The trial of seven animal rights activists under domestic terrorism laws focuses attention on a threat which law enforcement officials say has become greater than that of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and right-wing militias.
Defendants in the federal trial in New Jersey, which has just begun and is expected to last into August, are charged with conspiracy and interstate stalking involving the vandalism and harassment of employees of labs that use animals to test drugs and chemicals.
Officials say this is part of a growing trend that in recent years has included more than 1,200 incidents of arson, bombings, theft, animal releases, vandalism, and office takeovers. Targets of what activists call "direct actions" have included laboratories, mink ranches, SUV dealerships, fast-food outlets, and new housing developments. Damages have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We have seen an escalation in violent rhetoric and tactics," John Lewis, the FBI's deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, told a Senate hearing recently. "Attacks are also growing in frequency and size. Harassing phone calls and vandalism now coexist with improvised explosive devices and personal threats to employees."
The FBI currently has 150 pending investigations involving 35 agency field offices working with other law enforcement agencies on such cases. "The FBI and its partners have made a number of high-profile arrests of individuals involved with animal rights extremism or ecoterrorism," Mr. Lewis told lawmakers.
A federal judge in California recently ruled that William Jensen Cottrell, a graduate student in physics at the California Institute of Technology, should serve at least seven years in federal prison and pay more than $3.5 million in restitution for firebombing more than 100 sport utility vehicles at dealerships and homes near Los Angeles.
Activists reject the "ecoterrorist" label, a controversial phrase coined by those who tend to be critical of anything (or anybody) involved with environmental activism.
Likening their activity to that of the anti-Nazi resistance in Europe or the underground railroad helping slaves escape the South, activists say that those carrying out the attacks take "all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human."
It may be true that, unlike such right-wing domestic terrorists as Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph, they have not been responsible for any loss of life - other than the odd mink that's been "liberated" into the tooth-and-claw world of nature and would have been killed for its fur anyway.
Still, some animal rights and environmental extremists are ratcheting up their threats. One is quoted as saying, "If someone is killing, on a regular basis, thousands of animals, and if that person can only be stopped in one way by the use of violence, then it is certainly a justifiable solution."
While no one has been killed in any "direct action," there have been several close calls, officials say.
"The most worrisome trend to law enforcement and private industry alike has been the increase in willingness by these movements to resort to the use of incendiary and explosive devices," says Carson Carroll, of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
For their part, mainstream environmentalists and animal rights advocates are working to separate themselves from groups and individuals that break the law on behalf of their cause. All of the major environmental groups sent to the Senate Committee a letter which "strongly condemns all acts of violence, including those committed in the name of environmental causes."
Among the most radical organizations apparently involved are the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). They tend to operate in small, autonomous cells, using simple techniques and leaving few clues other than warning signs.
Earlier this year, houses under construction in Sammamish, Wash., were firebombed by individuals who left messages signed "ELF."
In the New Jersey case now at trial, the seven defendants (most in their 20s) are charged with inciting others to commit vandalism and harass employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a company in England that has research labs in the United States.
In a similar case earlier this year, a credit card belonging to the wife of a pharmaceutical company executive was stolen when her car was broken into. The card was used to buy $20,000 in traveler's checks, which was donated to charity, then followed by a warning that seemed to include a physical threat.
Such acts as these, together with vandalism directed at individual scientists and business executives, can be annoying. But the posting of personal addresses and phone numbers, together with threats of physical attacks of the type that have occurred in England, can be very frightening. And they can have a chilling effect on business decisions, or (as in the case at several universities) set back biomedical research for years.
In Pennsylvania last week, the owner of a flower business decided not to build a kennel for monkeys (intended for use at private and government labs) after vandals destroyed plants, damaged vehicles, and spray-painted such threats as "ALF is watching."
While such acts can be prosecuted under existing law, some lawmakers want to make it a federal crime to support such groups - by giving donations, for example.
Several states now are considering separate laws aimed at "ecoterrorism," stiffening the penalty for attacks on such things as university labs, dog food makers, farms where animals are caged, and hunting businesses.