The Need for Nuance in Protective Intelligence Part 4: Extinction Rebellion
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
This is the fourth installment in an occasional series examining threat actors from a protective intelligence perspective. Earlier articles in this series examined the Islamic State pole of jihadism, Antifa, and the Boogaloo movement.
This article discusses the background of some of the activists behind the Extinction Rebellion campaign (XR), their ideology, their past activities, and the implications of this movement for corporate security and protective intelligence professionals.
Since its inception in the UK in October of 2018, XR has become one of the fastest-growing protest campaigns in the world. As of January 2022, the campaign claims to have enlisted 1199 local groups in 86 countries and has launched disruptive protests in a number of countries. Perhaps their most notable protest was the large-scale efforts to disrupt traffic, light rail, and air transportation in London in April 2019 involving tens of thousands of protesters that resulted in over one thousand arrests.
This analysis is based on XR’s own writings, including the campaign’s 2019 Declaration of Rebellion, the 2019 XR book This is Not a Drill, and Roger Hallam’s 2021 essay Advice to Young People as they face Annihilation.
The XR campaign was devised by a group of veteran protesters who met at the home of Gail Bradbrook in April of 2018. Bradbrook holds a PhD. in molecular biology from the University of Manchester and has been involved in various protest movements since her teenage years, including the Occupy movement and anti-fracking campaigns.
After the Occupy movement fizzled out, Bradbrook helped establish a protest organization called Compassionate Revolution which was registered in the UK in 2015. In 2016, Compassionate Revolution banded together with activists from other groups such as Earth First! and Reclaim the Power, to form a movement called Rising Up!
Activists connected with Compassionate Revolution and Rising Up! formed the core of those who gathered together at Bradbrook’s home for the meeting that resulted in the formation of XR.
One of the other central figures in the birth of XR was Roger Hallam, a veteran protester who had been involved in anti-government, anti-war, and anti-capitalist protest campaigns for decades. In his own words, Hallam is involved in “the design of effective radical political collective action. I have a background as an organizer and trainer in various social movements and for workers co-ops and housing co-ops. I am now working with several campaigns and networks in London to work out ways in which they can more effectively achieve their aims.”
According to XR’s own account of the meeting, the activists attending the April 2015 meeting were disappointed by the collapse of the Occupy movement and sought to design a campaign strategy that would “win”—in other words, achieve the goals of Compassionate Revolution, Rising Up!, and the other associated activists.
XR’s Grievance Narrative
As the founders of the XR campaign met, they agreed that one weakness of the Occupy movement and other past efforts was that they tended to attract only a small group of radical protesters. These campaigns lacked a narrative capable of drawing a large number of mainstream citizens to their cause and prompting them to act.
They noted that it was only by appealing to a broader cross-section of society that they could mobilize a mass movement of sufficient size and strength to foment the “rebellion” required to overthrow the existing political and economic order. Much of this discussion was guided by an essay Hallam had written for the Radical Think Tank blog: How To Win! Successful Procedures and Mechanisms for Radical Campaign Groups.
The group decided that a dramatic, apocalyptic, and emotionally powerful narrative emphasizing the catastrophic effect of climate change—in the form of the impending extinction of humanity—would help them mobilize a larger cross-section of people. Hence, their adoption of the name “Extinction Rebellion” for the campaign.
And the narrative crafted for XR was apocalyptic, as illustrated by this excerpt from the campaign’s Declaration of Rebellion:
“Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history. One which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come.
The science is clear:- we are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly.”
In XR’s video, Welcome to the Rebellion, Bradbrook calls climate change “the mother of all crises” and adds “that it’s quite possible that all life on Earth—97 percent of it—is going to go, and possibly in my children’s lifetime.” Later in the video, she elaborated “If we have three years of really bad El Nino weather events, the food systems are fucked, and we’ll be fighting over cans of beans. We really are at a crossroads. What we choose to do today is the difference between life and death on Earth.”
In Hallam’s essay Advice to Young People as they face Annihilation, he paints a very dire and apocalyptic picture of the future. According to Hallam, the result of climate change will be that:
“Public order will break down, and it will happen quickly. Because people get hungry. People will break into stores and into houses and take what they can and kill those that stand in their way. The endpoint of social collapse then is war played out in every city, every neighborhood, every street. This is what’s going to happen to your generation, and this appalling situation is liable to become commonplace. A gang of boys will break into your house demanding food. They will see your mother, your sister, your girlfriend, and they will gang rape her on the kitchen table. They will force you to watch, laughing at you. At the end, they will accuse you of enjoying it. They’ll take a cigarette and burn out your eyes with it. You will not be able to see anything again. This is the reality of climate change. Because this is the reality of social collapse, what it actually means for you and your generation.”
To prevent this dire situation, XR ideologues argue that radical action is needed. The XR Declaration Rebellion proclaimed that:
…“We, in alignment with our consciences and our reasoning, declare ourselves in rebellion against our Government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future.
The willful complicity displayed by our government has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profits.
When Government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection, as well as security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of its citizens to seek redress in order to restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future. It becomes not only our right, it becomes our sacred duty to rebel.
We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.”…
XR calls for current governments to be replaced by local “citizens’ assemblies,” in a kind of primitive communism.
Hallam was clear about the need to overthrow existing governments in his essay Advice to Young People as they face Annihilation:
“This is what needs to happen now, you need to bring down the world’s governments in the next 10 years. Take them over, and enact emergency measures to massively reduce carbon emissions to zero, to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and to undertake geoengineering measures to stop the melting of the ice in the Arctic. Only these actions have a chance of halting the slide towards extinction. These objectives therefore, need to be pursued ruthlessly, with total focus and dedication to the goals. Otherwise, all will be lost for good and indescribable suffering will be the inevitable fate for you and future generations. There is no guarantee of success. The situation is very probably too late, but there is no third option.”
