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Earth Liberation Front (ELF)

Insurgency Overview

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) is a radical environmentalist movement founded in England in 1992. The ELF is a global organisation that doesn't have a formal leadership structure or membership but is instead controlled by decentralised, autonomous, and intensely secretive cells that choose to act in the group's name. The only semi-centralised structure within the ELF is their press office based in the USA in which different cells from around the globe send their communications to be passed on to the public. The ELF is so decentralised that it may not even be correct to call it a group or an organisation but maybe something more similar to an ideology.

History & Foundations

The ELF was founded in 1992 in Brighton, England and started as an off-shoot of the much bigger environmental activist group Earth First!. The ELF came out of the Earth First! movement who were growing in mainstream appeal and wanted to distance themselves from more radical acts such as arson attacks, graffiti and later bombings in order to maintain their popularity with members of the general public. In response to this, a few members split away to form the first ELF cell. There is very little documented on their first actions which were just small scale arson attacks against logging companies, SUV dealerships, certain farmers and anyone else who they saw as harmful to the environment. Their first major attack occurred against a peat bog company called Fisons in 1992 when ELF activists in England managed to gain entry into the company's facility in the middle of the night and caused over £70,000 worth of damage.(1)

The ELF continued their arson attacks in The UK and the name quickly spread. By 1994 there were eco-saboteur groups using the ELF label in a number of countries including Germany, Russia, Italy and France. In 1996 Amsterdam's Schiphol airport was sabotaged when an ELF activist drove a car into a newly built flight control tower. In that same year a spate of attacks occurred against McDonald's restaurants in Germany and Poland. As the ideology/movement continued to spread it eventually came to the USA. In 1998 in one of the most serious arson attacks in the history of the US, $12 Million worth of damage was caused to the Vail Ski Resort as multiple buildings and lifts in the resort were set on fire by ELF activists.

The United States cells continued their actions and are believed to be the most radical of the cells under the ELF label. Luxury houses, large scale construction projects, oil companies and logger camps all continued to have their businesses vandalised or projects destroyed. The FBI took these attacks seriously and branded the ELF as a domestic terrorist organisation. Arrests occurred and severe sentences were handed down to ELF activists who had been apprehended. The ELF has been referred to as the largest domestic terrorist threat within The USA by the FBI. In recent years ELF members have torched SUV dealerships and even caused damage to SUVs in people's driveways. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, The ELF was responsible for 55% of all recorded arson and bombings attacks in The USA between 1995-2010.(2)

Objectives & Ideology

The overall premise of the ELF is that they are completely opposed to industrial society and that if they continue to cause property damage then eventually it won't be worth it for people to work in any industries that are harmful to the environment. Many members of the ELF would have been influenced by Ted Kacynski (otherwise known as The Unabomber) and his manifesto ‘Industrial Society and its Future’. Ted Kacynski was a lone wolf radical environmentalist who is currently serving a life sentence in the USA for multiple bomb attacks. He is a figurehead of the radical environmentalist movement and has regularly expressed support and solidarity for ELF activists in his communiques written from prison.(7)

The ELF came as an offshoot of Earth First! who many in The ELF found to be ineffective at making any real change. The very core of their ideas are that the corporations who they see as destroying the earth are doing so in order to make money and if, through ELF actions, they can make these companies profits unsustainable then the companies will cease to damage the planet.(5) Another factor that caused The ELF to split was a firm belief that they will never be able to affect the necessary change they desire through existing government structures and must use direct action to achieve their goals.

Military & Political Abilities

It is impossible to say or even estimate the precise numbers involved in The ELF. Some people might only take up The ELF name for a one off attack whereas certain cells carried out numerous attacks on a regular basis and had fixed amounts of members. This decentralised structure means their personnel strength is unknown.

The FBI has claimed that The ELF is the most serious domestic terror threat in The USA which highlights to a degree that The ELF has been effective in gaining themselves notoriety but the reality is that there is no evidence to suggest that their acts have brought about any wide scale political changes or brought any states or organisations to the negotiating table.(2) The ELF communications state that they have no intention of engaging in the political system.

Approach to Resistance

The ELF's main method of attack is arson. They place a strong emphasis on taking direct action, such as stopping logging trucks from entering a forest in order to burn down homes or sabotage an oil company's offices. They will generally refer to their tactics as “Monkeywrenching” which is a term given for non violent acts of sabotage. A popular tactic of The ELF is “spiking” trees that are due to be cut down by loggers. This involves a metal rod being driven deep into a tree so as to damage chainsaws which are cutting into a tree. This tactic has been effective in slowing down deforestation in certain cases but has also been known to cause serious injuries to loggers due to them losing control of the chainsaw. A number of serious injuries have been reported as a result of tree spiking but none of these incidents are linked with The ELF.

The ELF has remarkably low levels of civilians being injured due to their attacks. There is a big emphasis in ELF communications about not harming any living thing and for the hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage that has been caused by The ELF – not one person has been killed or seriously injured.(3)

International Relations & Potential Alliances

The ELF does not have any official alliances with other groups due to their decentralised structure but there is believed to be a lot of crossover and friendliness between them and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who have an almost identical structure and approach to resistance however the ALF mainly focus’ on rescuing animals held in captivity.(4)

Works Cited (Chicago Style)

(1) - 2022, Hakiki, Falhan and Nasution, Uswatun “The Views and Movement of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) Movement towards Global Capitalism”. Jurnal Politik.

(2) - 2022, Wolfe, Matthew. “The Rise and Fall of Americas Environmentalist Underground” New York Times.

(3) - 2019, Schraber, Dean “What is ELF?” ABC News.

(4) - “Earth Liberation Front” Counter Extremist Project.

(5) - 2010, Leader, Stefan and Probst, Peter. “The Earth Liberation Front and Environmental Terrorism”

(6) - 2023, Aronoff, Kate “Is Environmental Radicalism Inevitable?”. The New Republic.

(7) - 1998, Taylor, Raymond Bron “Religion, Violence and Radical Environmentalism: From Earth First! to the Unabomber to the Earth Liberation Front”

Additional Resources


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