'There is a Use for Violence in Our Movement'

By Aaron Mannes

With the recent bombings in London, most concerns about terrorist strikes on the US focus on the jihadist movement. But the next major terrorist strike in the US could come from an unexpected direction -- the extremist animal rights and environmental movements.

According to FBI Deputy Assistant Director John Lewis, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are "one of today's most serious domestic terrorism threats." Skeptics, including The New York Times editorial page, argue that this threat is over hyped as these groups have confined themselves to property crime, unlike the well-established record of deadly right-wing terrorism. But waiting for terrorist groups to turn to murder is pre-9/11 thinking and the growing violence and sophistication of ALF and ELF are worrisome.

The FBI's Lewis testified to the Senate:

"Attacks are also growing in frequency and size. Harassing phone calls and vandalism now co-exist with improvised explosive devices and personal threats to employees. Extremists of these movements adhere to strict security measures in both their communications and their operations."

The membership is well educated with many graduate students in their ranks. ALF and ELF are a non-hierarchical group with self-forming autonomous cells that are in one-way contact with the "press offices." The press offices provide ideological and practical guidance and participate in conferences where members can be recruited and trained. Cells, in turn, report actions to the press offices by anonymous e-mail. Closing the press offices has limited utility, since it is easy to start another website while breaking up a cell has minimal impact on the movement as a whole. These are not the operations of amateur coffeehouse revolutionaries, but of a sophisticated underground network of dedicated members.

Equally troubling, the internal rhetoric of the movement is shifting. Traditionally ALF freed lab and farm animals, insisting that they would never purposefully harm a human. But affiliated groups in Europe have beaten opponents, and Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn's assassin was an animal rights activist. At an August 2003 Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles, an ALF spokesman, Dr. Jerry Vlasak, stated:

"I think there is a use for violence in our movement. And I think it can be an effective strategy. Not only is it morally acceptable. I don't think you'd have to kill -- assassinate -- too many vivisectors before you would see a marked decrease in the amount of vivisection going on."

When an audience member stated that this was the same as the pro-life movement killing abortionists, Vlasak responded, "Absolutely, I think they've had a great strategy going."

The ALF and ELF worldview is also expanding. Their rhetoric (which can be read on a number of websites including www.animalliberationfront.com) has become infused with Marxist and anarchist ideology, criticizing the familiar litany of globalization, American imperialism and capitalism. In March 2003, just before the Iraq war, ELF ideologue Craig Rosebraugh called for, "strategies and tactics which severely disrupt the war machine, the U.S. economy, and the overall functioning of U.S. society." In his book, The Logic of Political Violence, Rosebraugh wrote: "[R]evolution in the United States cannot be successful without the implementation of violence." Transferring ALF's and ELF's enemies from particular industries and companies to society as a whole could inspire larger scale terrorist attacks.

ALF and ELF could also link with international terrorists as they have affiliates in Europe and connections to the radical left internationally. Daniel Andreas San Diego (who is on the FBI's most wanted list for a series of attempted 2003 bombings of animal research facilities) demonstrated this kinship when he sent an e-mail claiming credit for the bombings that ended with a salute to international terrorists, including the Real IRA, Columbia's FARC and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (which is closely linked with the Islamist terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah). Such links would increase ELF and ALF capabilities and radicalism and could lead to Americans being recruited to international terrorist groups.

Domestic terrorism from the right has been far more deadly than domestic terrorism from the left and law enforcement has responded appropriately. Rightwing extremist groups are monitored and infiltrated. But ALF and ELF have been less vulnerable to law enforcement countermeasures, consequently they are more likely to undertake a major operation successfully. Downplaying the threat of ALF and ELF by arguing that these groups have not yet perpetrated Oklahoma City type attacks ignores the seminal lesson of 9/11. These groups need to be stopped before they turn to large-scale violence.

Aaron Mannes, the author of the TerrorBlog and Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations (Rowman & Littlefield - JINSA Press), researches terrorism networks for the Semantic Web Agents Group at the Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Maryland. Opinions expressed here are his own.