Environmental radicals shift target to streets
Instead of simply protecting trees, the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF — made up of loose-knit, individual cells that follow a universal philosophy of protecting the environment by hurting corporate budgets — has now taken to targeting building developers who log land or fill in wetlands to make way for new homes, say federal officials.
With 10 police departments on alert today for possible acts of sabotage by ELF during a so-called "day of action and solidarity," the sites viewed as potential targets are largely urban. In Olympia, one of the cities placed on alert, police were contacting auto dealerships, building contractors and the port.
"We are seeing more attacks claimed on behalf of the ELF in more densely populated areas," said Phil Celestini, a 12-year FBI veteran now acting as a supervisory special agent in the Domestic Terrorism Operations Unit in Washington, D.C.
"The spread of populated areas into previously undeveloped parts of the country is going to cause more and more conflicts between developers and those who want to preserve, which is why we've seen eco-terrorism rise to where it is now," he said.
On April 20, two homes under construction were destroyed at the Snohomish-area Lobo Ridge subdivision with firebombs made with two-liter bottles full of flammable liquid. Two other homes in the neighborhood were targeted but not seriously damaged.
Later that day, two-liter bottles filled with gasoline and arranged in a circle were found at the Cedars Crossing development near Maltby along with a note attributing the action to the ELF. The reason cited in the note was environmental destruction in the area.
Similar incendiaries that failed to ignite were found the following morning at the Storm Lake Heights subdivision near Monroe.
While there has been no official link made yet between firebombs found at the three sites, law-enforcement officials have said they think all three are related.
Tony Torres, a Seattle FBI special agent assisting in the arson investigation, says the probable motive for these fires was in retaliation for wetlands destruction.
All three developments involved the removal of trees and drained wetlands. In each case, developers obtained proper permits from Snohomish County for the projects, Torres said.
"But some people still took exception to that," Torres said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI have interviewed several people, but no arrests have been made.
The FBI, which tracks acts of what it terms "domestic terrorism," says the attacks in Snohomish County shouldn't have come as a surprise to developers or residents.
According to FBI agents, groups such as the ELF — which use arson, vandalism and other illegal methods to make their point — have taken action in the cities and suburbs. And areas such as Snohomish County, where a 30 percent growth in population between 1990 and 2000 is prompting widespread building development, are ripe for such attacks, they say.
Other recent arsons attributed to ELF included last year's fire at a five-story apartment complex under construction in San Diego that caused $50 million in damage, and the February destruction of construction equipment at a mixed-use building site in Charlottesville, Va. ELF also has claimed responsibility for the May 2001 arson that destroyed the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture.
Daniel Glick, a former Newsweek reporter who has written extensively about the ELF, said he's not surprised by the change in targets.
"There's a sense of utter frustration that the environmental community is having a hard time in the courts and losing in the policy arena during the past three years," said Glick, whose book "Powder Burn" chronicled a 1998 fire attributed to the ELF that destroyed a $12 million, 12,000-square-foot lodge made of old-growth Douglas fir, in Vail, Colo.
"There is a symbolic force to taking out a Hummer or 10,000-square-foot trophy home," Glick said.
What hasn't changed, however, are the tactics these groups use. ELF's unstructured form — cells that act independently — has proved to be effective. Arrests, although becoming more high-profile in recent years, are difficult to make, the FBI says.
"The bureau is very successful in going after the traditional organized crime like La Cosa Nostra because there are structured roles, making it an easier target as a whole," said the FBI's Torres. "It's difficult to investigate these individuals because they're all anonymous cells. You arrest someone, and they don't know anything about neighboring cells."
Rod Coronado, a former spokesman for ELF and the similar Animal Liberation Front (ALF), says the group's shift from forest to suburbia is in keeping with its desire to financially hurt organizations and individuals that profit from environmental destruction.
"There's a direct relation in the fact that environmental destruction in one's own community — urban sprawl and poor air quality — are becoming the largest issues," said Coronado, who spent four years in a federal prison for a 1992 arson attributed to the ALF at Michigan State University's experimental fur farm.
"So we're seeing less environmental focus on the wilderness and what's pristine, and we're working to protect the local communities that we live in," said Coronado, who noted that he no longer takes action on behalf of the ELF because he believes he is being watched by federal authorities.
According to the FBI, environmental and animal-rights extremists claimed responsibility for 46 acts of vandalism and arson in 2000 and 59 in 2003.
A visit to either the ELF or ALF Web sites, run by press offices that only act to disseminate information about attacks made by cells, sheds light on the groups' aims and tactics.
Since there is no formal membership, anyone can claim an action on behalf of the group, Coronado said. While many cells send a communiqué to the ELF press office for distribution to law enforcement and media, that never occurred with the Snohomish County arsons.
Still, the ELF press office told media outlets that it should be assumed the Snohomish County fires and attempted arsons occurred on behalf of the ELF.
"It is clear from past statements and recent actions of the ELF that urban sprawl has become a central issue in the struggle to protect the earth," said an e-mail sent from the ELF press office after the Snohomish County arsons.
The ELF did not respond to written requests for comment for this story.
"Unfortunately, we're taking a beating on forest protection," Coronado said. "I think we've left that battlefield in defeat, and now we're fighting to protect what's in front of us. It's still the ELF, but it's morphing into a more urban environment."
That leaves developers such as Peter Lance worried. Lance's development, Storm Lake Heights, was targeted with firebombs that didn't ignite. Since April, Lance and other builders have increased security at construction sites and wonder, if the same thing happens to them, whether their insurance would cover the damages. Some insurance companies will not cover arson.
"It's a big problem, and for the builder, it could be a personal disaster," Lance said. "I see the arsons as a misguided attempt to get attention for a very real problem."
There have been recent arrests and convictions in ELF-connected cases: A young man with ELF affiliation recently was arrested for firebombing 125 sport-utility vehicles at auto dealerships and neighborhoods near Los Angeles in 2003; and three claiming ELF membership recently pleaded guilty to the destruction of vehicles, houses and other property in Richmond, Va., during 2002.
But FBI agents acknowledge that they've had little luck to date, recently offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the 2001 fire at the University of Washington and a similar fire at the Jefferson Poplar Farms in Clatskanie, Ore.
"I think this is going to continue being a significant problem for this country as the population grows," Celestini said. "We're going to continue seeing expansion of development into previously pristine, natural areas."
Coronado, who says he still supports the ELF movement, puts it another way.
"In the 1980s, any woman wearing a fur coat should have expected to get it spray-painted," he said. "Today, you build a luxury home, you can possibly expect it to be burned down."
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