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Eco-terrorism: a threat?

Since 1996, eco-terrorists have caused more than $43 million in damages in the U.S., according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | December 17, 2004


"The Sierra Club strongly condemns all acts of violence in the name of the environment."

—Bruce Hamilton


Since 1996, eco-terrorists have caused more than $43 million in damages in the U.S., according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Recently public attention turned toward eco-terrorism when FBI investigators theorized eco-terrorists could have been responsible for burning 26 new, uninhabited homes in Charles County, Md., near an environmentally sensitive area. Eco-terrorism has since been ruled out but the incident left many wondering: what is eco-terrorism and what's the threat?

During the past several years, eco-terrorism has been characterized by the FBI as a type of "special interest extremism," according to an FBI official.

The two eco-terrorist groups currently being watched most closely by the FBI are the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), he said. Generally, these extremist groups engage in a lot of activity that is protected by constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly, he said. "Law enforcement becomes involved when the volatile talk of these groups transgresses into unlawful action."

Mainstream environmentalist groups have emphasized that criminal acts of eco-terrorists in no way reflect the thinking of most people who are trying to protect the environment. In addition, when the public associates eco-terrorists with environmentalists, it unfairly smears mainstream environmentalists.

"The Sierra Club strongly condemns all acts of violence in the name of the environment," said Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club conservation director. "That type of criminal behavior does nothing to further the cause of promoting safe and livable communities."

The FBI estimates that ALF and ELF have committed more than 600 criminal acts in the U.S. since 1996. Most are related to destruction of property, and none are related to killing or injuring people.

Proclaimed ELF members have set an increasing number of fires nationwide, mainly destroying half-constructed homes and SUVs. Alleged ALF members have set bombs, burned structures, and vandalized property.

After arsonists destroyed a 206-unit housing project under construction in an environmentally sensitive area of San Diego last year, they left behind a banner that said: "If you build it, we will burn it. The ELFs are mad."

Also last year, an FBI office in Richmond, Va., charged three people with arson and conspiracy after they burned housing under construction, fast-foot restaurants and SUVs in the Richmond area. The three perpetrators left ELF-associated banners at most of the sites.

In 1998, arsonists in Colorado burned down a ski lodge, restaurant, and ski patrol headquarters in Vail, in alleged protest of the expansion of the ski resort.

ELF has also claimed responsibility for attacks on genetically engineered crops and trees.

And ELF could burden both the FBI and local environmentalists for some time to come, according to officials who investigate eco-terrorism.

ELF's loosely defined structure makes it difficult to catch its members. The group has no evident central authority, no public meetings, no membership cards and its followers are discouraged from meeting together, according to FBI reports.

The FBI dates the start of eco-terrorism - and the creation of the buzzword - to 1977, when disaffected members of the ecological preservation group Greenpeace formed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and attacked commercial fishing operations by cutting drift nets.

The FBI officially defines eco-terrorism as "the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, sub-national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature."


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