In US, a rise of violent environmental tactics

Arson and death threats have followed ecoterrorists' call for more use of force.

A war on terrorism is escalating in the United States, but it's one that has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein.

This form of violence – which the FBI says is the most serious type of domestic terrorism in the country today – involves radical environmentalists and animal-rights activists, some of whom now vow that they "will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice...."

Civil disobedience and property damage have long been the tools of such groups. Blockading log trucks, tree-sitting, "liberating" animals used for fashion or research, acts of vandalism, and even arson are part of their arsenal. But almost without exception, the line has been drawn against injuring or killing people.

That appears to be changing.

Radical groups formed in England with a record of physically attacking people perceived to be their enemies have begun operating in Canada and the United States. Arson is becoming a more common tool, threatening employees of torched buildings. Personal harassment amounting to psychological violence has been directed against the family members of those accused of harming animals or the environment. And the rhetoric from such groups increasingly warns of personal violence.

"The evidence is indisputable that they're turning more and more to violence," says Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report, a quarterly publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors political extremism and domestic terrorism. "When you start burning buildings it just seems to me obvious that, at some point, some night watchman is going to get burned up."

The threats are even more direct.

In a recent "communiqué," the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed responsibility for a fire last month at the US Forest Service Northeast Research Station in Irvine, Penn. causing over $700,000 damage and destroying years' worth of research. Such messages have been standard operating procedure for ELF, a shadowy organization that tends to operate in "leaderless cells" much like antiabortion radicals and right-wing extremists.

But in this message, ELF also issued a stronger warning: "In pursuance of justice, freedom, and equal consideration for all innocent life across the board, segments of this global revolutionary movement are no longer limiting their revolutionary potential by adhering to a flawed, inconsistent 'non-violent' ideology. While innocent life will never be harmed in any action we undertake, where it is necessary, we will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice...."

"Innocent life," one presumes here, does not include those targeted for attack. The message speaks of "inevitable, violent confrontation," and it promises that members "will stand up and fight ... by any means necessary." The Earth Liberation Front website includes a detailed 37-page how-to guide titled "Setting Fires with Electrical Timers."

ELF and a related organization known as the Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, have their roots in England. Among other things, ALF has claimed responsibility for burning down a primate research facility in New Mexico and bombing poultry trucks in Indiana. Another group based in England – "Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty" or SHAC – targets Huntingdon Life Sciences, Europe's largest animal-testing laboratory.

That effort has now moved to the United States. In Boston last month, two SHAC members were arraigned on charges of stalking, criminal harassment, and extortion. Their focus was an insurance executive who does business with the animal-testing lab. Prosecutors say the animal-rights activists threatened to burn down the executive's house.

Another such group is called the "Justice Department." As described in ALF documents, this animal-rights group advocates "removing any barriers between legal and illegal, violent and nonviolent." Among other things, the "Justice Department" has mailed letter bombs and razor blades covered with rat poison to fur farmers, to publishers of a big-game hunting guide, and to companies that export live animals.

It had been decided (according to ALF) that "it was time that animal abusers had but a taste of the fear and anguish their victims suffer on a daily basis."

As with many such other terrorists (including suicide bombers in the Middle East as well as those who attack abortion providers in this country), ecoterrorists may become more violent as they see their efforts frustrated by law enforcement crackdowns or by political administrations perceived as particularly unfriendly. Experts say this is a common reaction among radical religions and other small, extremist groups whose members have become zealots.

"A group's perception of persecution, combined with its perceived failure to meet its ultimate goals may result in an escalation of violent acts," says Jean Rosenfeld, a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA. "If a group is underground, as ELF is, considers itself an elite corps, and believes a higher law mandates violent acts in order to bring about what it considers to be salvation – for example, of the earth and all life – then it may have difficulty recruiting enough members and it may become more fanatical and violent over time."

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