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'Direct Action' Attacks: Terrorism by Another Name?

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By Fred Burton

A U.S. District Court in Eugene, Ore., heard defense arguments May 23 before sentencing Stanislas Meyerhoff for his role in a number of attacks against U.S. government and commercial targets in Oregon and Colorado from 1995 to 2001. Meyerhoff, a member of a group called "the Family," pleaded guilty in July 2006 to 62 counts, including arson, attempted arson, conspiracy and destruction of a federal energy facility. The Family conducted many of its attacks in the name of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) or the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

Eight other Family members have pleaded guilty to various charges and are expected to be sentenced by June 5. One member of the group, William Rodgers, committed suicide after his arrest, and two other indicted members, Josephine Overaker and Rebecca Rubin, are fugitives.

The U.S. government has labeled Family members "domestic terrorists," and because of this is seeking stiffer federal sentences for Meyerhoff and other convicted members of the group. Though some civil liberties, animal rights and environmental organizations say the government's label is unfounded, an examination of the Family's operations suggests it meets the legal definition of domestic terrorism — and that is without the broader definition found in the 2001 Patriot Act, which is not being applied in this case.

Members of environmental and animal rights movements use the term "direct action" to describe a wide range of protest activities. These actions can range from passive activities, such as vigils and letter-writing campaigns, to aggressive acts such as arson, physical assault, toppling electrical lines and more. Most direct action involves some sort of civil disobedience, but some, like the acts committed by Meyerhoff, involve outright criminal acts. Many activists believe they are morally justified in breaking "minor" laws in order to serve the greater good of saving the Earth or saving animals, and the extremist fringe of the movement, as represented by ALF and ELF, takes this justification much further than other activists.

Meyerhoff and his co-conspirators admitted to belonging to the group they called the Family, which committed actions under the mantle of both the ALF and ELF. Meyerhoff and other captured members of the group have pleaded guilty to a string of 20 direct actions committed between Dec. 25, 1995, and Oct. 15, 2001. Their actions spanned five western states and caused property damage in excess of $40 million, though no deaths or injuries resulted. Among the crimes committed by the group is the Oct. 15, 2001, arson at the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse Corrals in Litchfield, Calif., which caused nearly $207,500 in damages. Also, on June 21, 1998, a fire started at the Forest Land Management Center in Olympia, Wash., caused an estimated $1.2 million in damage to the building and its contents. Earlier, the Oct. 30, 1996, arson at Oregon's Oakridge Ranger Station reduced the building to cinders, causing an estimated $5 million in property damages.

ELF and ALF

The people involved with ALF/ELF can be roughly divided into four groups. The first group, one of the smallest, is made up of those who surreptitiously engage in illegal direct action activities, such as arson, assault, etc. The groups' wealthy, anonymous donors also make up a small second group. The third, larger group is made up of activists who publicly engage in legal actions, attend rallies and collect and disseminate the personal information of potential targets. In the fourth and largest group are the mainly passive sympathizers who identify with environmental or animal rights issues. Because neither ELF nor ALF has a formal membership list, the numbers are in no way fixed — meaning anyone can read about them, identify with their cause and then engage in an illegal activity that propels them directly into the first group.

The structures of ALF and ELF are amorphous and nonhierarchical, and the individual activists who act on behalf of the organizations control their own activities. Small groups of activists, however, have been known to band together to form autonomous cells — sometimes referred to as affinity groups — that have a little more structure and leadership. Overall, however, there is no centralized leadership to tie the anonymous activists or cells together. Individuals who choose to perform actions under the banner of these groups are driven only by their consciences or by decisions made by their cells while adhering to the stated guidelines, which are circulated in meetings and conferences or via the Internet and by various magazines, newsletters and other publications. Targets are often identified in the same manner, and activists who conduct illegal activities will frequently anonymously claim credit for them on the Internet.

The group that came to be known as the Family practiced excellent tradecraft and operational security. Two of its members, Rodgers and Meyerhoff, collaborated to author the ELF arson manual "Setting Fires with Electrical Timers — An Earth Liberation Front Guide." In addition to containing instructions on creating and placing incendiary devices, the manual contains rather extensive advice on how to create a "clean room" to ensure no DNA or other forensic evidence is left behind. Members of the group also used dark clothing and masks to disguise their appearance during their actions and used codes and encryption programs when communicating among themselves.

