Terrorism legislation and its effect on terrorism

I’m at the end of my last class for my M.A..  Long time readers may remember that a few months ago I made a similar claim which, obviously wasn’t true.  The problem was that I had foolishly decided to pursue a graduate certificate simultaneously with my degree and while I finished my coursework for my Masters in International Conflict Resolution I hadn’t completed my certificate work in terrorism.  While I assumed I could complete them independently, the school had other ideas and declared that the two were locked in a death embrace and I couldn’t get credit for one until I completed them both.


My last class is called counter-terrorism and my final research project revolved around the hypothesis that anti-terrorism legislation directed at certain groups (specifically animal rights/ecological activists) will actually lead to an increase in radical, illegal activity.

Why would this be?  Well, my theory is that it will be the result of two factors: the further radicalization of existing AR extremists through the perception that there are fewer alternatives to direct action and the attractiveness of an increasingly demonized movement to individuals psychologically predisposed to violent and destructive behavior regardless of its ideology.

I should say my research was maddening in part because of the lack of any sort of reliable information.  Given that as recently as recently as 2004, the FBI declared animal/eco rights activists to be the highest domestic terrorism investigative priority” for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and in the years since have claimed that they’ve attributed more than 1,200 incidents to those activists with a monetary cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars you’d think they’d be able to share some of that data.

Well, no such luck.  In fact, the National Counter Terrorism Center has less than 2 dozen events listed in their database.  That meant that I had to rely on the (even more) dubious statistics from the actual combatants in this fight.  One set is available from the Animal Liberation Front (I zeroed in on the animal liberation movement) and the other from the Foundation for Biomedical Research.

Both of those data sets have really REALLY big problems but given that let me show you this:

Allow me to specifically point out the purple line (which represents all incidents attributed to animal rights activists both legal and illegal)  and the blue line (which represents events which resulted in damages in excess of $10,000).  Now, in 1998 the first people were prosecuted under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act accompanied by a dramatic drop in all sorts of animal rights activist.  So, that must mean legislation works, eh?

Not so fast, partner.

What you’ll notice in the years after that is a pretty significant spike (especially in terms of those high dollar incidents) in the years after that prosecution up until 2001.  I’m guessing that after 9/11 a lot of the wind was taken out of people’s sails for direct action but by 2003 we saw numbers climbing again.  By 2005/2006 the animal rights community had the double whammy of prosecution of the SHAC-7 and the passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Those events were accompanied by a dramatic drop in all sorts of animal rights activism.  So, that must mean legislation works, eh?

Hold your horses.

According to my little theory you’d expect to see a pretty dramatic spike in the years after 2006 as activists decided to fight back and, perhaps, as others less concerned about ideology but interested in taking up the banner because they’re drawn to extreme behavior decided to see what all the hoola is about.

And here my data kinda craps out.  I was able to check my data to with some minimal degree of confidence up until 2006 but after then I really don’t have much that I can even hang a virtual hat on.  The scant evidence I could find, however, does seem to hint that there might, in fact, be an increase in the number of direct action events.  About seriousness of those actions (dollar damage amounts or violent activity) I can’t say.

I’m not entirely sure that the suppression model of labeling an increasingly wide range of activity terrorism (anti-social and rude – definitely, illegal – sometimes, terrorism – not so much) produces the long term solution it promises.  But, it does have the effect of making the targeted industries happy (now if some kid keys a bunch of cars or releases some minks it’s not vandalism it’s terrorism and the fate of the free world is at stake) and making law enforcement happy (more funding…more promotional opportunities). The whole idea is based on some assumptions about how these people radicalize and what motivates them that doesn’t appear to have been examined in any serious way.

And of course, there’s also the ‘chilling effect’ such legislation can have on legal and legitimate protest.  In a phone interview I conducted with Will Potter he described the confusion some activists had in knowing what activity was within legal bounds and unable to get a straight answer from their local law enforcement and being told, in essence “You’ll know if it’s illegal when we arrest you.”

I clearly wasn’t able to prove anything one way or the other but it’d be nice to see someone (*cough* FBI *cough*) actually track and release data about these sorts of events.  And again, enough with treating everything like it’s the nuclear launch code.  If it’s in the local paper and the ALF website, I think we can trust the American people with the information.  And, as long as I’m getting totally crazy how about some evaluations of some of this legislation and if you keep coming back to congress asking to get increasingly tough on some unwanted behavior, maybe look at some alternative strategies.


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