IMAGE: SUVs DESTROYED BY EXTREMISTS
Nick Ut  /  Pool via AP file
These and other SUVs at a dealership in West Covina, Calif., were destroyed in an August 2003 arson fire. A college student tied to the Earth Liberation Front was sentenced last April to eight years in prison for the crime.
updated 5/19/2005 9:53:04 AM ET 2005-05-19T13:53:04

Environmental and animal rights extremists who have turned to arson and explosives are the nation’s top domestic terrorism threat, the FBI has told lawmakers.

Groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth Liberation Front and the Britain-based SHAC, or Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, are “way out in front” in terms of damage and number of crimes, John Lewis, the FBI’s deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, told a Senate hearing Wednesday.

“There is nothing else going on in this country over the last several years that is racking up the high number of violent crimes and terrorist actions,” Lewis said.

The Animal Liberation Front says on its Web site that its small, autonomous groups of people take “direct action” against animal abuse by rescuing animals and causing financial loss to animal exploiters, usually through damage and destruction of property.

The Earth Liberation Front is an underground movement with no public leadership, membership or spokesperson.

SHAC describes itself as a worldwide campaign that began in 1999 to rescue animals tortured in research labs and shut down the businesses that rely on their use. It says it “does not encourage or incite illegal activity.”

'Escalation' seen
Lewis said the FBI made its conclusions after analyzing all types of cases and comparing the groups with “right-wing extremists, KKK, anti-abortion groups and the like.” He said most animal rights and eco-extremists so far have refrained from violence targeting human life.

“The FBI has observed troubling signs that this is changing. We have seen an escalation in violent rhetoric and tactics,” he told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Attacks are also growing in frequency and size.”

Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the panel’s chairman, said he hoped to examine more closely how the groups to raise money and get communications support from “mainstream activists,” not directly blamed for the violence, who are affiliated with tax-exempt organizations.

“Just like al-Qaida or any other terrorist organization, ELF and ALF cannot accomplish their goals without money, membership and the media,” Inhofe said.

1,200 strikes claimed
The FBI said 35 of its offices have 150 open investigations, and activists are claiming responsibility for 1,200 crimes between 1990 and mid-2004.

Investigators cite examples of people using arson, bombings, theft, release of animals, vandalism, telephone harassment, letters rigged with razor blades and office takeovers.

Such tactics have been used in what officials call “direct action” campaigns to disrupt university research labs, restaurants, fur farms and logging operations. Newer targets include SUV dealerships and new home developments as signs of urban sprawl.

Officials say the incidents have caused more than $110 million in damage. The biggest so far was an arson fire at a five-story condominium under construction in San Diego in August 2003 that caused $50 million in damage.

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