From Whaling Ships to the Unabomber’s Cabin: The Changing Threat of Eco-terrorism

From Whaling Ships to the Unabomber’s Cabin: The Changing Threat of Eco-terrorism

by Matt Collins

Always at the edge of American culture, eco-terrorism has evolved alongside environmental activism, leaving a complex legacy.

From Greenpeace’s legal interventions against whaling vessels—and the serious impact they’ve had in changing the whaling industry—to more radical organizations like the Earth Liberation Front, the history of conservationism has shaped a complicated dynamic with the American public–and a dangerous relationship with law enforcement.

Members of the Animal Liberation Front with some adorable beagles

Members of the Animal Liberation Front (Image courtesy of Diggit Magazine)

This is, in part, due to a recent uptick in acts of lone-wolf eco-terrorism. After practically dying out in the wake of 9/11, these attacks have once again entered the American sociopolitical landscape. So today, we’re taking a closer look at this unique threat—and evaluating how an eco-terrorist attack could potentially impact you and your family.

But for that, we’ll have to go back to the beginning…

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Greenpeace: Taking Environmentalism to the Brink of Eco-terrorism

  • 02

    Enter the Animal Liberation Front

  • 03

    Ted Kaczynski and the Dark Path of Technological Resistance

  • 04

    Eco-terrorism Evolves with the Earth Liberation Front

  • 05

    9/11 and the Decline of Eco-terrorism

  • 06

    Gearing up for Eco-terrorist Attacks

  • 07

    Hippie Hype or Serious Threat?

  • 08

    Frequently Asked Questions

Greenpeace: Taking Environmentalism to the Brink of Eco-terrorism

Greenpeace was founded in 1971 by a group of activists in Vancouver, Canada.

Its stated mission is to protect the planet's biodiversity, prevent environmental degradation, and promote peace. In terms of real-world actions though, they’re best known for putting their own ships between whales and whalers—often at the risk of health and property.

Despite their reputation for ramming vessels into whaling ships, it is essential to note that Greenpeace’s actions do not fit the traditional definition of eco-terrorism.

Granted, their interventions are extreme, but Greenpeace would argue that these methods are commensurate with the severity of the problem.

You see, back in the 1970s, when Greenpeace launched its iconic "Save the Whales" campaign, commercial whaling had brought some species to the brink of extinction. As such, activists’ efforts included confronting whaling vessels at sea, documenting the killing of whales, and mobilizing public support. These actions ended up playing a significant role in raising global awareness about the plight of whales, ultimately leading to an international ban on commercial whaling in 1986.

Greenpeace members posing with Save the Whales banner

(Image courtesy of Greenpeace)

Greenpeace has also been actively involved in campaigns against nuclear weapons testing and the nuclear power industry. Alongside their anti-whaling endeavors in the 1970s and 1980s, they conducted protests and occupations at nuclear testing sites and nuclear power plants, bringing attention to the risks associated with nuclear technology.

While these tactics have, on the whole, been much more peaceful and law-abiding than established eco-terrorist groups, they have not been without controversy.

Some critics, for example, argue that the organization crosses a line in their actions, while others believe that their campaigns prioritize sensationalism over practical solutions. In particular, Greenpace has faced criticism for boarding oil rigs and interfering with fishing operations.

These actions, perceived by some to be endangering lives and undermining legal processes, have led to the arrest and detention of crew members in various countries. Consequently, lengthy legal battles have ensued, shedding light on the limits of activism, freedom of expression, and the balance between protest rights and national laws.

In spite of these legal woes, however, Greenpeace remains open to collaboration with authorities, including governments, scientific institutions, and other environmental organizations.

As a result, the organization has secured many environmental victories, such as the creation of marine protected areas, the phase-out of harmful chemicals, and the push for renewable energy adoption.

In recent years, Greenpeace has adapted its strategies to address emerging environmental concerns, including climate change, deforestation, and plastic pollution. The organization continues to push for systemic change, urging governments and corporations to adopt sustainable practices and prioritize environmental protection.

In the end, many are left feeling that Greenpeace takes things too far, while others believe that Greenpeace isn’t taking things far enough.

Enter the Animal Liberation Front

Emerging in the 1970s, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) is an underground, decentralized, and radical animal rights organization. Over the years, it's gained notoriety for its acts of sabotage, economic disruption, and property damage.

