The Operation has been successful in locating and incarcerating ecoterrorists. According to the FBI, “more than 40 criminal acts ranging from vandalism to arson have been solved. Thanks to the Operation, seventeen individuals have been indicted, and 15 of them pled guilty and were sentenced in 2007 to jail time ranging from 37 months to 188 months.”[xxiv]

This success may soon be a story of the past; groups like the ELF and ALF are starting to encourage violence more than they have in past years, made clear by the group’s use of direct action and some of the comments that have been made by outspoken individuals affiliated with the movements. There has been more use of the term “direct action” when referring to the ELF as well as explicit mention of the terminology on the ELF’s main website.[xxv] Due to the secrecy of the cells that operate within these organizations, it is difficult to say exactly what “direct action” means. But that there has been an increased acceptance of violence in the overall work of the movement is clear in certain actions members have taken when speaking publicly. For example, a member of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) testified in front of the Senate that murdering in the name of animal rights is permissible; he stated that murdering scientists who test on animals is moral because of the equality between a human life and an animal life.[xxvi] In a world where terrorist organizations commit horrific attacks against human beings hoping there will be injury, death, and chaos, it does not seem so far-fetched that these traditionally extremists groups adopt some of these strategies into ecoterrorism. Already, bombs are a huge weapon in their arsenals.[xxvii] All they would have to do is decide to place it in a lab or public area during a peak traffic hour instead of after-hours as they traditionally have done.[xxviii] It will be interesting to see what the FBI would do in such a scenario: would they adapt Operation Backfire? Would they allow the Counterterrorism Division to handle ecoterrorism the same way it handles international terrorism? While the FBI assures the public that there is a firm grasp on ecoterrorism, one cannot get too comfortable because comfort can equal danger.

* Fabiola Galguera is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. She can be reached at


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i] Christopher Wray, Keeping America Secure in the New Age of Terror, FBI (Nov. 30, 2017),

[ii] Creation of the Department of Homeland Security, Dep’t of Homeland Sec. (Sept. 24, 2015),

[iii] Global Terrorism Index 2017, Institute for Econ. & Peace (2017),

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Eco-Terrorism and Lawlessness on The National Forests: Hearing Before the Subcomm. On Forests and Forest Health of the H. Comm. on Resources, 107th Cong. 48 (2002) (statement of James F. Jarboe, Domestic Terrorism Section Chief, Federal Bureau of Investigation).

[vii] Animal Rights: Activism v. Cruelty: Hearing Before the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 108th Cong. 2 (2004) (statement of John E. Lewis, Deputy Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation).

[viii] James F. Jarboe, Before the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, FBI (Feb. 12, 2002),

[ix] 18 U.S.C. § 2331(5)(A-C).

[x] Global Terrorism Database Codebook, Nat’l Consortium for the Study of Terrorism & Responses to Terrorism (June 2017).

[xi] Jennifer Varriale Carson , Gary LaFree & Laura Dugan, Terrorist and Non-Terrorist Criminal Attacks by
Radical Environmental and Animal Rights Groups in the United States, 1970–2007
, 24  Terrorism & Pol. Violence 295 (2012).

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Eco-Terrorism and Lawlessness on The National Forests, supra note 4.

[xiv] Carson, LaFree & Dugan, supra note 8.

[xv] Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler and Cas Mudde, Ecoterrorism: Threat or Political Ploy?, The Washington Post (Dec. 19, 2014),

[xvi] Carson, LaFree & Dugan, supra note 8.

[xvii] Deborah Serani, If It Bleeds, It Leads: Understanding Fear-Based Media, Psychology Today (Jun. 7, 2011),

[xviii] Maria Konnikova, The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You, The New Yorker (Jan. 21, 2014),

[xix] See Mary Dejevsky, Eco-terrorists burn ski resort, The Indep. (Oct. 22, 1998),

[xx] Operation Backfire, Help Find Four Eco-Terrorists, Fed. Bureau of Investigation (Nov. 19, 2008),

[xxi] Putting Intel to Work Against ELF and ALF Terrorists, FBI (Jun. 3, 2008),

[xxii] Nick Deshpande & Howard Ernst, Countering Eco-Terrorism in the United States: The Case of ‘Operation Backfire’, Nat’l. Consortium for the Study of Terrorism & Responses to Terrorism 15 (Sept. 2012).

[xxiii] Id. at 21-23.

[xxiv] Operation Backfire, Help Find Four Eco-Terrorists, supra note 16.

[xxv] North American ELF Press Office Has Returned, Animal Liberation,

[xxvi] Eco–Terrorism Specifically Examining Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (‘‘SHAC’’): Hearing Before the Comm. Env. & Pub. Works, 109th Cong. 25-26 (2005) (Statement of Jerry Vlasak, M.D., Press Officer, North American Animal Liberation Press Office).

[xxvii] Hirsch-Hoefler, supra note 13.

[xxviii] Id.

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