Environmental Group Forms an Incendiary Core, FBI Says


It is a primer on "the politics and practicalities of arson." And the techniques explained within this new handbook of the radical environmental movement have been used at least three times over the last month--to firebomb a university horticulture center, a tree farm and three logging trucks.

"Guarantee destruction of the target through careful planning and execution," says the Earth Liberation Front's guide on setting fires with electric timers. "Take no shortcuts. . . . Never be satisfied with possible destruction or probable destruction. The objective of every action should be assured destruction. The risks are too high for anything else."

The guide was published last week on the ELF's Web site, amid a growing wave of arson attacks against targets in the Pacific Northwest. Federal law enforcement officials are increasingly convinced that the fires are the work of a single, cohesive terrorist group.

And FBI officials now believe they can establish the existence of an identifiable hierarchy within the ELF--a group that has always claimed to operate chiefly through independent activist cells united only by ideology.

"There is a certain core, or central organization, that knows what is going on throughout the country," Phil Donegan, acting special agent in charge of the FBI in Portland, Ore., said in an interview this week. "That's part of the criminal case that we're building."

Pacific Northwest a Favorite Target

Until now, authorities have arrested only a handful of individuals linked to the ELF, a group whose attacks are thought to have done damage totaling more than $40 million since 1995. Their environmental targets had appeared to be widely scattered and essentially unrelated, from luxury housing in Long Island, N.Y., and Colorado to logging facilities and equipment in Indiana and Oregon.

By far the largest concentration of ELF activity has been in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Oregon, which has had at least 16 arsons in the last six years.

Earlier this month, the ELF claimed responsibility for two separate May 21 arsons--occurring at roughly the same time--that targeted purported genetic engineering projects in Seattle and Clatskanie, Ore. It was a landmark event: "The first time in North American history that the ELF has targeted two separate locations in differing states at the same time," the group said.

Art Ahrens, supervisor of the arson and explosives unit of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Seattle, said it appeared the ignition devices on the firebombs were similar. They have been sent to a lab in Walnut Creek, Calif., for a final determination.

"Clearly, both [attacks] are very similar: You have similar targets, similar motives, virtually the same fire occurring at the same time on the same day," Ahrens said.

Genetically Altered Trees Torched

The target in Oregon was a poplar tree farm along the Columbia River, where two buildings and more than a dozen vehicles were destroyed. In Seattle, the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington sustained $5.4 million in damage.

Although the fire there destroyed a rare plant conservation program, a master gardener program and an urban food gardener program, the target--according to the ELF--was associate professor Toby Bradshaw's work in poplar research. Bradshaw also had been targeted before the World Trade Organization talks in 1999, when 12 poplars and 188 red alders he was studying were destroyed by a group calling itself the Washington Tree Improvement Assn.

Poplar farming, a relatively new style of forestry that looks to promote the trees' rapid-growth genetic characteristics, has been a frequent target of activists.

A June 1 communique from the ELF press office in Portland said that Bradshaw "continues to unleash mutant genes into the environment that is [sic] certain to cause irreversible harm to forest ecosystems. As long as universities continue to pursue this reckless 'science,' they run the risk of suffering severe losses. Our message remains clear, we are determined to stop genetic engineering."

Bradshaw said the arsonists were mistaken in believing he was cultivating genetically engineered trees, although he has studied them.

"My work is basically science. I don't produce trees of any kind. Nothing I do is ever likely to see the outside of a greenhouse," he said.

In any case, he said, research aimed at promoting rapid-growth characteristics should be seen as a net benefit to the environment--since lumber supplied from poplar tree farms could replace logging of native forests.

"But their position is, only they can see the truth--and enforce it with a firebomb," Bradshaw said.

The ELF's public face is a vegan baker in Portland, Craig Rosebraugh, who runs the group's press office and distributes its communiques. Rosebraugh claims not to be a member and to be unaware of the identity of the activists, although he sympathizes with their actions.

He repeatedly has been called before federal grand juries in Portland, has had his home and office raided by federal agents and had his computers and records seized. But he has never been charged with any crime.

Rosebraugh said the concern about genetic engineering is that "genetic pollution" will get "out into the natural ecosystem, cross-pollinating with other species and contaminating the entire ecosystem."

With no federal indictments in any of the Northwest cases, the state legislatures in Oregon and Washington have moved toward adopting their own stepped-up penalties for ecoterrorism. An Oregon bill that cleared the Legislature this week would classify attacks with damage greater than $2,500 as felonies. Another law, already adopted, adds crimes such as tree spiking and interference with animal research to the state's anti-racketeering law.

Group Known for 'Shadowy Nature'

Oregon officials still are investigating a third recent attack for which the ELF has not claimed responsibility: On June 1, an arson fire destroyed one logging truck and damaged two others at a heavily contested logging site in central Oregon.

Donegan said the FBI has given the Justice Department specific information on ELF activities that documents enough coordination to warrant the organization's designation as a domestic terrorist group.

"When you look at it, you'll see common threads of names that appear all over the place. . . . And the way they communicate. How does everyone know to send to just this one spokesman?" Donegan said.

Federal authorities say they have been stymied because of the "opportunistic" nature of the attacks.

"It gets to the shadowy nature of the group," Ahrens, of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said. "One day they're spiking trees, the next day they're part of the Revenge of the Trees, the next day they're doing some kind of chicken release. Three days after that they're burning mink farms.

"When they keep changing their targets and their motive, it's tough for us to react that quickly," Ahrens said. "Because as soon as you figure out what they're doing and develop a plan to address it, then they're on to something totally different. It just drives us nuts."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World