— -- In the 1990s, the name of the Earth Liberation Front used to surface only in connection with arson at logging or mining companies, but the group has increasingly claimed responsibility for firebombings at housing developments, car dealerships and in people's driveways. Who is this shadowy organization?
The FBI calls it the single greatest domestic terrorist threat, and since the mid-1990s the group has claimed responsibility for more than $100 million in damages in arson attacks on logging companies or development projects — and lately, vehicles — it considers particularly damaging to the environment. That is the simple answer — but it's not so simple.
In all of the dozens of "direct actions" that the ELF has taken responsibility, only a handful of people have sustained minor injuries, despite all the damage done to property. Though there have been esceptions, the majority of the postings on the ELF Web site have maintained a commitment to avoiding injury to people, even those responsible for the projects they oppose.
Over the past few years, some people who have claimed association with the ELF, including former spokesman Craig Rosebraugh, have said that violence against people may become necessary, but as of yet the modus operandi of people calling themselves members of the ELF has not changed.
The ELF is an offshoot of the group Earth First!, created when some environmentalists became disenchanted with what they saw as the lack of success of that organization and more mainstream environmental groups to have an impact on government, corporations and society.
They believe that the damage being done to the Earth by pollution, logging, mining and development must be stopped or the planet is doomed.
They hope that by destroying property they can inflict enough financial damage on companies and individuals to make them stop their environmentally harmful practices.
The ELF bears some similarity to the Animal Liberation Front in that both are without structure and have given up on effecting change through the system. The ALF, however, has focused its activity almost exclusively on labs that do testing on animals or farms that raise animals for furs.
This is what has caused problems for law enforcement trying to put an end to the group's activities. There is no Osama bin Laden of the ELF, there are no "lieutenants," and no hierarchical structure at all.
It may even be a misnomer to call the ELF a "group."
Because people become "members" by sharing the beliefs espoused on the ELF Web site, by carrying out direct actions and then declaring them the actions of the ELF, by sending announcements to the Web site or by painting the group's initials or slogans such as "If You Build It We Will Burn It" at the scene of the arson.
The earliest "direct actions" associated with the ELF were primarily directed against logging and mining companies, primarily in the Northwest, where the environmental movement has traditionally been strong. Trucks and other equipment were firebombed, but the attacks drew little attention.
That changed in 1998, with the arson at an expansion project at a Vail, Colo., ski resort that caused $12 million in damages.
Since then the range of targets of the attacks has broadened. University labs and tree farms doing research in genetics have been burned, luxury housing construction projects have been struck all across the country, and in August 2003 the ELF took responsibility for arson at a San Diego apartment construction project that the builders said did $50 million worth of damage.
ELF activists have also claimed responsibility for torching SUVs, both at dealerships and in people's driveways. In one series of such attacks last summer, 125 SUVs were destroyed at a Los Angeles auto dealership and at private homes in the city.