The Animal Liberation Front consists of an informal collection of small cells and individuals who self-identify with the movement's ideology and engage in "direct action" activities in accordance with stated guidelines. It was founded in England in 1976 by Ronnie Lee as the "Band of Mercy", an animal activist group novel for its use of militant methods. The ALF aims to liberate animals and inflict economic damage on numerous industries that involve animals, including farms and laboratories that perform animal-testing.
The movement purports to be non-violent, instructing members "to take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human". Property damage is not considered violence and is the most common form of attack. However, as membership is little more than self-identification with the movement, the ALF provides many with the emotional and ideological justification for more aggressive crimes. The movement has also historically attracted anarchistic and antisocial individuals, who often tend to favour greater violence as part of a campaign against society in general.
Supporters of the ALF often ascribe their more violent and threatening actions to proxy groups, such as the "Animal Rights Militia", that share ALF aims but do not restrict methods. Despite these groups seeming to overlap considerably with ALF membership, ALF is thus able to preserve its claim of being non-violent and avoid public condemnation. When violence is committed by individuals who are deliberately acting on behalf of the ALF, the movement defends itself by pointing out that the individual acted in violation of the group's alleged guidelines; the movement has also claimed that violent acts are provocations to discredit the movement.
The loose, leaderless cell structure of the movement makes it impossible for law enforcement to infiltrate or to take legal action against the movement as a whole. Groups are deliberately small and may do nothing more than petty crimes or may progress to more severe actions gradually, avoiding the attention of the police.
The movement promotes itself internationally via the internet and various publications, such as the "Direct Action Report", which announce acts of sabotage undertaken for the cause and often provide simple suggestions for sabotage techniques.
ALF activities range considerably, with the level of violence and criminality depending on the individual or cell involved.
"Direct action" taken by members of the ALF ranges from protest and petty acts of vandalism to include gross property damage through arson, sabotage, car bombs and other explosives, food contamination threats, threats to individuals and companies, letter bombs, and the releasing of animals from farms and labs. Activists will often target the same location in the effort to economically cripple the operation and discourage rebuilding/restocking of animals. Each raid on a laboratory, for instance, can cost a company substantial sums and destroy years of research. Well over 500 incidents in this wide spectrum have been claimed by the ALF.
The ALF is an international movement, having spread from England to the United States and other countries by the early 1980s. Today, ALF members are throughout over 40 countries, and are particularly active in North America and Western Europe.
ALF financing is done by the activists themselves, who pay for any equipment required to engage in the activities of their choosing. The majority of ALF attacks tend to be low-budget.
A number of other groups have supported the ALF, such as the aboveground Animal Liberation Front Supporters Group (ALF SG), using a collected membership fee of £2 per month per member. Direct support from other groups is usually minor, such as publishing assistance or support for prisoners.