Single Issue Terrorism

G. Davidson (Tim) Smith

Winter 1998


Editors Note:

Dr. G. Davidson (Tim) Smith is a counter-terrorism specialist with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. In this issue he examines extremist militancy associated with animal rights, environmentalism and abortion as encountered in North America and the United Kingdom.

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author’s views.


The term “Single Issue Terrorism” is broadly accepted as extremist militancy on the part of groups or individuals protesting a perceived grievance or wrong usually attributed to governmental action or inaction.1 Generally, three principal issues are regarded to fall under that definition: animal rights, environmentalism, and abortion. This paper addresses those issues, with the focus on activities in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.


Legitimate and traditionally moderate organizations such as animal welfare societies have for years achieved notable results on behalf of the causes for which they lobby. But, over the past two decades, some of the more popular issues have attracted radical elements that now form an extremist militant core prepared to resorts to threats, violence and destruction of property to achieve their ends. In the case of the abortion issue, this has included murder.

For the most part, legitimate organizations disown the violent fringe. Some, however—notably in the context of the environmental and abortion issues—actively support the militants, or do so tacitly by failing to condemn extremist activities. At least one “legitimate” activist condoned a sniper’s wounding of a prominent Vancouver gynæcologist in November 1994, calling the incident “good shooting” and musing that it would not have happened had the doctor not been performing abortions.2

There is no archetypal single issue extremist, but some broad characteristics apply. Animal rights activists, environmentalists and abortionists tend to be on the left, politically. The founder of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) in the UK, for example, is a self-confessed anarchist, as is a senior member of a similar group in Canada. The pro-life side of the abortion debate is drawn largely from the right. The abortion issue, however, is complicated by a religious dimension foreign to the animal rights and environmental questions and draws adherents on both sides from across the political spectrum. Extremists associated with any of these issues come from all walks of life and social levels. For a time, participation in civil disobedience and militancy in support of animal rights campaigns was regarded by many young Britons as an exciting and trendy diversion. A large number of animal rights supporters and environmental extremists can be found among idealistic and impatient university students who have become frustrated with the seemingly slow progress of moderate groups and who seek to achieve their goals more rapidly by direct action.

Although functioning essentially domestically, single issue groups are international in scope. Animal rights supporters claim to be active in more than 40 countries and militant environmentalists have carried out actions in a number of different regions. Both movements publish newsletters—Arkangel is the British-based organ of animal-rights supporters and Earth First! is the journal of the radical environmental movement. Each contains a range of information that includes descriptions of recent actions, techniques for conducting mischief, vandalism and sabotage, the addresses of targets—doctors, scientists, research laboratories—and news about incarcerated activists. All three movements use the Internet for publicity and communications purposes. The Militant Vegan, for example, lists Animal Liberation actions in Canada and the United States, with names and locations of targets attacked and tactics employed—all useful for statistical purposes.

A degree of communication takes place among extremist groups within individual issues—not surprising, given the availability of the Net. There are some similarities in terms of group names and operations, such as the Animal Liberation Fronts in Britain and North America, but close linkages among groups are not obvious. Nevertheless, cooperation, affiliation and interlocking memberships do occur. Animal rights supporters and Earth First! activists are known to have integrated working relationships in Canada and the United States.

A number of animal rights extremists are simultaneously members of several different organizations and movements (e.g. Vegans, Feminists, Ecologists) and often pursue their own ideals under the guise of supporting popular causes or legitimate organizations. On one occasion, the Toronto Humane Society was “captured” by a stacked proxy vote, enabling large amounts of money and other resources subsequently to be funnelled to militants.

The extremist fringe of each movement has published some form of handbook or provides Internet instructions on how to engage in mischief, civil disobedience, vandalism, and sabotage—ecotage as it is known in Enviro-speak. Some of the suggestions are extremely dangerous, among them potentially lethal methods of tree-spiking which have caused serious injuries. The instructions, often resembling those found in The Anarchist’s Cookbook, include bomb-making details.

