With over 600 criminal acts resulting to more than $100 million in property damages, the Earth Liberation Front has been dubbed as the most active and destructive domestic terrorist group in the United States by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Unlike international terrorism, mostly carried out by Muslim radicals seeking “Holy War” with America, domestic terrorism falls under the category of special interest extremists according to the FBI, the lead agency in counterterrorism.
Special interest extremists conduct acts of politically motivated violence to force segments of society, including the general public, to change attitudes about issues considered important to their causes. These groups occupy the extreme fringes of animal rights, pro-life, environmental, antinuclear, and other movements (FBI, 1999, p. 20). The ELF conducts random economic sabotage by destroying facilities and industries involve in logging, genetic engineering, energy production and auto making to prevent the exploitation of the natural environment.
The group believes that in order to preserve the earth’s ecological balance they have to tear down the U. S. capitalist economic system that continually abuses nature for profit. James F. Jarboe, FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Section Chief, testified in 2002 before the U. S. congress describing the ELF as the top domestic terror group which could become a serious threat to nuclear sites. In 2005, the U. S. Department of Homeland Security branded ELF as the most aggressive terrorist element among the radical environmental movement. Members, who call themselves “Elves”, engage in a new brand of hostility named eco-terrorism.
They are committed to defend their cause by all means necessary through direct actions and revolutionary violence. Due to the autonomous nature of the movement with no formal chain of command, law enforcement agencies admitted that they have difficulty in infiltrating the group despite several major arrests and indictments. The FBI alleged that William C. Rodgers was the leader of the group. He was arrested in December 2005 but committed suicide while in jail using a plastic bag. ELF’s base of operation is mainly located in Canada, United Kingdom, and United States.
Origin: ELF originated in 1992 in Brighton, England devoted to protect and save the environment. It was established by a more radical group of activists known as Earth First who thinks that criminal acts like economic sabotage would better advanced its cause rather than legal protests. The name was derived from another movement Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who likewise use the same method in promoting their ideals of liberating the animals from abuse. The two organizations forged alliance in 1997 and have claimed more than 1,200 criminal acts causing over $100 million in property damages for the past 15 years.
Members employ illegal direct actions by using arson in confronting companies and practices they see as abusive and immoral. With such tactic they hope to impose economic loss or cripple business operations. ELF surfaced in America in 1996 by burning a U. S. Forest Service truck in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest and spray-painted the building with anti-logging slogans. Since then, ELF continued attacking big businesses year after year becoming the most wanted terrorist group. The movement is funded by wealthy benefactors and other allied organizations sympathetic to its cause like the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Organization, Ideology and Tactics: ELF is an underground movement with a decentralize structure. It is a loose network of small groups or individuals who sympathize with the movement. Anyone can be a member as long as he or she simply follows the ELF’s guidelines: to inflict maximum economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment, to reveal to, and to educate the public about the atrocities committed against the earth and all species that populate it and to take all necessary precautions against harming life (Rosebraugh, 2004, p.
18). The group is practically invisible with no official members, leaders or spokesperson. In this manner, they can continue to freely fight for their cause without the fear of being imprisoned and this practice has been proven to be very effective. The group is rooted in an ideology that considers all living organisms on earth possess moral rights and deserve equal care as the humans. In addition, the ELF also believes in deep ecology favoring the rollback of civilization and restoring the environment damaged by selfish interests brought about by the industrial age.
This philosophy maintains that modernization has created endless injustices on the planet that will lead to the destruction of human existence on earth and the extinction of wildlife habitat. ELF recognizes that the environmental movement has failed to bring the message across and brought about changes in preserving the environment. The legal protests did not catch the attention of the public and the government but instead laws have encouraged many big businesses to profit from the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources.
Members of the group believe that it is within their rights to protect the environment and enforce the natural law. They accomplish their mission in many innovative tactics or techniques. Their primary weapon is arson burning various properties, research laboratories, vehicles, equipment, and buildings. They would use crude incendiary devices like candles that are attached to a plastic jugs filled with gasoline. They use booby trapped letters with poisoned razor blades and issue death threats to exploiters. Members also engage in vandalism by spray painting their targets as well as break windows and glue locks.
In addition, the ELF advocates “monkeywrenching,” a euphemism for acts of sabotage and property destruction against industries and other entities perceived to be damaging to the natural environment. “Monkeywrenching” includes tree spiking, arson, sabotage of logging or construction equipment, and other types of property destruction (FBI, 2002, ¶10). Their main goal is merely to channel public attention to their cause and not kill people. So far of all the criminal acts the group committed there has been no single human casualty reported.
