Sabotage is a deliberate action aimed at weakening a polity or corporation through subversion, obstruction, disruption, destruction, or underhand tactics. In a workplace setting, sabotage is the conscious withdrawal of efficiency generally directed at causing some change in workplace conditions. One who engages in sabotage is a saboteur. Saboteurs typically try to conceal their identities because of the consequences of their actions.
Claimed explanations include:
- That it derives from the Netherlands in the 15th century when workers would throw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the wooden gears of the textile looms to break the cogs, fearing the automated machines would render the human workers obsolete.
- That it derives from the French sabot (a wooden shoe or clog) via its derivative saboter (to knock with the foot, or work carelessly).Sabot is the French name for the brake on a horse wagon; it was pressed against the outer rim of a wheel to stop the wagon. For the workers it meant slower work.
- That it derives from the late 19th-century French slang use of the word sabot to describe an unskilled worker, so called due to their wooden clogs or sabots; sabotage was used to describe the poor quality work of such workers.
Luddites and radical labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have advocated sabotage as a means of self-defense and direct action against unfair working conditions.
The IWW was shaped in part by the industrial unionism philosophy of Big Bill Haywood, and in 1910 Haywood was exposed to sabotage while touring Europe:
The experience that had the most lasting impact on Haywood was witnessing a general strike on the French railroads. Tired of waiting for parliament to act on their demands, railroad workers walked off their jobs all across the country. The French government responded by drafting the strikers into the army and then ordering them back to work. Undaunted, the workers carried their strike to the job. Suddenly, they could not seem to do anything right. Perishables sat for weeks, sidetracked and forgotten. Freight bound for Paris was misdirected to Lyon or Marseille instead. This tactic — the French called it "sabotage" — won the strikers their demands and impressed Bill Haywood.
For the IWW, sabotage came to mean any withdrawal of efficiency — including the slowdown, the strike, working to rule or creative bungling of job assignments.
One of the most severe examples was at the construction site of the Robert-Bourassa Generating Station in 1974, in Quebec, Canada, when workers used bulldozers to topple electric generators, damaged fuel tanks, and set buildings on fire. The project was delayed a year, and the direct cost of the damage estimated at $2 million CAD. The causes were not clear. However three factors have been cited: inter-union rivalry, poor working conditions, and the perceived arrogance of American executives of the contractor, Bechtel Corporation.
As environmental action
Certain groups turn to destruction of property to stop environmental destruction or to make visible arguments against forms of modern technology they consider detrimental to the environment. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies use the term eco-terrorist when applied to damage of property. Proponents argue that since property can not feel terror, damage to property is more accurately described as sabotage. Opponents, by contrast, point out that property owners and operators can indeed feel terror. The image of the monkey wrench thrown into the moving parts of a machine to stop it from working was popularized by Edward Abbey in the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang and has been adopted by eco-activists to describe destruction of earth damaging machinery.
As war tactic
In war, the word is used to describe the activity of an individual or group not associated with the military of the parties at war (such as a foreign agent or an indigenous supporter), in particular when actions result in the destruction or damaging of a productive or vital facility, such as equipment, factories, dams, public services, storage plants or logistic routes. Prime examples of such sabotage are the events of Black Tom and the Kingsland Explosion. Like spies, saboteurs who conduct a military operation in civilian clothes or enemy uniforms behind enemy lines are subject to prosecution and criminal penalties instead of detention as prisoners of war. It is common for a government in power during war or supporters of the war policy to use the term loosely against opponents of the war. Similarly, German nationalists spoke of a stab in the back having cost them the loss of World War I.
A modern form of sabotage is the distribution of software intended to damage specific industrial systems. For example, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is alleged to have sabotaged a Siberian pipeline during the Cold War, using information from the Farewell Dossier. A more recent case may be the Stuxnet computer worm, which was designed to subtly infect and damage specific types of industrial equipment. Based on the equipment targeted and the location of infected machines, security experts believe it was an attack on the Iranian nuclear program by the United States, Israel or, according to the latest news, even Russia.
Sabotage, done well, is inherently difficult to detect and difficult to trace to its origin. During World War II, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated 19,649 cases of sabotage and concluded the enemy had not caused any of them.
Sabotage in warfare, according to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) manual, varies from highly technical coup de main acts that require detailed planning and specially trained operatives, to innumerable simple acts that ordinary citizen-saboteurs can perform. Simple sabotage is carried out in such a way as to involve a minimum danger of injury, detection, and reprisal. There are two main methods of sabotage; physical destruction and the "human element." While physical destruction as a method is self-explanatory, its targets are nuanced, reflecting objects to which the saboteur has normal and inconspicuous access in everyday life. The "human element" is based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit.
