What Motivates Eco-Terrorists?

The clandestine eco-terror group Earth Liberation Front resurfaced dramatically this week after arsonists destroyed three new luxury homes under construction outside Maltby, Wash., a suburb 25 miles northeast of Seattle. The $7 million fire, set Monday before dawn, also damaged two other homes in a green-home project that used environmentally friendly materials and building techniques.

Law enforcement officials are investigating links to the ELF because a spray-painted bedsheet claimed responsibility for the shadowy group. Signed with the initials ELF, the crudely lettered sheet draped over a nearby fence read "Built Green? Nope BLACK!" and "McMansions + R.C.D.'s r not GREEN." RCDs are rural cluster developments, a zoning category in Seattle's fast-growing suburbs in which new houses are bunched together in order to preserve open space.

A loosely knit organization of eco-radicals who say they are protecting the environment and limiting sprawl through vandalism and arson, the ELF first surfaced in the United States in 1996. In 1998 the group took credit for a $12 million fire at a new ski resort in Vail, Colo. The memberless organization, which is composed of small and very secretive cells, has burned suburban homes and condos from Long Island to San Diego. Despite the secrecy, federal prosecutions have picked off key activists in the group. More than a dozen alleged members of "the Family," an ELF cell centered near Olympia, Wash., and Eugene, Ore., have been arrested and are in various stages of prosecution. They are charged with setting the Vail fire as well as one at a USDA laboratory in Olympia in 1998 and another at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001.

Two prosecutions of suspected ELF members are currently underway. Tre Arrow, a 34-year-old activist, pleaded innocent to arson and conspiracy charges in federal court in Portland, Ore., this week for alleged participating in firebombings of logging trucks and cement mixers in 2001. In Tacoma, Wash., a federal jury found Briana Waters, an alleged lookout in the University of Washington fire, guilty on two counts of arson and continues in deliberation on one count of conspiracy and two counts stemming from the possession and use of a device to commit a crime, which carries a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Law enforcement officials are investigating whether the Maltby arson is a sign of an ELF resurgence. Gary Perlstein, an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University, wonders whether this week's attack is a reaction to the prosecutions of Arrow and Waters. Perlstein spoke with NEWSWEEK's Miyoko Ohtake about the current state of the ELF. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How do the ELF and the recent fires that are being attributed to them fit into the bigger picture of eco-terrorism today?
Gary Perlstein:
Eco-terrorism stretches back into when machines were first coming in and we had groups of people in Great Britain who were protesting—and sometimes violently—the use of machines to do, say, knitting or stitchery. People were upset that machines were taking people's jobs. Now it's technology. We need more newspaper paper; we still need to build houses out of wood. The increase of these things has been brought on by better machinery. ELF is just a more modern example of some of the earlier groups [of eco-terrorists].

When did the ELF first arrive on the eco-terrorist scene?
ELF started in the United Kingdom around the early '90s. Their first action in the U.S. that made us take notice of them here was in 1996; it was a burning down of a U.S. Forest Service lookout post. They're an international underground movement using what have become terrorist activities to try to get their cause across.

How would you characterize that cause?
They want to save the environment. Now, what that means is different things to different people. They have basically gone off the deep end and are not just committing minor criminal acts but are committing major criminal acts that have the potential of violence against people—even though they are not targeting people, so they say.

How do they go about choosing their targets?
Their targets, like [those of] every other terrorist group, are more symbols than they are useful. They'll pick out something that will gain them attention—and, of course, expensive houses in the Seattle area would be something that gains attention. Their targets are not meant to win a war but to get attention. They hope to get the public angry enough at society to change some environmental laws.

If their cause is to save the environment, how does burning houses, and thereby releasing carbon and toxins into the atmosphere, help achieve that goal?
It's just as logical as the radical anti-abortion activists who killed abortion doctors because they're against murder. We're not dealing with logic; we're dealing with emotional feelings.

How deep-seated are these emotions?
To these people the environmental issues have become a religion. It's beyond the mind. It's beyond even emotion. We're talking about something that's become a religious thing to them the same way people would die rather than give up Christianity or the way the Jews at Masada would not surrender to the Romans. This is the same type of fervor that we're dealing with.

You've described the ELF as an underground movement. What do you mean by that?
They follow the cell structure that was characteristic of Mao Zedong, the original leader of the Communist Party in China. In his book on guerilla warfare Mao talks about setting up a cell structure of three to five people, and that group doesn't know anybody in any other group. That way, if someone gets caught they can't give too much information. The ELF is that type of organization, because they don't really have an organization. In fact, what's probably happening right now is the ELF spokespeople are looking at what happened in the Seattle area and deciding whether to take credit for it.

The lack of formal organization must make it very difficult to catch criminals associated with crimes the ELF has committed.
Extremely. The one key thing about them and one of the things that makes them very hard to catch is that they don't really exist. In fact, if I wanted to do something like burn down a tree farm, if they accepted that act as within their guidelines, then I would become a member of ELF. It's not that I'm joining the organization, it's the fact that my actions will allow them to accept me or not.

How successful has law enforcement been with tracking the ELF?
Nobody knows for sure what keeps them at bay, because they don't commit crimes in any certain pattern. If they did do the Seattle one, they might not be doing another one for another nine months to a year, and that would be a normal thing because they're all different groups doing all kinds of things across the country. There aren't just one or two people giving orders.

The ELF was much more active five years ago, with the group being linked to four incidents of arson along the West Coast in 2003 alone. Why have they suddenly re-emerged?
The ELF hasn't come out and claimed responsibility [for the fires in Maltby], but I'll throw in a guess. Right now in Tacoma, another suburb of Seattle, there's an eco-terrorist, a woman [Briana Waters] on trial for setting a fire at the University of Washington. Then, Monday was the first day of the court appearance of Tre Arrow, who the federal government just extradited from Canada for supposedly burning a bunch of logging trucks. So the fires might be a symbol of the environmental people saying, "We're not out yet," meaning, "We're still around and we're still going to do our thing. Whatever you do to that woman or Tre Arrow isn't going to stop us. We're not going to be deterred." I don't have the faintest idea if that's the case, but it seems too much of a coincidence that those things were happening when this occurred.

Would you describe this as the start of a new wave of eco-terrorism?
I don't know if it's a new wave or not, because we might have had kids who were too busy taking final exams and midterms [to be committing crimes] and that's the reason there was no activity going on, and now for some reason out of the blue—and it might be those trials—it might have been the thing to trigger one cell.

What would you say has been the ELF's biggest "success"?
They've had basically no success. They make people who might be more caring about the environment a little more upset because they commit violent acts.

What can be done to stop groups like the ELF?
What we need to do is very hard because we need to train law enforcement on both the federal and local levels to think in an entirely new way. It's the same as if you asked me about fighting Al Qaeda.