The group has become effective in their campaign while eluding authorities because of its leaderless resistance. Leaderless resistance is a technique by which terrorist groups can carry out violent acts while reducing the risk of infiltration by law enforcement elements. The basic principle of leaderless resistance is that there is no centralized authority or chain-of-command. The various cells are linked by shared ideology but otherwise are autonomous, for the most part unconnected and unknown to each other (Leader & Probst, 2004, p. 2). Before an attack is executed, the group plans carefully its every move.
Members would thoroughly study the target with video and photo surveillance, conduct intelligence gathering, and research the industry. In 2001, the ELF came out with a handbook entitled Setting Fires with Electrical Timers: An Earth Liberation Front Guide. The 37-page manual details how to assemble an Old-Fashioned Kitchen Timer and a SCR Digital Timer complete with instructions, tips, diagrams, materials, and tools needed. It advises members on the rules of a successful arson, where to place incendiary devices, and fuel requirements to burn down a building.
Currently, ELF has launched a nationwide campaign of arson against genetic engineering and genetically modified organism activities. The group believes that these actions, genetically alternating life forms, are types of oppression and destruction. In its Illegal Incidents Report: A 25 Year History of Illegal Activities by Eco and Animal Extremists, the Foundation for Medical Research in Washington, D. C. noted that both ELF and its partner ALF were responsible for 529 attacks against research facilities, universities, drug discovery companies, and various organizations from 1981 to 2005.
The assaults were made up of vandalism (45%), theft (23%), harassment (15%), arson (10%), and bombing (7%). According to U. S. law enforcement, radical environmentalism currently poses the most visible homegrown threat to the national security of the United States. As recently as June 2004, the FBI designated “eco-terrorism”—the use of or threat to use violence in protest of harm inflicted on animals and the world’s biosphere—as the country’s number one militant challenge emanating from inside its own borders (Chalk, Hoffman, Reville, & Kasupski, 2006, p. 47).
Criminal Activities: This shadowy movement has unprecedented record of criminal activities that continuously threaten American society and democracy. Their history of violence expands across the U. S. hitting various institutions such as government, private citizens, education, and other forms of development. In 1997, ELF burned down the Bureau of Land Management horse corral in Oregon and on the following year set fire on a ski resort in Vail, Colorado that resulted in $12 million in damages. The group set seven separate fires destroying three buildings and damaging four chairlifts.
The FBI considered this event as the most destructive act of eco-terrorism in U. S. history. In 1999, ELF radicals were involved in the burning of an 8,000 square-foot structure of the Boise Cascade logging company in Monmouth, Oregon and the destruction of the Agricultural Hall of the Michigan State University. In September 8, 2001, the group burned a McDonald outlet in Tucson causing $500,000 in damages. In 2003, this extremist set fire on a housing complex that was under construction in San Diego knocking down a five-storey building and a 100-foot crane.
The damage was estimated at $50 million. Six weeks later, they burned three other houses that were being built within the area. In addition, the ELF assaulted three car dealers in Southern California setting ablaze 40 Hummers and SUVs amounting to $2 million in damages. The group vandalized the cars by painting the words “Fat Lazy Americans”. They did the same in Los Angeles where 125 sport utility vehicles were also vandalized and burned inside auto dealer shops and along the neighborhood.
According to FBI investigations the ELF were responsible for attacking vehicle dealerships and construction sites. In February 2005, the group burned down a new Pinewoods apartment complex in Sutter Creek, California with an incendiary device leaving a graffiti that said “We Will Win – ELF”. Five months after, the same group torched two homes that were under construction in Whatcom County, Washington causing $100,000 in damages to the other house while the other one was destroyed. They also vandalized and damaged a number of construction equipment.
The arson campaign went on in 2006 with the burning of more houses. In Camano Island, Washington, the ELF set fire on a 9,600 square foot trophy house worth $3 million. In its official communication made in 1997, the ELF declared their struggle to free all species in the planet. We are the burning rage of this dying planet. The war of greed ravages the earth and species die out every day. ELF works to speed up the collapse of industry, to scare the rich, and to undermine the foundations of the state. We embrace social and deep ecology as a practical resistance movement.
We have to show the enemy that we are serious about defending what is sacred. Together we have teeth and claws to match our dreams. Our greatest weapons are imagination and the ability to strike when least expected (Pickering, 2007, p. 10). Operation Backfire: In response to the attacks, the FBI initiated in 2004 Operation Backfire intended to investigate acts of terrorism by the ELF. It put together several independent investigation bodies from the agency’s Portland, Oregon field office and rounded up suspected eco-terrorists. Seven people were arrested in four different states.
