Most SIgnificant Terror Threat to the United States

Since 1976, environmental terrorists within the United States have carried out over one thousand criminal acts and caused over one hundred and ten million dollars worth of damage.  But the image of environmental activists as dangerous, even violent criminals is still jarring to the average American.  We do not tend to think of environmental activism as being in the same category as other types of “terrorists” – including militias, jihadists or nationalist activists throughout the world.  However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines environmental terrorism (or ecoterrorism) as the most significant domestic terror threat facing the United States today.    And this threat is seen to have increased significantly in the past twenty years in terms of the types of acts committed, their potential for deadly violence and the numbers of individuals involved in committing these acts or aiding in their commission through providing financial support. Photo: 2007 "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act Protest" New York City, New York, United States.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluecinema/2098986319/

Defining Environmental Terrorism

Ecoterrorism or environmental terrorism refers to a variant of pro-environmental activism in which unconventional methods are used to reach specific , explicitly defined radical political and economic goals.  Most groups aim at halting development in both the literal and the figurative sense  – opposing both the physical development of infrastructure in formerly pristine areas of the landscape, and the development of new drugs, medical treatments and agricultural products, either because of the methodologies used in their creation or because of the possibility of their causing unknown side effects in the future.  This opposition to development in a broad sense could be characterized as left-wing.  Within the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation 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. 

The Term Eco-Terror

The term itself is of recent provenance, with the first recorded use in government documents not actually appearing until 2001 – when the United States Patriot Act created a federal crime of “domestic terrorism” – applied to both US citizens and aliens.   Some credit Ron Arnold, Executive Director of the libertarian-oriented Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, with coining the term eco-terror. The federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), introduced in 2003,  defines an animal or ecological terrorist act as

“two or more persons with the primary or incidental purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity . . . intended to obstruct, impede or deter any person from participating in a lawful animal activity."

Use of Term Controversial

Even now, the use of the term is somewhat controversial since the decision to label a group or individual as ‘terrorist’ is never value-free.  Today, many environmental activists within the United States reject the label of ecoterrorism, arguing that branding an environmental group as ‘terrorist’ can delegitimize the group, its existence and their actions.  In addition, it can undermine their basis of support – since legitimate groups might then not wish to risk their own reputations through working with a ‘terrorist’ group.  For example, in 1986, Democratic Representative Pat Williams of Montana announced that he would not work with the activist group Earth First as long as they continued to engage in tree-spiking.


Critics of the term ‘Ecoterror’ also point to a process by which the term “terrorism” has been applied by government and law enforcement personnel to describe an ever increasing variety of subjects.  Although terrorism was originally seen only as a military or defense-related problem in which groups or governments used military weapons outside of traditionally understood rules of war, the term has increasingly come to be utilized in a variety of new situations – giving birth to such terms as bioterrorism, narcoterrorism and environmental terrorism. 

Goals the Same as Other Terrorist Organizations

However, the decision by federal law enforcement officials to broaden the existing definition of terrorism and to include environmental activists in that group rests on two premises:  First, the goals of domestic terrorists are the same as international terrorists – to threaten a  legitimately elected government, through causing domestic unrest and threaten the peaceful orderliness of society.  Using this logic, one can then apply the ‘terrorist’ term both to those involving in planning and implementing attacks on United States government infrastructure (such as a scientific or biomedical research facility) as well as those directly involved in homicide.  As one American government official stated, “a string of arsons is not activism” nor is vandalism a legitimate form of activism.  Secondly, the means utilized by domestic terrorists are seen as similar to those used by international terrorists.  Both groups target unarmed civilians as well as those in the military, and both may carry out violent attacks in the absence of a declaration of war. 

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