Eleven Activists Charged with Domestic Terrorism

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The Justice Department indicts 11 people on domestic terrorism charges. The government says the suspects were involved with the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. FBI Director Robert Mueller says the groups' activities are terrorism, intended to harass and intimidate.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

5165548

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today the Justice Department announced that it has indicted 11 people on domestic terrorism charges. The government says the suspects were involved with movements known as the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. NPR's Ari Shapiro has details.

ARI SHAPIRO: FBI leaders have told Congress that ecoterrorism is the bureau's top domestic terrorism concern. Today, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the Justice Department has dealt a serious blow to the ecoterrorist movement.

ALBERTO GONZALES: 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.

SHAPIRO: 11 people who referred to themselves as The Family were charged with a series of crimes. They allegedly burned down a ski resort in Vail, Colorado, and carried out other attacks on lumber mills and ranger stations. Justice Department officials say ecoterrorist acts have caused more than $100 million of damage in recent years. Robert Mueller directs the FBI.

ROBERT S: Terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the motive. The FBI is committed to protecting Americans from crime and terrorism, including acts of domestic terrorism in the name of animal rights or the environment.

SHAPIRO: The crimes in this indictment all took place in the West. At Portland State University in Oregon, criminology professor Gary Pearlstein studies domestic terrorist groups.

GARY PEARLSTEIN: It's almost cyclical. During the '80s, the groups on the right were much more in the forefront, and they have, at least apparently, stopped being as active now. And now we're back to what we call the more liberal or left-wing groups, such as the environmental groups, and they're the most active terrorist groups today.

SHAPIRO: The Animal Liberation Front once cut the brake lines on lobster delivery trucks in Chicago. They've burned down homes with people living next door. ALF even has a guide on its web site called Arson Around with Auntie ALF: Your Guide for Putting the Heat on Animal Abusers Everywhere. The guide tells people how to build and detonate fire bombs.

But according to the government and independent monitoring groups, ecoterrorist groups have never actually killed anyone. That makes Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, question the government's designation of ecoterror groups as the top domestic terrorist threat today.

MARK POTOK: I think the priority is really quite off. I don't mean to diminish the seriousness of the increasing violence in the kind of ecoradical world, but it seems absolutely absurd to describe environmental and animal rights terrorism as the main domestic terrorist threat. That's clearly not true.

SHAPIRO: Potok says right-wing militias and white supremacist groups have a pattern of targeting and killing people, most famously in the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people in 1995.

POTOK: I think it's very hard not to suspect that politics are at work in all of this. It is difficult to see any other reason for the sort of designation of ecoterrorism as the number one domestic terrorist threat out there. You know, it may be what I would regard as a kind of over-concern with property.

SHAPIRO: Potok says the good news is that agents on the ground are equally concerned with domestic terror groups on the right and left. At the leadership level, FBI director Mueller gave this take-home message today. Persons who conduct this type of activity are going to spend a long time in jail, and they should understand that, regardless of the motive.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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