Violent rhetoric and tactics by extremist groups have escalated nationally during the past two years, particularly among those associated with animal rights and the environment, federal law-enforcement authorities say.
These “ecoterrorists” are being investigated by the FBI’s counterterrorism division, which notes the emerging threat of “special-interest extremism” used by such groups as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).
“Special-interest terrorism differs from traditional right-wing and left-wing terrorism in that extremist special-interest groups seek to resolve specific issues, rather than effect widespread political change,” FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism John E. Lewis said during recent congressional testimony.
Authorities yesterday had not ruled out the possibility ecoterrorists might be responsible for fires that damaged or destroyed 26 houses being built near a wetland area in Maryland. No one has taken responsibility for the fires, and an official from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said, so far, the evidence does not point to a specific group.
The FBI defines ecoterrorism as criminal violence committed for “environmental-political reasons.” During testimony in May before the Senate, Mr. Lewis said ALF and ELF have committed more than 1,100 criminal acts since 1976, resulting in damages estimated at $110 million.
The groups are loosely organized and operate clandestinely, but have expressed solidarity with each other.
ALF was formed in Britain in the mid-1970s and is devoted to ending abuse and exploitation of animals. A mission statement on its Web site says the group “carries out direct action against animal abuse in the form of rescuing animals and causing financial loss to animal exploiters, usually through the damage and destruction of property.”
ELF apparently is less organized. It also was founded in Britain, but in the early 1990s. Its hallmarks are arson and “tree spiking,” in which large nails are hammered into tree trunks to damage logging equipment.
However, law-enforcement authorities “have had a difficult time tying the political activity of extreme environmental organizations to terrorist activities,” said Sandy Liddy Bourne, director of policy and legislation for the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The council is helping six states draft ecological terrorism laws that would make such crimes a felony and easier to prosecute.
“These are not your local Sierra Club folks,” said Ms. Bourne, adding that ELF or ALF hit 20 states in 2003 with arsons, bombings, destruction of biotechnology labs, damage to genetically modified food crops and freeing of livestock.
Brian Carnell of Michigan, who runs a Web site devoted to exposing ecoterrorists, said ELF and ALF are “more like brand names.”
Ecoterrorists tend to be young, well-educated, college students interested in the environmental or animal rights movements, but frustrated by lack of progress, he said.
He also said the actions mostly are done by “three or four people who know each other who go out and do these things and then attach the name to it afterwards.”