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Whatever Happened to 'Eco-Terrorism'?

The FBI once called radical environmental activists the “number one domestic terror threat,” but crimes of “eco-terrorism” are practically non-existent now.
The Nimbus Dam in Sacramento County, California. (Photo: The Oaked Ridge)

The Nimbus Dam in Sacramento County, California. (Photo: The Oaked Ridge)

An infamous case of “eco-terrorism” came to a very abrupt and unexpected end this month. Eric Taylor McDavid, a radical environmental activist who in 2007 was sentenced to almost 20 years in prison, has just won an early release and gone home. McDavid had been accused of being part of a group conspiring to bomb the Nimbus Dam and several cell phone towers in the Sacramento, California, area.

The prosecution had won a conviction against McDavid despite the fact that its case depended entirely on the testimony of a young, mysterious FBI informant; “Anna” had gradually infiltrated McDavid’s group, and provided both encouragement and funding for the plot. At the time, McDavid’s lawyers argued entrapment. Years later, they argued that the FBI had withheld thousands of pages of documents about this informant that may have helped with McDavid’s defense. A California judge agreed with them, and set McDavid free in the beginning of January.

At the time of his conviction, McDavid’s case was a centerpiece of the federal government’s very vocal campaign against a particular branch of politically motivated crime. Around the late 1990s and the early 2000s, environmental activism groups like the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front began making headlines with audacious acts of protest. Inspired by grander gestures from their European counterparts, some protesters escalated from graffiti and other types of vandalism to actual destruction (if not violence). A small sub-group of the Earth Liberation Front was accused of a series of fires between 1996 and 2001 that destroyed property worth millions.

"My guess is that there was just a core, really just a few members, who were responsible for these more serious arsons, and once they went to jail, that was it."

Donald Liddick, a criminal justice professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of the book Eco-Terrorism: Radical Environmental and Animal Liberation Movements, says that one high-profile crime in particular—the 1998 arson of a ski lodge in Vail, Colorado—may have been the tipping point for law enforcement’s attitude toward these crimes. The FBI soon launched “Operation Backfire” to try to catch the perpetrators, and Congress would hold a series of hearings on the eco-terrorism threat over the following years—in 1998, 2002, and 2005.

After that, Liddick says, “there were some really heavy-duty prosecutions, and it seemed like that pretty much broke the back of Earth Liberation Front in the United States,” although it continued in Europe. Several members of that ELF “cell” are still in jail, and one was just caught two years ago after living over a decade as a fugitive.

On March 23, 2009, the Earth Liberation Front claimed the burning of a backhoe in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. (Photo: Public Domain)

On March 23, 2009, the Earth Liberation Front claimed the burning of a backhoe in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. (Photo: Public Domain)

A working paper published by The Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society last year tallied and graphed the number of “eco-terrorist attacks” in the U.S. and other countries over the past several decades. It showed that the number of attacks rose sharply in 1999, reaching a peak of 163 incidents a year by 2001. After 2003, the frequency declined, and, by 2012, there were next to none. The decline in attacks coincided with the adoption of the PATRIOT Act and a number of other widespread post-9/11 law enforcement policies.

“To those who have studied radical movements, the unprecedented prosecution of environmental activists represents the end of an era,” Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in Rolling Stone in 2006. “Four states have already passed legislation—drafted by a right-wing lobbying group that represents 300 major corporations—that classifies any act of property destruction motivated by environmental beliefs as ‘ecological terrorism.’”

When Grigoriadis wrote that, FBI had recently called radical environmental activists “the number one domestic terrorism threat,” despite the fact that damage was suffered by property, and human casualties were rare. (That description has since been downgraded to “one of the most serious domestic terrorism threats in the U.S. today.”)

Liddick thinks it is possible that the FBI’s concerted law enforcement efforts and the Department of Justice’s harsher sentencing guidelines in the mid-2000s may have succeeded in discouraging activists from future acts of vandalism or arson. Or, more likely, he says, there were fewer incidents after that time period because, for the most part, the really “hard-core” people who had been the organizers of those incidents all got caught.

“My guess is that there was just a core, really just a few members, who were responsible for these more serious arsons,” Liddick says, “and once they went to jail, that was it. There really weren’t a large number of people that committed, in the U.S. at least, to begin with.”

The symbol of Earth First! (Photo: Public Domain)

The symbol of Earth First! (Photo: Public Domain)

In that case, was the government’s harsh stance—and its use of the term “terrorism” in general—over-broad? The two authors of an article published in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism last year think so: they argued that the term “eco-terrorism” should only apply to a very small portion of the environmental and animal rights activism world, and that counterterrorism tactics and mentalities should only come into play in rare instances.

As Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler and Cas Mudde wrote about their research in a recent story in the Washington Post, “despite ongoing radicalization within the movement, the vast majority of ... activists and ‘groups’ are not involved in terrorist acts.” Only a small minority of the activism community ever commits crimes, they argued, and only a small portion of those crimes (they estimated less than 10 percent) could be categorized as “terrorist” acts. The headline of their Post piece asks a question, “Ecoterrorism: Threat or Political Ploy?” that their piece did not—but ultimately did not have to—answer.

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.