In a nutshell, ALF advocates believe that animals have inherent rights and should be free from human exploitation. Rejecting mainstream advocacy methods, they embrace a more militant approach, engaging in illegal activities to liberate animals and disrupt industries involved in animal testing, fur farming, and factory farming.

ALF members with recently “liberated” beagles

ALF members with recently “liberated” beagles (Image courtesy of Timeline)

Like many eco-terrorist organizations, ALF focuses on economic sabotage, property destruction, and freeing animals from captivity. Members engage in actions such as arson attacks, vandalism, and theft of animals from facilities. Their primary objective is to inflict financial damage on industries and organizations deemed responsible for animal cruelty while directly rescuing animals.

As such, ALF has frequently been involved in raids on fur farms, aiming to free animals and disrupt the fur industry. In one such raid, they released thousands of minks from fur farms, causing significant financial losses to the industry and drawing attention to the ethical concerns surrounding fur production.

ALF has also targeted animal testing laboratories to rescue animals and disrupt experimentation. This includes vandalizing equipment, destroying research data, and releasing animals to halt what they view as cruel and unnecessary scientific practices.

In many ways, ALF provided the blueprint for other eco-terrorist networks, as they established a rudimentary organizational structure that future groups would go on to replicate. This structure consists of small groups or individuals known as "cells'' who are empowered to carry out actions independently. By operating in this manner, they add a level of secrecy and minimize the risk of infiltration by law enforcement agencies. Plus, communication is often conducted through anonymous channels, making it difficult for authorities to track and apprehend individuals associated with the group.

While ALF's core philosophy remains consistent, some factions have embraced more extreme tactics, including acts of violence and intimidation.

This ideological diversity has generated debate within the animal rights community, with mainstream organizations often distancing themselves from ALF's more radical actions.

Animal Liberation Front flag

The cutest terrorist organization logo that you ever did see (Image courtesy of IWMC)

These organizations argue that the group's use of illegal methods undermines the legitimacy of animal rights causes and stifles productive dialogue. As such, they advocate for an alternative approach consisting of peaceful protests, legal advocacy, and collaboration to affect positive change.

It is worth acknowledging, however, that while ALF's tactics can be questioned on ethical grounds, their ability to evade law enforcement is beyond doubt. After all, they–unlike some of their peers, such as the Earth Liberation Front–have never been directly targeted by a significant law enforcement effort.

Plus, ALF's direct action tactics have undeniably drawn attention to animal rights issues, challenging societal norms and forcing discussions on the ethical treatment of animals. This means that their actions, though controversial, have nevertheless influenced public discourse, industry practices, and government regulations concerning animal welfare.

Regardless, the long-term impact of their activities remains subject to debate, with the effectiveness of illegal actions in achieving lasting change remaining a contentious issue.

Ted Kaczynski and the Dark Path of Technological Resistance

Born Theodore John Kaczynski, the "Unabomber" gained infamy as one of the most notorious domestic terrorists in American history—all driven by his unique perspective on the society around him.

Kaczynski demonstrated exceptional intelligence from an early age, securing a scholarship to Harvard University at age sixteen. Building upon his academic achievements, he excelled in the field of mathematics, ultimately earning a PhD from the University of Michigan and becoming the youngest professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

But in 1971, Kaczynski abruptly left academia and retreated to a remote cabin in Montana. There, he developed a deep-seated resentment for technological advancements and the perceived erosion of personal freedom. And with his continued isolation from society, these feelings only intensified.

This led Kaczynski to carry out a series of mail bombings targeting individuals associated with technology and modernization.

His attacks, committed between the years of 1978 and 1995, killed three people and injured many others. In the final year of this rampage, Kaczynski’s boldness reached its apex, culminating in the eco-terrorist sending a 35,000-word manifesto, "Industrial Society and Its Future," to major media outlets. In it, he outlined his anti-technology ideology and motivations, advocating for a return to a primitive and decentralized society.

The infamous Unabomber Sketch

The infamous Unabomber Sketch (Image courtesy of Pacific Standard)

Amid widespread fear and panic, the FBI launched an intensive investigation known as "UNABOM” in 1979, making it one of the most extensive manhunts in U.S. history. However, in spite of their efforts–including a forensic linguistic analysis of the manifesto–the Unabomber managed to evade identification for a period of seventeen years, leaving authorities with nothing more than an infamous police sketch depicting a villain wearing sunglasses.