They were Stanislas Meyerhoff, Chelsea Gerlach, Daniel McGowan, Darren Thurston, Kevin Tubbs, William Rodgers, and Kendall Tankersley. In addition, five others were taken into custody namely Jonathan Paul, Josephine Overaker, Rebecca Rubin, Suzanne Savoie and Joseph Dibee. Federal prosecutors together with U. S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales indicted in 2006 11 suspects with 65 counts of conspiracy charges to commit arson in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado and California. Many of those apprehended turned informants for the government.
The arrests and indictments were the outcome of a nine-year old investigation on the series of arsons in America where the ELF claimed responsibility. The operation is on going around the country. Those participating in the investigation besides the FBI are the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Eugene Police Department, the Portland Police Bureau, the Oregon State Police, the U. S. Forest Service, the U. S. Bureau of Land Management, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the Oregon Department of Justice and the Lane County Sheriff’s Office.
Some of those arrested have been convicted of the crime in U. S. Federal Courts. They are as follows: Stanislas Meyerhoff – 13 years, Kevin Tubbs – 12 years 7 months, Chelsea Gerlach – 9 years, Kendall Tankersley – 3 years 10 months, Suzanne Savoie – 4 years 3 months, Darren Thurston – 3 years 1 month, Daniel McGowan – 7 years, Jonathan Paul – Sentencing in abeyance, Joyanna Zacher – 7 years 8 months and Nathan Block – 7 years 8 months (DOJ, 2007, ¶4). Other suspects were released on bails while some were placed on restrictions pending their trial.
A few decided to cooperate while the rest remain imprisoned. Operation backfire was highly criticized because of coercion and paid informants. Other sectors called the bold move unconstitutional but Atty. General Gonzales argued that such acts only constitute violent criminal activity, which may violate the right of every U. S. citizen. Conclusion Terrorist groups like the ELF are anti-progress and as long as development continues they will not stop their modus operandi in terrorizing the public and businesses, which already have incurred heavy losses.
The scenario is extremely dangerous and alarming. It is imperative that authorities and intelligence organizations have to assess the threat and study the behavior of these terrorists who are becoming more advanced and knowledgeable in their strategies. There is a need for effective counterstrategies to detect and prevent acts of terror at the same time proper allocation of resources in order to efficiently combat these adversaries. As a loose organization, ELF could become even more dangerous because its members do not follow any rules.
The group constantly poses great risk to the country’s democracy, endangers American lives and undermines the constitution that guarantees protection to the citizens. There is also possibility that such group could turn violence as a way of life and spread its corrupt ideals to the younger generation, which is already affected by media violence. For the government to combat this kind of domestic terrorism, it has to take more proactive actions in preventing further destructions to the economy. While doing so, its programs should remain within the framework of freedom without violating one’s constitutional rights.
Authorities must strengthen their intelligence network to prevent arson attacks. Though the ELF has its right to voice their concerns, they must be contained and stopped immediately. References FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). (1999). Terrorism in the United States 1999. Counterterrorism. 30 Years of Terrorism: A Special Retrospective Edition. Threat Assessment and Warning Unit Counterterrorism Division. Report. Federal Bureau of Investigation Rosebraugh, C. (2004). Burning Rage of a Dying Planet (P): Speaking for the Earth Liberation.
Lantern Books, New York. Leader, S. H. & Probst, P. (2004). The Earth Liberation Front and Environmental Terrorism. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from http://cjc. delaware. gov/PDF/ELF%20ALF%20article. pdf Chalk, P. (2006). Trends in Terrorism: Threats to the United States and the Future of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. RAND monograph series. RAND Center for Terrorism Risk Management Policy. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. ISBN: 0833038222 Pickering, L. J. (2007). Earth Liberation Front 1997-2002. Arissa Media Group; 2nd ed. , New York.
FBI. (2002). Testimony of James F. Jarboe, Domestic Terrorism Section Chief, Counterterrorism Division, FBI Before the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. http://www. fbi. gov/congress/congress02/jarboe021202. htm DOJ (Department of Justice). (2007). Final Sentencing Hearing Held in Case of Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front for Acts of Eco-Terrorism in Five Western States. Press Release. Retrieved December 2, 2007, from http://portland. fbi. gov/dojpressrel/2007/elfsentencing080307. htm