Though the level and scale of single issue-driven terrorism have moderated somewhat over the past two years, certainly in comparison with the turbulent days of the 1980s and early 1990s, the threat has not lessened. Extremist incidents continue to occur, especially associated with animal rights and environmentalism in England and Canada. Currently, abortion remains a volatile issue in the United States, where the first fatal bombing at an abortion clinic occurred on 29 January 1998 in Birmingham, Alabama. The USA has already registered five murders tied to the abortion issue. In Canada, abortion activists are using the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision lifting Canada’s legal restrictions on the practice to focus popular and legislative attention on what is seen as flagging enthusiasm for abortion within the medical profession, although in fact the number of abortions has increased significantly in the past ten years.

Animal Rights

It is necessary to distinguish animal rights groups, who insist animals are on a par with humans and should be at liberty, from the traditional animal welfarists, who believe humans can use animals provided they treat them compassionately. Most animal rights activists do not advocate the use of violence but are not hesitant about resorting to civil disobedience as a means of gaining attention. The movement’s extremist fringe believes that economic sabotage is a valid means to achieve its goal of protecting animals from any harm by humans. To this end, activists use a variety of tactics to inflict economic loss designed to put targeted “offenders” out of business. They have achieved some success. Prohibitive insurance rates, expensive security infrastructure, damaged buildings and equipment, loss of revenue, negative publicity, and destruction of research records representing years of work have forced the closure of many small businesses as well as scientific and commercial research facilities. Activists have boasted they could cause at least $60,000 damage in one week just by smashing windows.3

Probably the best-known extremist group in Europe and North America is the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), founded by Ronnie Lee in England in 1976 and still very active . The ALF appeared in Canada in 1981, with a series of break-ins at several university and medical laboratories involving vandalism, arson and the release of animals; this was followed by attacks on fur stores and meat-packers. First recognized in the United States in 1982, the ALF made the FBI’s domestic terrorism list in 1987 with a multi-million dollar arson at a veterinary lab in California. Similar incidents in Arizona and Texas in 1989 were also classified as domestic terrorism.4

Among other notable groups are the Hunt Retribution Squad (HRS), a particularly vicious group in Britain; the Animal Rights Militia (ARM), an offshoot of the British ALF, with namesakes in North America; and the relatively new Justice Department, which surfaced first in Britain and then in Canada. The Justice Department, although small, has been an especially dangerous organization, claiming responsibility for a number of letterbombs. An alleged support element for the ALF in the United States is a powerful Virginia-based lobby group, particularly adept at attracting prominent supporters and raising large sums of money, called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA has frequently announced ALF actions, providing news releases almost immediately after events have occurred, indicating at least foreknowledge if not some complicity. PETA has established branches in Canada and Europe in recent years.5

Favoured Targets

Research laboratories associated with medical and veterinary schools and clinics, and those which test cosmetics and food products, are favoured targets—animals have been “liberated”, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and records destroyed, and researchers besieged by graffiti and hate mail. Activists in the UK have distributed derogatory leaflets at the school attended by children of a scientist. In Canada, the home of a scientist was vandalized to commemorate World Day for Lab Animals. Other targets include butcher shops, fish markets, meat packing plants, chicken and egg producers, dog kennels, mink and fox farms, furriers, and even fast-food outlets.


Vandalism is the preferred tactic—graffiti spray-painted on buildings, glue poured in door-locks, windows etched with acid or smashed, frequently using slingshot and ball-bearings. Attacks can frequently go beyond that stage – vehicles have been stolen, damaged or burned, tires slashed and fur-bearing animals set free—several thousand expensive mink were released from farms in Western Canada in 1996.6

Another effective tactic with costly results has been the threat of product contamination—targeting meat shops, drugstores, supermarkets or department stores. The ALF in Great Britain initiated the practice in 1984, forcing the closure of a butcher shop because of a threat of contaminated meat. Other costly contamination threats have involved shampoo, candy bars and soft drinks; threats of poisoned turkeys at Christmas time have forced the removal of literally millions of items from stores.7

Similar incidents have occurred in Canada in the name of the Animal Rights Militia. Tens of thousands of Cold Buster candy bars were recalled in 1992 after claims they had been contaminated with oven cleaner.8 Just before Christmas in 1994, over $1 million damage resulted from the threat of poisoned turkeys in Vancouver.9

The activists’ tactical repertoire also includes incendiary techniques and mail bombs. It was a string of firebombs in department stores in England that lead to the arrest of ALF leaders in 1987.10 During the Christmas rush of 1993, the ALF placed nine firebombs in four Chicago department stores.11 A series of letterbombs in Britain in 1994, responsibility for which was claimed by the group known as the Justice Department, injured four persons.12 The following year, a letterbomb was sent to the British Minister of Agriculture, while in Canada a group known as the Militant Direct Action Task Force (MDATF) directed four letterbombs to two white supremacists, a right-wing think-tank which supports the fur industry, and a genetics laboratory.13

