WASHINGTON -- Justice Department officials yesterday hailed the indictment of 11 alleged members of an extremist group responsible for a string of property attacks across the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies as a ''substantial blow" to domestic terrorists bent on using violence to protect the environment and animal rights.
A 65-count indictment unsealed yesterday describes the 11 defendants as members of a group that claimed affiliation with the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, two loose-knit movements the government describes as eco-terrorists. The government accuses the group of committing 17 attacks across five states, causing millions of dollars in damage to property.
''The indictment tells a story of 4 1/2 years of arson, vandalism, violence, and destruction claimed to have been executed on behalf of the Animal Liberation Front or Earth Liberation Front, extremist movements known to support acts of domestic terrorism," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said.
Eco-terrorism is sabotage to stop activities considered by activists to be damaging to the environment or animals, such as real estate development, fur farming, logging, mining, and biomedical research and product testing on animals. The FBI estimates that eco-terrorists were responsible for 1,200 incidents from 1994 to 2004, including arson, theft, animal releases, and other vandalism.
The 11 defendants named yesterday are accused of a series of assaults on a broad range of businesses and facilities from 1994 to 2001, including forest ranger stations, meat-packing plants, lumber companies, holding pens for wild horses, and a high-tension power line tower. Several are also charged with starting a 1998 fire at a ski resort in Vail, Colo., that caused $12 million in damage.
Gonzales did not explain how investigators tracked down the defendants, but the indictment makes oblique references to an informant. Six of the suspected eco-terrorists were arrested in early December, and two more were taken into custody this week. Three more remain at large and are believed to be abroad, he said.
According to the indictment, the defendants were a group of activists who referred to themselves as ''the Family" and swore an oath of allegiance to one another. The group scouted their targets and caused damage with homemade incendiary devices built with kitchen timers, model rocket fuses, and jugs of fuel, the indictment said.
The group allegedly took credit for the attacks in the name of the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, scrawling the movement's names in graffiti at the site of the vandalism and sometimes issuing news releases, according to the indictment.
Ron Arnold, who tracks eco-terrorism for the libertarian think tank Center for Defense of Free Enterprise, said that among environmental extremists the Family was an aberration. Most eco-terrorist acts are committed by onetime vandals, he said, but the Family is accused of committing many acts over time.
FBI director Robert Mueller said yesterday the group's aim to end the abuse of animals and the environment is no excuse for using violence and breaking the law.
''Terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the motive," he said. ''It is one thing to write concerned letters or to hold peaceful demonstrations. It is another thing entirely to construct and use improvised explosives or incendiary devices to harass and intimidate victims by destroying property."
At the fringe of mainstream environmentalism, the eco-terrorism movement traces its roots to renegade British anti-hunting protests in the 1970s, which used pranks to make its point. It later spread to the United States, when groups such as Earth First began putting spikes in trees to discourage logging.
The movement took a more violent turn in 1992, when a radical faction of Earth First formed a separate group called the Earth Liberation Front, specialists said. The Animal Liberation Front sprang up as a sister movement, sharing many of the same members.
David Martosko, an eco-terrorism analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, said that the ELF and ALF function more as labels than actual organizations. Vandals who share the extremist movement's ideology sometimes invoke the names during attacks, but may have no link to each other.
At a Senate hearing last year, Environment Committee chairman James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, estimated that eco-terrorism had caused more than $110 million in damage over the years.
But specialists said that it is difficult to quantify the attacks because the numbers change depending on the criteria used to analyze them. For example, some incidents amount to nothing more than a brick thrown through a window, but arson that the Earth Liberation Front claimed to have committed in 2003 at a San Diego construction site caused about $50 million in damage.
The Justice Department identified the suspects in custody as Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, Sarah Kendall Harvey, Daniel Gerard McGowan, Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff, Jonathan Mark Christopher Paul, Suzanne Savoie, Darren Todd Thurston, and Kevin M. Tubbs. The suspects not in custody are Joseph Dibee, Josephine Sunshine Overaker, and Rebecca Rubin. The indictment made passing reference to another suspect, William Rodgers, describing him as an ''unindicted coconspirator." Rodgers, who was also arrested in December, was found dead in his cell in Arizona, on Dec. 22, in an apparent suicide. His head was covered in a plastic bag and he had suffocated, according to reports.