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Backstory: Eco-vigilantes: All in 'The Family?'

The indictment of 11 people for 'eco-terrorism' opens a window on environmental extremism.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2006


The group called itself "The Family." After meticulously casing a horsemeat packing plant in Redmond, Ore., they made a firebomb using soap and petroleum products (a napalm-like substance known as "vegan Jell-O") and a time-delayed incendiary device called a "Cat's Cradle."

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Arriving at the staging area after dark, they dressed in dark clothing, masks, and gloves, and checked their walkie-talkies and police radio scanner. Quietly, they crept through the sagebrush toward the target. They drilled holes through the wall so the fuel would pour into the building. Then, they set the firebomb against the wall and retreated to the staging area. There, they dumped their dark clothes and shoes into a hole and poured in acid to destroy DNA and other evidence. By the time the packing plant, Cavel West, Inc., was engulfed in flames, "The Family" had vanished into the night.

Five days later, through an anonymous communiqué, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) took credit for the fire that destroyed the facility in July of 1997. But it would be years before the alleged plotters were apprehended. And until then, according to a 65-count indictment announced last week by the US Justice Department, the 11-member group of activists launched 17 similar attacks across Oregon, Wyoming, Washington, and California in what authorities consider one of the most extensive campaigns of "ecoterrorism" in US history.

Documents and other information revealed in recent court hearings provide an inside look at how a band of extremists - 20th century Luddites, in a way - tried to leave their explosive imprint on a society whose commerce and industry they believed was overwhelming nature.

Edward Abbey, the desert curmudgeon whose 1975 novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang" inspired the environmental group Earth First!, once declared that "sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." Most who took this to heart had no intention of breaking the law.

But somewhere along the way, vandalizing log trucks and "liberating" lab rats escalated into firebombs, plots to blow up electrical towers and dams, code names, and anonymous communiqués boasting of destroying millions of dollars in property.

Other targets allegedly attacked by "The Family," for instance, include US Forest Service ranger stations, wild horse corrals used by the US Bureau of Land Management, a Bonneville Power Administration electrical tower, and an SUV dealership. There were also three forest products companies, the University of Washington Horticultural Center, a Colorado ski resort, and a police station in Eugene, Ore.

While the attacks occurred around the West, 12 of the 17 were in Oregon, most within an hour or so of Eugene. Like Berkeley, Calif., Madison, Wisc., and Boulder, Colo., Eugene is a university town known for its liberal politics. But it's also home to more radical thinking as well, including anarchists behind much of the rioting and destruction at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.

Those close to the underground activists say the FBI has targeted the wrong people. "What law enforcement has done is round up a bunch of above-ground, well-known, peaceful animal-rights activists and environmental activists and charged them with being members of the ALF and the ELF [Earth Liberation Front] simply because they can't find the real members," says Jerry Vlasak, spokesman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office in Canoga Park, Calif. "These people are completely innocent of the charges."