He would not be caught until 1996, when Kaczynski's brother recognized his writing style and reported him to authorities.

The evidence seized from his Montana cabin, including bomb components, journals, and his manifesto, provided damning proof of his involvement in the Unabomber attacks. As such, in 1998, he pleaded guilty to all charges to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

And while Kaczynski wasn't an eco-terrorist in the same sense as members of the ELF, he ignited a similar level of introspection among the American public. Following the release of his manifesto, for example, his ideology became a hot topic of conversation, prompting water cooler debates about the ethics of technological advancement, industrialization, and the potential consequences of a society heavily reliant on technology.

With time, the general consensus became clear: Kaczynski’s methods, of course, were deplorable, but his ideas raised valid concerns about rapid technological progress's environmental and social costs.

In the end, his case serves as a chilling reminder of the potential dangers when extreme ideologies converge with acts of violence.

Eco-terrorism Evolves with the Earth Liberation Front

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is a loosely organized, radical environmental extremist group that entered the spotlight in the 1990s.

Though it eventually gained notoriety for its acts of sabotage, property destruction, and arson in the name of ecological preservation, ELF first emerged in the United States as an offshoot of the environmental activist group Earth First!

Its members shared a deep concern for the environment, believing that the existing environmental movement wasn’t going far enough to protect Mother Nature.

As such, ELF's radical ideology emphasized direct action and even industrial sabotage to halt what they perceived as the destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems. Their goal was to inflict financial damage on these organizations by making operations more and more expensive—limiting their environmental exploitation.

A documented ELF arson attack

A documented ELF arson attack (Image courtesy of PBS)

Accordingly, ELF members committed acts such as arson, firebombings, vandalism, and property destruction. Their targets were the facilities and businesses most directly linked with environmental exploitation, such as logging companies, research facilities, genetic engineering labs, and developments encroaching upon natural areas.

One of ELF's most notorious and costly attacks came in 1998. This act of destruction targeted Vail Mountain, a posh ski resort that was planning an expansion into an endangered lynx habitat.

Ultimately, the fires cost $12 million in damages, with ELF publicly claiming responsibility soon after.

Three years later, in 2001, they struck again–this time at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture. Claiming the attack was retaliation for the university's participation in genetic engineering research, ELF's firebombs caused extensive damage to the property (estimated at $7 million).

Following the University of Washington attack, the FBI launched "Operation Backfire" to dismantle the ELF and its affiliated groups. In stark contrast to investigations of the ALF, the operation led to several arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of key figures involved in ELF activities. Most notable among these arrests were that of William C. Rodgers and Stanislas Meyerhoff, who provided law enforcement with massive amounts of intelligence on the group's inner workings.

The FBI wasn’t alone in its resolve, either. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the US government writ large intensified its focus on domestic extremist groups across the board–and that included eco-terrorists.

9/11 and the Decline of Eco-terrorism

The terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001 profoundly reshaped the global security landscape.

At once, law enforcement and government intelligence agencies became hyper-focused on acts of terrorism and their potentially devastating consequences.

And while eco-terrorism typically involves lower-stakes attacks against facilities and property, it's still terrorism–though it is crucial to note here that not all acts of environmental extremism can be classified as eco-terrorism, as the term explicitly denotes the use of violence or threats.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Washington cleared the way for widespread counterterrorism efforts thanks to new laws like the PATRIOT Act—which granted unprecedented freedom for monitoring and tracking known terrorist threats.

George W. Bush gleefully signing the PATRIOT Act into law, surrounded by supporters

George W. Bush gleefully signing the PATRIOT Act into law (Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica)

Due to this increased government attention–as well as internal conflict–ELF's activities dwindled after 9/11.

Notably, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) also experienced a decline in activity after 9/11. While the group continued to exist, its operations targeting animal testing facilities, fur farms, and research laboratories became less frequent, likely influenced by the changing landscape of counterterrorism efforts.

But while larger organizations struggled under the increased scrutiny of post-9/11 America, lone-wolf activists flourished. These individuals, not directly affiliated with any particular group, often targeted corporate or government targets that were symbolic of environmental degradation.

One notable example of eco-terrorism after 9/11 is the case of Daniel McGowan, a former member of the Earth Liberation Front, who was arrested in 2005 and later convicted for involvement in ELF-related arsons.