In 1989, explosive devices were attached to the automobiles of a British veterinary surgeon and a university researcher. The vet barely escaped from her burning car; the researcher was saved when the bomb fell off his car, but a baby in a nearby carriage was injured.14

A recent variation of the mailbomb technique, claimed by Britain’s Justice Department, featured razor blades allegedly dipped in rat poison or AIDS-infected blood, one of which was mailed to Prince Charles. Similar letters appeared in British Columbia, claimed by a Canadian group using the same name15 and incorporating a diabolical feature: the return address was that of another targeted individual, thus ensuring that if the original recipient refused to accept the letter and returned it to the alleged sender, another animal rights target would be put at risk.

Professionalism is a hallmark of many extremist groups such as the ALF. They are often organized on a cell structure and thus difficult to identify and penetrate, and their security is relatively good, if rudimentary—for instance, members are dissuaded from using telephone communications to avoid tracing and toll information. Activists carefully research each target, often spending days or months photographing and conducting surveillance on the target facility and staff members, lying in perimeter bushes overnight to establish the routines of security patrols. If possible, activists will sign up for a tour of a target facility, recruit inside help or obtain employment in an attempt to gain information and bypass security alarms. Their dress and actions during raids are intended to intimidate—hoods and camouflage jackets, coveralls, breaking and entering in a violent manner using pickaxe handles and other hazardous tools. They make efforts to destroy research material and to gather intelligence on suppliers or supporters of a research facility for purposes of follow-on targeting. Attacks have occasionally been video-taped to assist in obtaining media coverage or to use in conjunction with subsequent threats. They emphasize making every attack count in the knowledge that improved security arrangements will likely follow.

Terror itself is the chief tactic of the animal rights activists. They use violence with the expressed intent of coercing government to act in a certain manner—to enact particular legislation. Their terrorist methodology is to engender fear by threats of poisoned candy or other consumer goods, by obnoxious graffiti, by abusive and threatening telephone calls, by the mailing of letter bombs, and by the destruction of property.

The Environmental and Abortion issues are no less significant in terms of threat.


As many as 2,000 moderate or extremist environmental organizations are estimated to be active in Canada alone. The radical environmental movement comprises a broad spectrum of groups and individuals involved in diverse extremist variations of the environmental issue. While resource exploitation and hydro-electric development are their most frequent targets, activists also oppose the nuclear power industry, chemical manufacturers, industrial polluters, urban sprawl, encroaching (sub)urban development of agricultural lands, and other aspects of the modern industrial state.

Animal rights and anarchist groups have made common cause with environmental extremists and in some cases alliances have been formed with native groups. The latter arrangements have not always been popular, however, especially in regard to fishing and hunting issues. Individuals who support extremist philosophies within the environmental movement, while small in number, have demonstrated the willingness and capability to use violence. The most prominent group is Earth First!, whose followers have consistently advocated and employed sabotage as a tactic to defend the environment.

Formed in 1980, Earth First! began to employ violence in 1984 with the introduction of tree spiking, a dangerous practice hazardous both to loggers using chain-saws and at mills where the spikes can cause saw blades literally to explode, as occurred in 1987 when a millworker was seriously injured. In 1985, one of the founders of Earth First!, Dave Foreman, wrote the ecotage manual: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, which details many of the movement’s sabotage techniques including tree-spiking.16 Another ecotage volume, entitled A Declaration of War, which appeared in North America in 1994, advocated violence, including homicide, against farms, animal research facilities, logging companies and hunters to stop animal and environmental abuses.

Greenpeace is generally credited with being the first environmental group to employ “direct action” in pursuit of its aims. But, impatient with what he considered the slow pace of progress, one of the organization’s founders, Canadian Paul Watson, formed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, with its off-shoot, Orcaforce. Watson and his supporters have been involved in a number of militant actions against whale hunting, driftnet fishing, seal hunting and other related issues. Recently he undertook activities against logging operations in Canada.