Due to this high level of tradecraft and operational security, the crimes committed by the Family remained unsolved for many years despite extensive multiagency investigative efforts. The government's big break came when investigators snared active cell member Jacob Ferguson, who agreed to serve as an informant — even going so far as to wear a wire while meeting with various cell members — rather than face the possibility of a lengthy jail term. In the end, the weight of the evidence Ferguson provided to the government caused other members to plead guilty rather than risk trial.

The Controversy

The government's labeling of Meyerhoff and other environmental and animal rights activists as "terrorists" has created some controversy — especially among civil rights groups, environmental and animal rights movements and their supporters. Organizations such as the Eugene-based Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC) say that, by defining activists as "ecoterrorists," the government is widening the war on terrorism too far and diverting attention and government resources from the real terrorist threat from groups like al Qaeda. According to the CLDC's Lauren Regan, "When everyone is a terrorist, no one is."

Attorneys for the various defendants in the Family case say, too, that Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission did not intend the terrorism enhancement to apply to acts designed to damage property, such as arson, but not to kill or maim people. They also say that only crimes that create a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury constitute crimes of domestic terrorism.

As part of plea agreements in cases against Family members, federal prosecutors have agreed to abide by the version of the U.S. Criminal Code applicable on Nov. 1, 2000, which defined the "federal crime of terrorism" as "an offense that is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct; and is a violation of several different offense categories, among which is arson."

The admissions of the 10 defendants in the Family case would appear to substantiate the government's claims that they were part of an overarching conspiracy to commit acts (such as arson and toppling electrical towers) dangerous to human life in violation of U.S. laws. Furthermore, attacks against U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management sites were clearly intended to influence and affect the conduct of the government.

Furthermore, several similar cases have been found to involve domestic terrorism. For example, in its 2005 decision in the case United States v. Harris, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court ruled that the only requirement for an "upward sentencing adjustment" — meaning stiffer penalty — for terrorism-related crimes is that an offense be "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct." There was no requirement to demonstrate intent to kill or maim. In the Harris case, the court upheld consecutive sentences of 240 and 120 months for the arson of a municipal building involving a Molotov cocktail as a domestic terrorism crime. The 10th Circuit Court also upheld in 2005 a 360-month sentence in the arson of an Internal Revenue Service office in United States v. Dowell, finding that the arson was considered an act of domestic terrorism.

While the defense is arguing that the members of the Family are not terrorists because they did not intend to kill or maim, crimes categorized as terrorism in the broader context of international terrorism often involve no such intent. For example, the Irish Republican Army conducted many bombings in London in which a warning was called in so the area could be evacuated. Likewise, the ETA frequently has warned Spanish authorities of bombs in order to spare the lives of innocent civilians. Rocket and bomb attacks conducted late at night against U.S.-owned banks by Greek leftist groups also have been considered terrorism. And a large number of aircraft hijackings have been carried out with no intent to kill or maim, yet they are categorized as terrorism because of their political motive. The same holds true for politically motivated kidnappings, which are always categorized as terrorism rather than ordinary crime.

Looking Forward

Though most of the attacks committed by Family members did not seek to harm people, the case materials indicate the tenor of the group's activities could have been changing. In spite of the many successful attacks committed by the Family, many of its members reportedly were disappointed by the lack of results they generated. Ferguson testified that Meyerhoff, William Rodgers, Joseph Dibee, Daniel McGowan and others discussed escalating their level of violence to include targeting specific individuals.

According to the sentencing memo submitted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the spring of 2001, Meyerhoff had conversations with Rodgers about assassinations. Rodgers and Meyerhoff discussed the tactic of two riders on a motorcycle being able to weave in and out of traffic, shooting someone and then fleeing the scene and dumping the gun. Meyerhoff told authorities that this talk is one of the factors that caused him to drop out of the movement and enroll in school in Virginia. It does appear, however, as if members of the Family were beginning to arm themselves to begin more traditional attacks.

If the actions of the Family are found to be terrorism and the sentencing in the cases is enhanced, it will likely put a damper on the future activities of some activists and create an even greater divide between the mainstream activists and the radical tier. It also might force those who are dedicated to violent action to be even more careful in planning and carrying out their attacks — making them harder to catch.

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