FBI Targets Domestic Terrorists; after Years of Trying to Warn the Public about the Dangers of Ecoterrorism, Critics of Extremist Movements Find Themselves Winning the War for Public Opinion. (Security)

By Richardson, Valerie | Insight on the News, April 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

FBI Targets Domestic Terrorists; after Years of Trying to Warn the Public about the Dangers of Ecoterrorism, Critics of Extremist Movements Find Themselves Winning the War for Public Opinion. (Security)


Richardson, Valerie, Insight on the News


Sure, they burn down homes, firebomb universities and terrorize research labs. Even so, for the better part of a decade, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) were seen not as antisocial thugs but idealistic young kids. After all, the public generally supported their goals -- a clean environment and compassion toward animals. Religious fundamentalists and militias were dangerous; groups such as ELF and ALF were well-meaning, even if they sometimes got carried away and torched a ranger station.

Then came Sept. 11. For ELF and ALF, that was the day they took joint credit for firebombing a McDonald's in Tucson, Ariz. For the rest of the nation, that was the day that terrorism suddenly ceased being cute.

"The general population is becoming a lot less tolerant toward these groups," says Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) "The feeling is, if you're going to tolerate this, then why not tolerate al-Qaeda? We need to take away the Robin Hood mystique from these terrorists, which is what they are."

While the nation fights international terrorism overseas, lawmakers such as McInnis have renewed their long-standing campaign to crack down on domestic terrorism, notably ecoterrorism. The FBI now ranks both ALF and ELF as the No. 1 domestic-terrorism threats, surpassing the Timothy McVeigh-style militia extremists who dominated the terrorism scene during much of the 1990s.

"The FBI estimates that the ALF/ ELF have committed more than 600 criminal acts in the United States since 1996, resulting in damages in excess of $43 million," said James Jarboe, FBI domestic-terrorism section chief, at a February hearing before the House Resources subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.

And the threat is growing. Animal and environmental activists are turning increasingly toward vandalism and terrorism to further their causes. "They're all over the place -- they've torched so many things, you can't keep track any more," says Ron Arnold, author of Ecoterror: The Violent Agenda to Save Nature.

The trend has led to some ominous speculation. "At the rate they're going," adds Mike Burita, spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom, "someone's going to get killed."

Still, most Americans have never heard of these groups. Reports of ecoterrorism rarely make it past the local newspaper, and only a handful have received national attention. Chief among these was the October 1998 fire at the Vail, Colo., resort that destroyed four ski lifts and a restaurant at a cost of $12 million.

"Despite the fact that we've been trying to direct attention to the problem, we haven't had much luck," says Nick Nichols, chief executive officer of Nichols Dezenhall, a crisis-management communications firm in Washington whose clients include companies hit by ecoterrorism. "After 9/11, people are more interested in learning about our homegrown terrorists."

The FBI makes a clear distinction between domestic and international terrorism, but longtime foes of ecoterrorism are quick to draw parallels between ALF/ELF and the al-Qaeda network. "The rationalization of ecoterrorists is no different from the al-Qaeda terrorists," said House Resources Committee Chairman James V. Hansen (R-Utah). "Both believe they are the sole proprietor of truth and righteousness. Both believe they have the right to impose their concepts of truth and righteousness on society. Both attack people who they think have violated nature's or God's law."

Some environmental activists seem to invite such comparisons with statements that appear to support the Islamic terrorists who executed the Sept. 11 attacks. "I cheered when the plane hit the Pentagon. Those people are in the business of killing people," said an ELF member in an interview in the February issue of Details magazine. "Anyone in their right mind would realize the United States had it coming," added Craig Rosebraugh, a vocal ELF member, in the same interview. …

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