There are many examples of physical sabotage in wartime. However, one of the most effective uses of sabotage is against organizations. The OSS manual provides numerous techniques under the title "General Interference with Organizations and Production":
- When possible, refer all matters to committees for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large as possible—never fewer than five
- Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
- Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
- In making work assignments, always sign out unimportant jobs first, assign important jobs to inefficient workers with poor machines.
- Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those with the least flaw. Approve other defective parts whose flaws are not visible to the naked eye.
- To lower morale, and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
- Hold meetings when there is more critical work to be done.
- Multiply procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that multiple people must approve everything where one would do.
- Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside information.
From the section entitled, "General Devices for Lowering Morale and Creating Confusion" comes the following quintessential simple sabotage advice: "Act stupid."
Value of simple sabotage in wartime
The United States Office of Strategic Services, later renamed the CIA, noted specific value in committing simple sabotage against the enemy during wartime: "... slashing tires, draining fuel tanks, starting fires, starting arguments, acting stupidly, short-circuiting electric systems, abrading machine parts will waste materials, manpower, and time." To underline the importance of simple sabotage on a widespread scale, they wrote, "Widespread practice of simple sabotage will harass and demoralize enemy administrators and police." The OSS was also focused on the battle for hearts and minds during wartime; "the very practice of simple sabotage by natives in enemy or occupied territory may make these individuals identify themselves actively with the United Nations War effort, and encourage them to assist openly in periods of Allied invasion and occupation."
In World War I
On 30 July 1916, a Black Tom explosion occurred when German agents set fire to a complex of warehouses and ships in Jersey City, New Jersey that held munitions, fuel, and explosives bound to aid the Allies in their fight.
On 11 January 1917, Fiodore Wozniak, using a rag saturated with phosphorus or an incendiary pencil supplied by German sabotage agents, set fire to his workbench at an ammunition assembly plant near Lyndhurst, New Jersey, causing a four-hour fire that destroyed half a million 3-inch explosive shells and destroyed the plant for an estimated at 17 million in damages. Wozniak's involvement was not discovered until 1927.
On 12 February 1917, Bedouins allied with the British destroyed a Turkish railroad near the port of Wajh, derailing a Turkish locomotive. The Bedouins traveled by camel and used explosives to demolish a portion of track.
Post World War I
In Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) used sabotage against the British following the Easter 1916 uprising. The IRA compromised communication lines and lines of transportation and fuel supplies. The IRA also employed passive sabotage, refusing dock and train workers to work on ships and rail cars used by the government. In 1920, agents of the IRA committed arson against at least fifteen British warehouses in Liverpool. The following year, the IRA set fire to numerous British targets again, including the Dublin Customs House, this time sabotaging most of Liverpool's firetrucks in the firehouses before lighting the matches.
In World War II
Sabotage training for the Allies consisted of teaching would-be saboteurs key components of working machinery to destroy. "Saboteurs learned hundreds of small tricks to cause the Germans big trouble. The cables in a telephone junction box ... could be jumbled to make the wrong connections when numbers were dialed. A few ounces of plastique, properly placed, could bring down a bridge, cave in a mine shaft, or collapse the roof of a railroad tunnel."
The French Resistance ran an extremely effective sabotage campaign against the Germans during World War II. Receiving their sabotage orders through messages over the BBC radio or by aircraft, the French used both passive and active forms of sabotage. Passive forms included losing German shipments and allowing poor quality material to pass factory inspections. Many active sabotage attempts were against critical rail lines of transportation. German records count 1,429 instances of sabotage from French Resistance forces between January 1942 and February 1943. From January through March 1944, sabotage accounted for three times the number of locomotives damaged by Allied airpower. See also Normandy Landings for more information about sabotage on D-Day.
During World War II, the Allies committed sabotage against the Peugeot truck factory. After repeated failures in Allied bombing attempts to hit the factory, a team of French Resistance fighters and Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents distracted the German guards with a game of soccer while part of their team entered the plant and destroyed machinery.
In December 1944, the Germans ran a false flag sabotage infiltration, Operation Greif, which was commanded by Waffen-SS commando Otto Skorzeny during the Battle of the Bulge. German commandos, wearing US Army uniforms, carrying US Army weapons, and using US Army vehicles, penetrated US lines to spread panic and confusion among US troops and to blow up bridges, ammunition dumps, and fuel stores and to disrupt the lines of communication. Many of the commandos were captured by the Americans. Because they were wearing US uniforms, a number of the Germans were executed as spies, either summarily or after military commissions.
After World War II
From 1948 to 1960, the Malayan Communists committed numerous effective acts of sabotage against the Malaysian Government, first targeting railway bridges, then hitting larger targets such as military camps. Most of their efforts were centered around crippling Malaysia's economy and involved sabotage against trains, rubber trees, water pipes, and electric lines. The Communist's sabotage efforts were so successful that they caused backlash amongst the Malaysian population, who gradually withdrew support for the Communist movement as their livelihoods became threatened.
