Tactic and Target Selection in White Supremacist versus Eco-Terrorist Organizations

Tactic and Target Selection in White Supremacist versus Eco-Terrorist Organizations

Izzy Bielamowicz

Without proper distinction between separate ideological affiliations, terrorism becomes an oversimplified subset of political violence. This lack of differentiation within the subject of terrorism runs the risk of creating a false synonymy between different groups. While some organizations may have distinct similarities, there is a major separation between different ideological strands of terrorism in the variation of tactic and target selection. Thus, questions of the former justification and latter effectiveness of these organizations’ methodological approaches arise.

This blog will specifically examine the vast difference in tactical approach and subject selection between right-wing white supremacist groups and left-wing eco-terrorist organizations. To do so, the patterns in type of crime committed by each ideology, as well as the target, will be assessed. Type of crime denotes tactical approach, and is delineated into classifications such as homicide, arson/bombing, assault, vandalism, etc. Target evaluates subject selection: whether victimization was intended for people or property. Target will examine the lethality of attacks, of course comparing similarities and differences in these trends between white supremacist and eco-terrorist attacks.

I contend that ideological affiliation is the primary motivator influencing tactical approach and target selection within various terrorist organizations and that varying methodological approaches develop as attempts to convey these groups’ respective ideological messages. As the literature reveals, there are spacious differences in tactical approach and target selection between attacks of different ideological affiliation, specifically those of white supremacist and eco-terrorists.

The literature suggests that white supremacist movements utilize homicide and assault in targeting people whereas eco-terrorist groups carryout arson and vandalism in an attempt to target property and cause financial losses.

Upon review, the literature overwhelmingly supports the notion that “sectarian and extreme right wing groups target civilians” while “extreme left wing groups are quite discriminate” when choosing their target. In the quest to communicate their respective ideologies, white supremacist movements take a tactical approach focused on homicide and assault and target people more often than property. Contrastingly, eco-terrorist organizations tend to commit crimes of arson and vandalism, and almost exclusively target property, rather than people. Overlap between tactical approach and target selection undoubtedly exists throughout white supremacist and eco-terrorist narratives, but the statistical differences are staggering in comparison. This suggests that there is considerable divergence in how different ideologically based organizations attack, which is crucial to acknowledge before analyzing why the differences in ideology impact the differences in tactical approach and target selection.

While there is little scholarly discourse on the impact of ideology on target selection, the literature that does exist almost unanimously agrees that ideology is the dominant influencer as terrorist organizations select tactics and targets. Independent of other variables, organizations will use tactics and select targets which most valuably benefit the specific message they are trying to convey. Because tactical approach and target selection may be difficult to justify if a group surpasses certain boundaries set by their respective ideological affiliation, it is necessary to consider which aspects of ideology determine the components of a terrorist attack. For white supremacists, their mission to surrender an Aryan race and stop racial progress drives their targeting of minority individuals, while eco-terrorists avoid targeting people, and instead turn to property, for fear of acting hypocritically in the face of their message concerning the maltreatment of the earth and animals.

As aforementioned, it is well supported that white supremacists tend to target people through homicides and assaults. While there is discrepancy in this pattern (these groups also utilize vandalism, etc.), when the frequencies of various tactics are compared against one another, there is evidence which overwhelmingly suggests people are the main target of attacks meant to be lethal, and ideology drives this reality. Right-wing terrorist organizations do not approve of progress in regards to political, economic, and social arrangement. For white supremacists in particular, they want to maintain the structures imposed by racial, ethnic, and religious inequality. Because white supremacists promote the belief that there is an ultimate race which transcends all others, their logic in choosing target and tactic follows suit. To fulfil their mission of establishing racial hierarchy, these organizations target those who do not fit their Aryan mold. The most compelling solution for these white supremacists is to eliminate those who are members of minority groups. The predominant tactics of homicide and assault then become logical means by which white supremacists further their objective.

The question as to why eco-terrorists choose the tactics and targets that they do can be answered in the same manner as that regarding white supremacists. The underlying ideological mission of eco-terrorists is to promote the ‘proper’ treatment of the earth and of animals. If eco-terrorists approached their attacks by means of assault and homicide, they would be condemned for hypocrisy. The goals of these leftist groups are to advocate change in existing political, economic, and social arrangements, and reverting to targeting people rather than property with lethal tactics would prevent legitimacy in their messaging.

