This week in terrorism history: Oct. 10-16

An Oregon lumber company’s offices burn after an ELF arson attack.

Sometimes when I’m teaching my terrorism course the stars align to provide a historical example that is directly relevant to what I’m covering this week in the classroom. This is one of those occasions.

This week we’re talking about the connections between terrorist organizations and political parties and/or non-violent political movements. Such ties, whether formal or informal, are more common than you might think, including here in the United States.

In an article originally published in 1991, political scientist Leonard Weinberg argues that terrorism and terrorist groups emerge in situations when an alienated and highly motivated elite confronts the indifference of the population they hope to lead in challenging those in power. In short, terrorism can emerge from the failure of non-violent politics to produce a desired change in the status quo.

This is key to understanding why terrorism is so common to democratic societies. The political scientist Ted Gurr argued that campaigns of terrorism in democracies grow out of larger political conflicts, and that they reflect the political beliefs and aspirations circulating within a larger society. Under these circumstances, some may lose patience with conventional politics and look for new tactics that will have greater impact. This, Gurr argues, may include experimenting with terrorism.

Given this, how do links between political parties and terrorist groups happen? Weinberg argues there are several common patterns:

  • A party deliberately forms a violent subsidiary to pursue its goals by terrorist means.
  • A terrorist group promotes the formation of a political party to pursue its goals above ground.
  • Factional split, where some segment of a party, dissatisfied with the direction leadership is taking it, breaks away to pursue its goals independently through violence.
  • Strategic shift, where a violent group concludes its operations and reconstitutes itself as a political party participating in normal electoral politics.
  • Origins in a shared political movement, where some of the movement’s followers favor legal, political-party means to achieve their goals while others, who doubt the efficacy of this approach, choose the terrorist alternative.

It is this later kind of group that is our focus this week. The Earth Liberation Front grew out of the radical Earth First! environmental movement in Great Britain in the early 1990s. As sociologist Paul Joosse explains in a 2007 article in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, ELF emerged out of a burgeoning ideological cleavage within Earth First!, with those who would become ELF committed to advancing the cause of radical environmentalism through “direct action.”

There is a terrific 2011 documentary which tells the story of an Earth Liberation Front activist in the Pacific Northwest and his pathway into and back out of violent radical environmentalism. I’ll be showing it to my students this evening, and you can watch it by clicking on the link below.

Now on to this week’s look back at the recent history of terrorism in the United States.

  • Oct. 11, 1998 – Rock Springs, Wyo.: In a joint operation, seven members of the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation front free horses and attempt to burn down the federal Bureau of Land Management wild horse corral in Rock Springs. The perpetrators placed incendiary devices near buildings and vehicles, specifically targeting a truck used to transport horses, but while the devices were being planted, one of the perpetrators prematurely opened one of the gates, and the horses started running loose, at which point, the group aborted the plan, and left behind sponges, gas cans, buckets of fuel, and some timing devices before fleeing the scene.┬áThe perpetrators were part of a group which called themselves “The Family,” which was responsible for some 20 cases of arson and eco-sabotage over the six year period.

“Milanos’ bayonet”

(Credit: Clifford Harper)

How terrorism is justified, in three quotes:

The situation with the environment is not getting better, it’s getting worse. I’m not suggesting that the path of destruction and destroying everything, is the right path. But I didn’t know what to do. When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and no one hears you, then what the hell are you supposed to say? What are you supposed to do?

Daniel McGowan, Earth Liberation Front, 2007

I never saw a reason for mass protest or wearing uniforms marching around provoking people with swastikas etc. I was and am a man of action you cannot change minds protesting like that. however you can make change with a little focused violence.

Christopher Hasson, U.S. Coast Guard, 2019

The time for words has ended. The time for podcasts has ended. The time for talk has ended. If you’re wasting your time simply thinking there’s going to be a movementarian approach to the coming problems, you think that podcasts are the solution they’re not. If you think talking is a solution, it is not. If you think politics is a solution, you are a damn fool. … The system does not want a peaceful solution, the system has prevented a peaceful solution at every possible turn. It is the system that is fomenting violent revolution, not us, and they shall now reap what they have sown.

Patrik Mathews, The Base, 2020

Three examples of the logic that underpins the decision that terrorists and would be terrorists make to reject normal politics and turn to violence to advance their cause. Organizing does not work. Protest does not work. Politics does not work.

What is left is violence. Thus, as the Italian socialist and revolutionary Carlo Pisacane wrote in 1857:

The propaganda of the idea is a chimera; the education of the people is nonsense. Ideas result from deeds, and not the latter from the former; it is not the case that the people will be free once it is educated, rather it will be educated once it is free. The only work a citizen can undertake to benefit his country is to contribute to the material revolution: conspiracies, plots, insurrectional attempts, etc. … The flash of Milano’s bayonet was a more effective propaganda than a thousand volumes written by doctrinaires.