In newly formed Israel from 1945 to 1948, Jewish groups opposed British control over Israel. Though that control was to end according to the Balfour Declaration in 1948, the groups used sabotage as an opposition tactic. The Haganah focused their efforts on camps used by the British to hold refugees and radar installations that could be used to detect illegal immigrant ships. The Stern Gang and the Irgun used terrorism and sabotage against the British government and against lines of communications. In November 1946, the Irgun and Stern Gang attacked a railroad twenty-one times in a three-week period, eventually causing shell-shocked Arab railway workers to strike. The 6th Airborne Division was called in to provide security as a means of ending the strike.
The Viet Cong used swimmer saboteurs often and effectively during the Vietnam War. Between 1969 and 1970, swimmer saboteurs sunk, destroyed, or damaged 77 assets of the U.S. and her allies. Viet Cong swimmers were poorly equipped but well trained and resourceful. The swimmers provided a low cost/ low risk option with high payoff; possible loss to the country for failure compared to the possible gains from a successful mission led to the obvious conclusion the swimmer saboteurs were a good idea.
During the Cold War
On 1 January 1984, the Cuscatlan bridge over Lempa river in El Salvador, critical to flow of commercial and military traffic, was destroyed by guerilla forces using explosives after using mortar fire to "scatter" the bridge's guards, causing an estimated 3.7 million dollars in required repairs, and considerably impacted El Salvadoran business and security.
In 1982 in Honduras, a group of nine Salvadorans and Nicaraguans destroyed a main electrical power station, leaving Tegucigalpa, the capital city, for three days without power.
Some criminals have engaged in acts of sabotage for reasons of extortion. For example, Klaus-Peter Sabotta sabotaged German railway lines in the late 1990s in an attempt to extort DM10 million from the German railway operator Deutsche Bahn. He is now serving a sentence of life imprisonment.
As political action
The term political sabotage is sometimes used to define the acts of one political camp to disrupt, harass or damage the reputation of a political opponent, usually during an electoral campaign. See Watergate. The term could also describe the actions and expenditures of private entities, corporations and organizations against democratically approved or enacted laws, policies and programs. See Political activities of the Koch brothers.
In a coup d'etat
Sabotage is a crucial tool of the successful coup d'etat, which requires control of communications before, during, and after the coup is staged. Simple sabotage against physical communications platforms using semi-skilled technicians, or even those trained only for this task, could effectively silence the target government of the coup, leaving the information battle space open to the dominance of the coup's leaders. To underscore the effectiveness of sabotage, "A single cooperative technician will be able temporarily to put out of action a radio station which would otherwise require a full-scale assault."
Railroads, where strategically important to the regime the coup is against, are prime targets for sabotage- if a section of the track is damaged entire portions of the transportation network can be stopped until it is fixed.
A sabotage radio was a small two-way radio designed for use by resistance movements in World War II, and after the war often used by expeditions and similar parties.
Arquilla and Rondfeldt, in their work entitled Networks and Netwars, differentiate their definition of "netwar" from a list of "trendy synonyms," including "cybotage," a portmanteau from the words "sabotage" and "cyber." They dub the practitioners of cybotage "cyboteurs" and note while all cybotage is not netwar, some netwar is cybotage.
Counter-sabotage, defined by Webster's dictionary, is "counterintelligence designed to detect and counteract sabotage." The United States Department of Defense definition, found in the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, is "Action designed to detect and counteract sabotage. See also counterintelligence"
In World War II
During World War II, British subject Eddie Chapman, trained by the Germans in sabotage, became a double agent for the British. The German Abwehr entrusted Chapman to destroy the British de Havilland Company's main plant for the manufacture of heavy bombers, but required photographic proof from their agent to verify the mission's completion. A special unit of the Royal Engineers known as the Magic Gang covered the de Havilland plant with canvas panels and scattered paper maché furniture and chunks of masonry around three broken and burnt giant generators. Photos of the plant taken from the air reflected devastation for the factory and a successful sabotage mission, and Chapman, as a British sabotage double-agent, fooled the Germans for the duration of the war.
- Birth control sabotage
- Edmund Charaszkiewicz
- Colin Gubbins
- Direct action
- Fifth column
- Guerrilla warfare
- Industrial espionage
- The Mole (TV series)
- Norwegian heavy water sabotage
- Political warfare
- Setting up to fail
- Social undermining
- Special Activities Division
- Émile Pouget, Le sabotage; notes et postface de Grégoire Chamayou et Mathieu Triclot, 1913; Mille et une nuit, 2004; English translation, Sabotage, paperback, 112 pp., University Press of the Pacific, 2001, ISBN 0-89875-459-3.
- Pasquinelli, Matteo. ; now in Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2008.
- - Sabotage, employee theft, strikes, etc.
- Elizabeth Gurley Flinn,
- Words: MATT BOLTON Photographs: MATT MUNRO Lonely Planet Magazine, December 2011