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The Earth Liberation Front as the Domestic Terrorist Organization

Domestic terrorist organizations have been recognized as a threat for the past hundred years, yet, recently, a change in their strategies has been observed. Nowadays, members of such groups choose to act more clandestinely and often do not commit murder to prove their point, instead, they turn to arson, damaging property and causing sabotage. One of the examples of these organizations is the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which was classified as a domestic terrorist organization by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2001. This group’s activities were characterized as eco-terrorism, which is different from a typical understanding of a terrorist organization and presents an interesting topic for academic research. The purpose of this essay is to analyze the ELF’s history, structure, and actions, to fully understand the rationale behind their decisions.

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Literature Review

With the rise of the environmental movement in the past few decades, some individuals have become radicalized in their views and have espoused extreme measures to make their message heard. According to Yang and Jen (2017), “instead of targeting human lives, eco-terrorist groups often aim their efforts at entities such as logging companies, factories, research facilities, and fur companies” (p. 1106). The ELF was one of the first and most effective organizations that followed the strategy of inflicting damage to such entities. According to DeLeeuw and Pridemore (2018), “at one point, the ELF was identified as the number one domestic terrorist threat in the United States by leaders of the FBI.” (p. 27). This demonstrates the scale at which this organization operated and the power it had during its active years. Moreover, the organization was “highly decentralized, lacking both an organizational hierarchy and any official membership roster.” (Bose, 2018, p. 151). This ensured that the members remained difficult to be tracked down by the authorities and unpredictable in their actions.

The History of the Organization

The Earth Liberation Front was established in the U.K. in 1992 by the members of another environmental group called “Earth First!” in order to create an organization that would engage in overt operations of sabotage. In the United States, the representatives of the organization appeared soon after its creation, there was even a press office that distributed the group’s materials. As it was mentioned before, the organization did not harm civilians and instead chose to commit criminal acts against businesses, factories, and other establishments that, according to the activists, harmed the environment. Due to the fact that the Earth Liberation Front was devoid of any major organizational structure and was decentralized, individual cells of like-minded acted as the members of the organization and were mostly self-funded. Since there were many different members in the organization, their views and ideologies differed, but the most common of them were anarchism and environmentalism.

Narratives of Activities

During the years of its prominence, the organization committed a large number of eco-terrorism acts that caused considerable damage, their decisions were always motivated. For example, in 1996, the group burned down a ski resort in Colorado (Martinez, 2003). The official message of the organization stated that the expansion of the resort would lead to the loss of habitat for lynx. In 2001, the ELF members set fire to the Center of Urban Horticulture in Seattle, Washington. They believed that the organization was engaged in genetic engineering, the perpetrators had to pay $6,092,649 in damages (The Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2012). Thus, it can be concluded that the decisions behind the actions of the organization were always justified by their desire to protect the wildlife, environment and to limit research in the area of genetic modification.

The reason why it is classified as the domestic terrorist organization

Following the major terrorist acts committed by the organization in the late 1990s and 2000-2001, the authorities were concerned about the various scenarios of further developments. As a result, in 2001, the FBI classified the ELF as a domestic terrorist organization, that at that point, committed more than 600 criminal acts (Jarboe, 2002). Taking into consideration the damage the Earth Liberation Front inflicted upon its victims and the consistency with which the group performed its actions, their activity could not be left unnoticed. Eventually, many prominent leaders of the organization were imprisoned, including Daniel McGowan, who is still considered a “domestic terrorist.”


The expansion of the environmental movement gave rise to radical elements within it, including domestic eco-terrorist organizations, which pursued the strategy of damaging the property of the entities that allegedly contributed to the environment’s deterioration. The Earth Liberation Front, established in the UK, came to prominence in the 1990s as the biggest eco-terrorist group, which at one point became the number one domestic terrorist threat, according to the FBI. It did not have a hierarchical structure and was mostly self-funded, which enabled its members to form small groups and be extremely effective in committing terrorist acts, being hard to track down. They employed arson as their primary tool and damaged property worth millions of dollars, for example, a ski resort in Colorado. The organization acted in the name of animal rights and environmental protection, thus, hoping that their victims would stop further operations. Nevertheless, the terrorist acts of the organization were not unnoticed, and soon it was classified as a domestic terrorist organization by the FBI, while many of its prominent members were incarcerated.


Bose, F. (2018) The green marketplace: Applying a model of church and sect to the environmental movement. Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 12(2), 131-155. Web.

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DeLeeuw, J. G., & Pridemore, W. A. (2018) The threat from within: A conjunctive analysis of domestic terrorism incidents in the United States, United Kingdom, and Ireland. Perspectives on Terrorism, 12(4), 26-54. Web.

Jarboe, J.J. (2002). The Threat of Eco-Terrorism. Web.

Martinez, M. (2003). Hummers latest target for eco-terrorists’. The Chicago Tribune. Web.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2012). Oakland woman sentenced for role in 2001 arson at UW center for urban horticulture. Web.

Yang, S. M., & Jen, I. C. (2017). An evaluation of displacement and diffusion effects on eco-terrorist activities after police interventions. Journal of Quantitative Criminology. 2(4), 1103-1123. Web.

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