The notions expressed in the literature which subsume ideology to be the primary motivator in determining tactic and target of a terrorist plot allude to the idea that ideology may actually be an indicator of tactic and target. As researchers, we can use the literature already in existence to predict the tactics and targets selected by certain organizations based on their ideological affiliation.

In the case of white supremacist groups, policy improvements would be easy to integrate in securing possible targets and being prepared for the most likely tactical approach to a given attack. For example, the fact that homicide and assault are the most used tactics by and people are the most common targets for white supremacists; therefore, policing should be focused on preparedness in potential threats which include those shared variables. Adversely, in the case of eco-terrorist organizations, the indication that arson and vandalism are the most used tactics and property is almost exclusively the only target; therefore, policing should be concentrated on protecting likely property targets (i.e. animal testing facilities, car manufacturers, etc.) against fires and bombings.

According to statistics gathered by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), the claims made in the literature on this topic are defended quantitatively. Their dataset alleges that between 1970 and 2011 the ELF and ALF committed 171 combined crimes, yet none of those resulted in any fatalities. Based on the literature, these numbers are a consequence of ELF and ALF ideology and how said groups judge the best composition of attack dependent on their tenets. Likewise, the statistics START presented on white supremacists prove that their attacks have a higher lethality rate (i.e. the Ku Klux Klan carried out 23 attacks which cased 7 fatalities) than any other ideological category.

Ultimately, an executive comparison may be made, regarding these statistics, between ideological affiliation and composition of attack. It is clear that the differences in white supremacist and eco-terrorist ideology drives the divergence between their attack composition: disparate methodological strategies of attack are determined by ideological idiosyncrasy. Despite these disparities, it is critical to acknowledge the obvious abundance of facility attacks (30.55%) and bombings (51.53%) when analyzing all terrorist attacks recorded by START between 1970 and 2011. Although ideology impacts attack strategy, there is an apparent plurality in the comprehensive data, regardless of affiliation. While this discredits some of implications formulated by the literature, the conclusions are still beneficial in understanding the logic of terrorist organizations based on their ideology.

The literature, statistics, and implications of terrorist ideology on attack execution leads to a broader question regarding the prosecution of terrorists. Depending on the severity and lethality of an attack, should acts of political violence be categorized differently, or does terrorism continue to simply be terrorism? What exactly delineates terrorism is a difficult question to answer, and the results of ideological ramification further confuses the topic.

Upon inspection of right-wing white supremacists and left-wing eco-terrorists, the importance of ideology in their attack styles is conspicuous.

The correlation between ideological affiliation and composition of terrorist attacks is undeniable, and a more direct examination of white supremacist movements and eco-terrorist organizations highlights the drastic impact this correlation embodies for the study of terrorism and counterterrorism. Although we have identified recent upward trends in white supremacist and white nationalist attacks, posing a unique challenge to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, animal rights and environmental extremism continues to maintain a high profile; and both ideological categories must be addressed in appropriate ways based on their respective stylistic tendencies. As researchers and policy makers, awareness of ideological impact for terrorist organizations is and will continue to be extremely beneficial to making useful risk assessments in the future.



Bjelopera, Jerome P. “The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues for Congress.” International Journal of Terrorism & Political Hot Spots, vol. 8, no. 3/4, Aug. 2013, pp. 147–211.

Chermak, Steven M, et al. “An Overview of Bombing and Arson Attacks by Environmental and Animal Rights Extremists in the United States, 1995-2010.” National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, May 2013.

Furlow, R. Bennett. “Extremism and Victimhood in the U.S. Context.” Arizona State University Center for Strategic Communication, 5 Nov. 2012.

Koehler, Daniel, and Peter Popella. “Beware of CBRN Terrorism – From the Far-Right.” Small Wars Journal, 19 Sept. 2017.

LaFree, Gary, et al. “Integrated United States Security Database (IUSSD): Data on the Terrorist Attacks in the United States Homeland, 1970 to 2011.” National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, Dec. 2012.

Nacos, Brigitte L. Terrorism and Counterteorrorism. 5th ed., Taylor & Francis, 2016. Perliger, Arie. “Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America’s Violent Far-Right.”

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Nov. 2012. Wright, Austin L. “Terrorism, Ideology and Target Selection.” Princeton University, 5 Mar. 2013.

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