In recent years, it seemed as though law-enforcement agencies had finally been able to achieve major breakthroughs against "ecoterrorism" carried out by environmental and animal-rights radicals, much of it in the Pacific Northwest.
But the arson fires involving several new luxury homes near Seattle Monday indicate that small, self-contained cells of saboteurs continue to plot and carry out attacks in the name of environmental activism, officials say.
"Even though the number of spectacular arsons in the name of ELF [Earth Liberation Front] and ALF [Animal Liberation Front] decreased in the past couple of years, the level of criminal activity carried out on behalf of these movements has not slowed down a bit," says Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism in New York.
"For every successful conviction in an older ELF or ALF attack, there are dozens of new actions being planned and carried out, and not just against property. The deliberate targeting of individuals has become even more widespread and violent."
In this week's attack, four new unoccupied homes in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville were destroyed or damaged. Explosive devices were found along with a sign in which ELF took responsibility.
The "Street of Dreams" development, including large homes listed at more then $1 million, featured environmentally friendly design and construction elements. But critics had complained that the project could damage the nearby stream habitat of endangered chinook salmon.
As recently as 2005, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said attacks by environmental and animal rights extremists were one of the most serious forms of domestic terrorism. Many of these attacks have been linked to a shadowy group calling itself "the family."
Officials count some 1,200 such incidents since "ecoterrorism" became a major concern in the 1990s.
Attacks dating back to 1997 have been directed at US Forest Service ranger stations, wild horse corrals used by the US Bureau of Land Management, a Bonneville Power Administration high-tension power line tower, an SUV dealership, three forest products companies, the University of Washington Horticultural Center, a Colorado ski resort, a horsemeat packing plant, and a police station in Eugene, Ore.
Other targets include the destruction by arson of a large condominium project under construction in San Diego in 2003, and housing and commercial developments in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. Property damage is estimated to have totaled more than $200 million.
A law-enforcement breakthrough in the West came in 2006 when an informant with a recording device resulted in a 65-count indictment against 11 individuals associated with "the family." Evidence included 35 compact discs of recorded conversations and 40,000 pages of transcripts, police reports, and photos.
Over following months, the suspects (five women and six men) began cooperating with prosecutors, in some cases providing information on fellow suspects in return for reduced sentences.
But threats and attacks continue. In Santa Cruz, Calif., recently, the husband of a University of California researcher whose biomedical research includes the use of lab animals was attacked in his home by masked assailants. No one has taken responsibility for the attack, but university officials suspect animal rights activists. Other staff and students have been targeted by animal rights activists in recent weeks, according to university officials.
"The incidents include harassing phone calls and graffiti vandalism at the victims' homes," university Chancellor George Blumenthal said in a statement. "No claims of responsibility have been made, and police are investigating. These actions come in the wake of dangerous incidents involving researchers at other campuses, including UCLA."
The University of California at Los Angeles recently obtained a temporary restraining order against animal rights groups and activists accused of harassing university researchers. In one recent incident, an incendiary device was placed on the porch of a UCLA researcher who uses monkeys in her research on nicotine addiction.
Groups named in the restraining order are UCLA Primate Freedom, the Animal Liberation Brigade, and the Animal Liberation Front.
The press office claimed in a recent posting to its website, "There were at least 53 claimed actions by the animal liberation underground in North America in 2007, almost twice the number from the year before – and there are undoubtedly many more actions that went unclaimed."
The temporary restraining order will make little difference in its activities, an ALF spokesman says.
“UCLA accomplished absolutely nothing,” says Jerry Vlasak, a medical doctor who opposes animal testing and acts as a press officer for ALF. “Underground activists will probably never even know the restraining order exists, and all but five picketers can continue their protests against the atrocities being committed by primate vivisectors on the UCLA campus.”
For their part, researchers conducting animal testing take a very different view of such threats.
“There is an ominous upward spiral of violence against researchers,” says Jacquie Calnan, president of Americans for Medical Progress in Alexandria, Va., which represents universities, private research facilities, and research-related businesses.
“Threats and crimes by animal rights militants have been horrific realities for two generations of scientists, from the earliest of laboratory break-ins and animal thefts in the 1980s, to booby-trapped letters in the 1990s, to recent firebombings and nighttime protests at scientists’ homes,” says Ms. Calnan.
“With the attacks increasing in intensity, it may be only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed.”
Material from the Associated Press was used.