As noted above, this narrative has been quite successful in scaring and mobilizing people previously uninvolved in protest movements; thousands of whom have been willing to face arrest and even prison time because of their deep concern over XR’s claims of the looming extinction of humanity.
It is also very clear that XR is not only calling for the overthrow of current governments but of the entire capitalist system. In an essay published in This is not a Drill, Hallam claims that XR has succeeded in creating a broad movement comprised of: “scientists, academics, lawyers, diplomats, councilors, campaigners, teachers, doctors, nurses, artists, writers, actors, graphic designers, psychologists,” and that the movement is “united behind one shared vision. A vision of radical system change.”
The XR’s anti-capitalist bent was also highlighted by the Sept. 2020 launching of a sub-campaign called Money Rebellion in which they targeted major banks with direct actions. In one of these actions, XR activists shattered 19 windows at HSBC’s Canary Wharf headquarters building using sledgehammers and chisels in April of 2021. In another Money Rebellion direct action, attack XR activists sprayed the front of the Bank of England with black dye. Several banks in New York have been similarly targeted.
Implications for Protective Intelligence and Corporate Security
XR has always espoused the use of non-violent protest tactics to achieve their goals of radical system change. As outlined in their various strategy documents, the ideologues behind XR believe that violence is actually counterproductive to their objective of creating a mass mobilization movement, because it will serve to scare ordinary people away from the movement.
That said, their direct-action stunts have proved quite disruptive to the businesses, transportation systems, and cities they have targeted. Hallam and other XR ideologues promote the use of “dilemma actions”—illegal acts of civil disobedience that are intentionally designed to place law enforcement and security officers in a predicament, or dilemma. If law enforcement and security forces respond with too much force, the protesters believe they will gain sympathy and support from the public; if law enforcement and security forces do not respond, it is also viewed as a win because it will encourage more people to participate in future acts of civil disobedience. Because of this, law enforcement and corporate security departments must calculate their response to XR direct action stunts with great care and thought.
Furthermore, there is a concern that all the people mobilized by XR’s apocalyptic narrative will not remain non-violent. Given the emotional and urgent crisis narrative that has been crafted for and propagated by the XR campaign, it is not hard to imagine that some individuals could become frustrated by the lack of immediate action toward achieving XR’s goals, and decide that more violent action is needed.
Most often, as individual activists become angry and frustrated and begin to advocate for violent action, they will at first be moderated by other members of the movement. However, if they continue to advocate for violence, they tend to become separated from the influence of more moderate activists and gravitate toward others who share their more violent views. This serves to continue the escalation toward violence.
Indeed, this dynamic has been seen in the past when violent extremists have emerged from the environmentalist movement such as the activists who banded together to form the Earth Liberation Front.
In the past environmental activists have been radicalized toward violence by statements from people such as U. Utah Philips, who famously proclaimed: “The Earth isn’t dying-it is being killed and the people who are killing it have names and addresses.”
I see a parallel with some of the recent statements from XR figures such as Roger Hallam which are quite provocative and urgent in their tenor. In his essay Advice to Young People as they face Annihilation, Hallam wrote:
…“These people that run society, in other words, have no sense of honour, no sense of duty, no sense of responsibility, no sense of respect. They are the most immoral and depraved generation in the history of humanity. What they are doing, knowingly, willingly, in full knowledge of the science, is the greatest crime in the history of the human race. Their plan is to do nothing less than to kill you.”…
…“Putting yourself in harm’s way is in fact the only way you can reduce the far greater harm coming down the line. When you act, your despair will lift in resistance to the death which is planned for you, you will find the happiness which presently feels impossible.” …
…“Only when you know viscerally in your body what exactly is coming down the track, only when you know that, are you likely to gain the courage to engage in the very real sacrifices which will minimize the probability of the worst.”…
In the video presentation of Advice to Young People as they face Annihilation, Hallam added:
“Annihilation is a project to murder on a massive scale… …I talked to a London lawyer and he said there is no greater crime… …What we are seeing here is a project to have billions of people die. It’s a project that is knowingly undertaken, so that constitutes mass murder. And it’s a crime and it will be, and needs to be punished… …It’s not something accidental, it’s not something about the environment.”
Given this emotional and apocalyptic narrative, it is not hard to imagine an extremist deciding to lash out in violence against the people and organizations purported to be responsible for planning this project of mass murder, this annihilation of humanity.
And perhaps some in the movement are beginning to question the non-violent ethos of XR. On Jan. 6, XR’s Los Angeles branch held a webinar to discuss the topic. The webinar invitation read: “Extinction Rebellion is a nonviolent group. But is violence ever justified? Under what circumstances? What are the ethical and other issues involved? Bring your thoughts, feelings and ideas.”
Because of these factors, I believe it is important for corporate security, executive protection, and protective intelligence teams to monitor the communications of XR for mentions of their company/organization or principal.
Those organizations that have already been mentioned or targeted by XR, should maintain a high level of situational awareness in an effort to detect hostile preoperational surveillance conducted as a potential assailant progresses through their attack cycle.
It would also be prudent to conduct a public profile assessment to see what information a hostile assailant can gather on the principal(s), to review residential security, office security, and analyze the principal’s schedule to identify predictable, vulnerable locations and times.
Like other self-initiated grassroots terrorists, environmental extremists tend to possess poor terrorist tradecraft and this lack of tradecraft makes them vulnerable to detection—but only if someone is watching for them.