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Environmental Group Forms an Incendiary Core, FBI Says

Sabotage: With attacks rising, concern grows that a new hierarchy is turning the Earth Liberation Front into a terrorist organization.

June 09, 2001|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — 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.

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