WHEN ARSONISTS torched a 206-unit housing project under construction in an environmentally sensitive area of San Diego last year, they left behind a 12-foot banner declaring: "If you build it, we will burn it. The ELF's are mad."
The acronym is for Earth Liberation Front, a loosely organized ecoterrorism group that FBI officials say is setting a rising number of fires nationally targeting urban sprawl, SUVs and other symbols of harm to the environment. The ELF has avoided killing or injuring people, but it usually leaves a sign to make a political statement, according to the FBI.
Last week, when 26 new homes were burned near an environmentally sensitive area in Charles County, investigators found no signs of ELF or similar groups, no spray paint and no e-mails to media claiming credit.
Barry Maddox, spokesman for the FBI office in Baltimore investigating the arsons, said this lack of a normal feature of ecoterrorism does not mean the agency is shying away from the possibility of arson by ELF or a similar group. Investigators say the fires were set, almost certainly by more than one person. The agency is considering all possible motives, Maddox said.
"Groups that do crimes like this often leave calling cards, but that won't necessarily exist in all crime scenes," he said. "Some can be in a group but not use the same process that's been used in the past."
Although there is no evidence that ecoterrorism is to blame for the Charles County fires, the repeated mention of the possibility by national news organizations has infuriated some local environmentalists and ignited a debate about the definitions of terrorism.
During a time when our nation is at war against violent Islamic radicals, associating environmentalism with terrorism unfairly smears the green movement as something radical and un-American, some complain. Others protest that property damage that does not target human life should not be lumped in with deadly terrorism.
The Araby Bog
Some residents who lived near the Hunters Brooke subdivision being built in a rural area of Charles County protested that upscale homes would harm the Araby Bog, a rare and beautiful wetlands. These critics filed a lawsuit. There's no evidence they discussed or considered arson, their supporters say.
"In my 20 years of work in Maryland, interacting with hundreds of citizens, I never once heard someone suggest, or even joke, about taking criminal action in defense of their cause," said J. Charles Fox, former secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. "I have talked to a number of people working for the protection of Araby Bog, and never once have any of them mentioned anything illegal, or even civil disobedience. These were law-abiding citizens working to protect their community."
Focusing on ecoterrorism - one of the theories being pursued by federal investigators - also obscures the fact that environmentalists are more often the victims of intimidation than people likely to act as bullies, advocates say.
Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said acts of violence by environmentalists are "extraordinarily rare" nationally and never seen in Maryland. She said she's never heard of the Earth Liberation Front.
But the FBI says ELF has become much more active over the past decade. It has burned gas-guzzling Hummers in California, housing subdivisions in California, Michigan and New York and a ski lodge in Colorado.
During testimony May 18 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, John E. Lewis, FBI deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, said that right-wing extremism was the most dangerous form of domestic terrorism in the United States during the 1990s.
But during the past several years, bombings, fires and vandalism caused by activists with the Animal Liberation Front and their allies with the Earth Liberation Front "has emerged as a serious domestic terrorism threat," Lewis said. These organizations and similar groups have committed more than 1,100 criminal acts in the United States since 1976, resulting in property damage exceeding $110 million, Lewis said.
On Oct. 19, 1998, arsonists in Colorado caused $12 million in damage when they burned down a landmark ski lodge in Vail, along with a restaurant and ski patrol headquarters. They were protesting an expansion of the ski resort into a wilderness area they called the last remaining lynx habitat in the state.
Last year, the FBI office in Richmond, Va., charged three members of an ELF cell with arson and conspiracy in the burning of housing under construction, fast-food restaurants and SUVs in the Richmond area. Graffiti or banners claiming credit were left at most of the sites, but not all, said Lawrence Barry, an FBI spokesman.
Oren Segal, assistant director of the fact-finding department at the nonprofit Anti-Defamation League who wrote a recent report on ecoterrorism, said that the Earth Liberation Front was formed in England by members of Earth First frustrated by the lack of success of more moderate forms of activism.
The few ELF members who have been arrested tend to be in their 20s or younger, from affluent families and college-educated, Segal said.
ELF followers tend to join mainstream environmental or animal rights groups on campus and then become impatient with the slow progress promised by working in the legal system.
"They view urban sprawl as wasteful and unnecessary and harming the environment," Segal said. "They see attacking housing developments, especially those worth a lot of money, as attacking capitalism in general, because it is capitalism that allows the environment to be treated so badly."
The structure of the organization also makes ELFs difficult to catch, said Capt. Fred Herrera, a member of the San Diego Metro Arson Strike Team that has been trying for more than a year to find the people responsible for burning the $50 million La Jolla Crossroads housing complex last year.
ELF has no central authority, no public meetings, no membership cards and its followers are discouraged from hanging out together, Herrera said.
People read about ELF on the Internet and are encouraged to "inflict economic damage to those who profit from the destruction of the natural environment," according to an ELF news release on the Internet.
"You can't stop ELF because there is no ELF," said Herrera. "They're a group but not a group. Anyone can set a fire and claim it was set by ELF. Their lack of organization makes it a pretty effective way to operate."