Extremist activity has been more prevalent in Canada of late than in the USA or the UK, although the latter has been the scene of growing activism since the holding of the Earth First! summer gathering in Wales in 1996. Scotland Yard’s Special Branch made eco-terrorists a security priority in 1995, partly because of concern that ecological activists resisting new road-building schemes were turning to the violent tactics of the ALF.17 Some construction workers have been injured by trip-wired booby traps, while others have been shot at with crossbows or have encountered Viet Cong-style man-traps filled with pungee stakes; equipment has been damaged or subjected to arson. One “eco-terror” magazine published detailed plans on how to build mortars, firebombs and grenades, and urged the use of buried explosives against the police.18

The FBI attributed an act of domestic terrorism to the ecological movement first in 1987, then again in 1988, in 1989, and in 1990. The 1980s incidents, which involved damage to power poles and ski lift equipment in Arizona and the planned destruction of power lines leading to nuclear facilities in Arizona, Colorado and California, were attributed to the Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy (EMETIC), although Dave Foreman of Earth First! was among those arrested. The 1990 incident—the downing of power lines in Santa Cruz county, California—was claimed by the Earth Night Action Group.19

Moderate environmentalists are active across Canada, but extremists have tended to congregate on the West Coast where the full spectrum of activism has become increasingly militant. Extremists believe direct action is required to disrupt operations or projects that pose an immediate threat to the environment. Fundamental to the philosophy of direct action as espoused by extremists, particularly those of Earth First!, is the determination to do whatever is necessary to disrupt, not merely oppose, any activity they consider detrimental to the environment.

While the broader objective of the militant environmentalists is to draw attention to and sway legislation on behalf of environmental protection, acts of sabotage have a two-fold purpose: to prevent or delay activities, such as logging, from going ahead by destroying equipment and infrastructure, and, akin to animal rights’ tactics, to force companies to reconsider their operations. Repeated repairs to damaged equipment, production delays, higher insurance premiums, increased security requirements, unfavourable publicity, all contribute to a company’s cost of doing business. In 1995, a logging bridge worth over $2 million was destroyed by fire in British Columbia,20 while in November 1997 a blast at an Alberta logging facility destroyed equipment valued at $5 million.

There are close links between Earth First! in Canada and the United States. Most of the group’s actions have been associated with logging operations and have involved destruction of equipment as well as tree spiking. In cross-over actions with animal rights activity, taxidermy shops and hunting outfitters in Western Canada have been subjected to arson attacks and threatening letters, including the razor-blade variety, claimed variously by the Justice Department and a group calling itself The Earth Liberation Army.21 On another occasion, in the name of The David Organization, supposedly noxious chemicals were spilled in government offices and the head office of a logging company.22

Environmental militancy has declined somewhat, in part due to the success of the lobby’s efforts. But logging operations on the West coasts of Canada and the United States, especially clear-cutting, combined with growing fishing and hunting controversies on both Canada’s East and West coasts, will provide motivation for continued extremist response by environmental and animal rights activists and could lead to serious confrontation between them and those who believe their livelihood is being adversely affected.

The Abortion Issue

The abortion issue is an emotional one, particularly in relation to the pro-life movement and, as a result, the agenda is sometimes captured by extremists. Currently, the fact that some of the more extreme right-wing groups include pro-life declarations in their rhetoric has raised serious concerns.

Most people who oppose abortion do so lawfully, consistent with their pro-life philosophy. Some, however, test the limits of freedom of expression and commit criminal acts in support of their cause. According to the National Abortion Foundation, material damages associated with 42 incidents of vandalism and arson at abortion clinics in the United States during 1996-97 totalled over $1 million.23

The incidence of violence is seen to be largely on the part of the fringe element of the pro-lifers, perhaps a result of frustration with unfavourable legislation. But religious connotations cannot be ignored. A worrisome development is the appearance of a fundamentalist anti-abortion handbook, The Army of God, which gives detailed instructions on the sabotage of clinics, silencers for guns and C4 explosive, and states, inter alia,”…we are forced to take aim against you…execution is rarely gentle”.24

Violence against abortionists has largely been confined to the United States and Canada. An attempt by a North American pro-life group to establish a branch in Britain in 1993 was thwarted when the government had the group’s representative deported for being “a threat to the public good”. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the law restricting the legal availability of abortions in Canada. Since then, the number of abortions sought by Canadian women has grown significantly and the vehemence of pro-life protestors has increased. Many pro-choice activists say they fear an escalation of violence such as the United States has experienced.

