When law-enforcement agencies arrested 10 animal rights activists and environmental radicals 18 months ago, it was a major breakthrough in the fight against what officials call "ecoterrorism."
Among the crimes solved were a string of arsons and other attacks across five Western states totaling more than $40 million in damage. Targets of the group calling itself The Family had been timber companies, meatpacking plants, an SUV dealership, a Colorado ski resort, and the University of Washington Horticultural Center.
Now, with all defendants having pleaded guilty because of the weight of the evidence against them, including an informant who wore a recording device, prosecutors are seeking "terrorism enhancements" to their sentences.
"This is the first time in the history of the US that the federal government is seeking this enhancement for property crimes that did not result in injury or death to humans," said Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore.
In their 148-page sentencing memorandum filed last week in federal court in Eugene, prosecutors argued that "although the government was not a direct victim, it was nonetheless a federal crime of terrorism because of the offenders' motivation." Intimidation, coercion, and retaliation aimed at the conduct of government, prosecutors said, deserves "enhanced" punishment under federal antiterrorism laws.
The ecosaboteurs' goal, according to prosecutors, was to retaliate for certain federal policies related to natural resources and animals, and they were attempting to coerce government agencies into changing those policies. Federal sentencing guidelines in such cases can add up to 20 years to a sentence, and this can also mean being sent to a maximum security prison.
The defendants and their attorneys point out that those charged made special efforts to avoid harming people.
Prosecutors say this makes no difference, especially when it comes to arson attacks.
"This was a classic case of terrorism, despite their protests of lofty humane goals," Assistant US Attorney Stephen Peifer told US District Judge Ann Aiken in court Tuesday. "It was pure luck no one was killed or injured by their actions."
In recent years, the USA Patriot Act and other legislation have broadened the application of antiterrorism laws and punishments to include radical environmental and animal-welfare activists. After years of unsolved crimes acknowledged to be the work of the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, the use of informants has broken up several cells, including The Family.
Still, "direct actions" claimed by these shadowy groups with no apparent central leadership continue, experts say.
"Vandalism occurs on a regular basis," says Oren Segal, who tracks extremist groups for the Anti-Defamation League in New York. "The harassment of employees of companies that either animal test or work with companies that animal test also occurs on a daily basis. New groups have formed, and new leaders have emerged."
"Moreover, the movement's violent rhetoric increasingly justifies targeting humans to save the lives of animals," says Mr. Segal. "It was not surprising when ALF took credit for leaving an incendiary device at the home of a UCLA primate researcher in the summer of 2006. Although the device failed to ignite, arson investigators said it would have made escape difficult or impossible had it functioned properly."
Mainstream environmentalists and animal-welfare advocates decry such violence. But they're concerned that branding it as "terrorism" threatens legitimate activism as well.
"When everyone is a terrorist, no one is," says Ms. Regan. "The further we broaden the language of what a true terrorist is, the less security we really have. If a monkeywrencher is the same as Osama bin Laden, where is the distinction drawn?"