Eco-terrorist Daniel McGowan

Eco-terrorist Daniel McGowan (Image courtesy of Eugene Weekly)

What McGowan’s case demonstrates is that–in spite of the decrease in the number of eco-terrorist incidents–the underlying ideological motivations remain, and the potential for future acts of violence is ever-present.

It is also important to note that the Internet and social media platforms have become conduits for the radicalization and spreading of extremist ideologies, posing challenges for law enforcement agencies in monitoring and countering potential threats.

Gearing up for Eco-terrorist Attacks

Even though eco-terrorists don't target civilian populations in the same way that conventional extremists do, their actions can still seriously threaten your wellbeing. As such, it would be prudent to prepare for a potential eco-terrorist attack like you would for any terrorist attack—with a full-face respirator/gas mask.

In this case, the CM-7M is a top choice. Using NATO standard 40mm filter cartridges, It will protect you from the full range of chemical, biological, and even nuclear threats.

The CM-7M is distinguished by its dual eyepiece configuration, which optimizes the mask for use with rifles, scopes, optics and night vision gear. This provides a severe advantage while retaining most of your field of view. Note that the CM-7M is also available in three different sizes, so you can get a perfect fit for every family member.

Of course, you'll need a filter for your gas mask, and our top recommendation in this instance is the P-3 Particlemax filter.

Due to the profile and history of eco-terrorist attacks, radical conservationists seem far more likely to unleash a biological threat than chemical or nuclear weapons. With this in mind, the most cost-effective solution will be the Particlemax. Each package contains six lightweight filters, and recent NIOSH/CDC guidelines allow for the reuse of these filters to extend their life.

Granted, you'll still want an NBC-77 SOF gas mask filter as more of a "one size fits all" solution. Able to last up to twenty years in storage, the NBC-77 SOF will protect you from every CBRN threat on the list.

Finally, there's the FirstBreed Collapsible Animal Ark–because only God knows what these people have in mind for your pets.

The Animal Ark works as a positive pressure system with an MB-90 PAPR to protect small pets from CBRN threats. Filtering air with the same 40mm filters your own mask uses, the Ark is built from a rugged laminate that can last up to six hours in direct contact with blister agents.

So if you're looking to protect your own pet from eco-terrorist attacks, wildfires, and other threats, the Animal Ark is the only choice.

Hippie Hype or Serious Threat?

Eco-terrorism has long occupied a unique space in American culture (the country in which most eco-terrorist organizations either originated or focused their attacks).

On the one hand, many Americans sympathize with environmentalist concerns. Plenty of people, after all, are frustrated with the onslaught of stories we hear about animal abuse and environmental destruction–alongside a seeming total lack of concern on behalf of the government. As a result, it's not uncommon to hear someone tell you that Ted Kaczynski was right.

At the same time, Kaczynski was a murderer. From the safety of his cabin, he killed three human beings and was rightfully punished by law enforcement for his actions.

And while organizations like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) often target industrial fur farms, they're also breaking into laboratories where potentially serious pathogens could be present. Remember that the zombie classic 28 Days Later opens with an eco-terrorist attack on a chimpanzee-testing laboratory that goes horribly wrong, unleashing a plague on the world around it. (Same with the Netflix series, Resident Evil, based on the wildly popular video games.)

Classic opening scene from 28 Days Later (Video courtesy of YouTube)

Obviously, that kind of scenario is unprecedented in the real world. But it nevertheless remains a possible threat, since eco-terrorism involves direct violence against industrial and scientific facilities. That means eco-terrorists could still potentially unleash a biological pathogen or bomb oil drilling facilities to attack the industry's bottom line.

After all, if the history of eco-terrorism has taught us anything, organizations and individuals will rapidly adapt to new situations—and escalate their attacks. Decade after decade, groups like Earth First! have given way to the Earth Liberation Front. And while years of intense law enforcement have largely dismantled eco-terrorist threats, it's impossible to know the next escalation.

Like the story of Ted Kaczynski, the story of eco-terrorism is ultimately one of dangerous ideology… of a road to hell paved by good intentions… and of getting into problems far over one's own head.

So stay safe, and stay aware of practical eco-terrorist threats.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is whaling?
Is a whale a fish?
Where was the Unabomber’s cabin located?
Can I visit the Unabomber’s cabin?