The fears may be well-founded—since 1993, five people have been killed, with 11 more persons wounded. Clinics have been subjected to graffiti, noxious gases, and firebombs and staff has been threatened and harassed. Similar events have begun to occur in Canada: sniper incidents in 1994, 1995 and again in 1997 have wounded three Canadian doctors; a clinic was burned and workers here, as in the USA, have increasingly been subjected to threats and harassment.25

Although the pro-life movement in Canada is generally poorly organized, it does include several large groups and some prominent individuals with links to the movement in the United States. US activists have addressed rallies in Canada and encouraged Canadians to adopt aggressive practices. The author of a pro-life publication, recognized and respected in extremist circles, has participated in demonstrations and picketing of clinics and doctors’ homes in Canada.

American sociologist Dallas Blanchard has observed that some members of the Canadian pro-life movement whom he has encountered are as capable of violence as US extremists and that the pattern of activity in Canada is similar to that in the United States. An article in the May 1996 edition of Chatelaine magazine depicts the current status of the abortion debate in Canada as a battlefield where the fear of violence rules. The atmosphere in clinics resembles a state of siege, with steel bars, security cameras, intercom systems, bomb threats and workers trained in life-saving techniques as well.

The issue will not go away. The potential for continued violence exists. Indeed, the number of abortions sought by Canadian women has grown significantly since the Supreme Court decision of 1988. The vehemence of pro-life protestors has increased and so may their potential for violence if their level of frustration continues to grow, which it may do in the event of unfavourable legislation or legal judgements or the introduction of abortion drugs. In Canada, changes to government funding of abortions may encourage pro-life activists to indulge in more militant activity.


In conclusion, three observations deserve note:

* single issue militancy remains dangerous, despite lower levels of activity during the past two years; each of the issues discussed remains controversial and will continue to attract individuals ready to use extremist tactics for selfish or believed-to-be-altruistic reasons; many of those individuals are highly competent and capable of making effective use of modern technology to devise extremely dangerous devices;

* there are real concerns about the risks of escalation from vandalism to arson to bombs and ever more spectacular incidents; of copy-cat actions by inept individuals which could seriously endanger lives; and of vigilantism, which could create extraordinary problems for law enforcement and criminal justice systems;

* the challenge is to provide an appropriate, reasoned and reasonable response to the threat of single issue terrorism which avoids overreaction and remains within the rule of law.


1 G. Davidson Smith, Combating Terrorism, London, Routledge, 1990, p.7.

2 Chatelaine, May 1996.

3 G. Davidson Smith, Militant Activism and the Issue of Animal Rights, Commentary No.21, CSIS, April 1992.

4 Terrorism in the United States, US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1989.

5 Susan E. Paris, Animal Rights terrorism Must Be Stopped, Mass High Tech, August 1995.

6 Robin Brunet, The Cutting Edge of Animal Rights, Alberta Report, Vol. 23, No.8, 5 February 1996.

7 G. Davidson Smith, Political Violence in Animal Liberation, Contemporary Review, Vol. 247, No. 1434, July 1985.

8 Smith, Commentary, CSIS, April 1992.

9 The Militant Vegan, Issue 8, 8 February 1995, Internet.

10 Smith, Commentary, April 1992.

11 Chicago Sun-Times, 1 December 1983.

12 Independent, 2 June 1994. See also: PinkertonRisk, 24 August 1995.

13 Toronto Star, 14 July 1995.

14 Chicago Tribune, 6 August 1991.

15 Victoria Times Colonist, 13 January 1996.

16 Egan, From Spikes… pp.6-8.

17 Independent, 29 December 1994.

18 The Times of London, 11 September 1994.

19 Terrorism in the United States, US Department of Justice, FBI, 1990.

20 The Vancouver Sun, 21 October 1991.

21 Globe and Mail, Toronto, 12 July 1995. See also: Victoria Times Colonist, 13 January 1996.

22 Vancouver Province, 17 october 1994.

23 Summary of Extreme Violence Against Abortion Providers in 1994, 1995, National Abortion Federation, Internet.

24 Chatelaine, May 1996. See also: Washington Post, 17 January 1995.

25 Toronto Sun, 17 January 1995. See also: The Abortion Rights Activist, Internet.


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