When ELF Comes Calling

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They give no warnings. they leave few clues. But a band of environmental terrorists, which has left a trail of destruction across the Western and Midwestern U.S. for the past three years, is making no secret of its ambition to wage a wider war. In recent weeks it has struck on the East Coast, hitting targets on New York's Long Island.

The group, which calls itself Earth Liberation Front, has claimed responsibility for setting fire to three luxury homes under construction on an old peach farm in the historic town of Mount Sinai. The fires caused moderate damage, and the ELF later claimed responsibility in a faxed statement to the Associated Press. But investigators on site in New York didn't need a communique. Across the double garage doors of a fourth house was scrawled, IF YOU BUILD IT, WE WILL BURN IT. Next to it were the letters ELF.

The ELF emerged in 1997, a few years after another radical environmental group, Earth First!, renounced the use of violence. Since then, ELF members and sympathizers have waged a stealth war against "those who profit from the destruction of the natural environment." The attacks include a $12 million fire at a ski resort in Vail, Colo.; a $500,000 fire at a timber-company headquarters in Medford, Ore.; and another that destroyed a partly built home in Bloomington, Ind., that the ELF said was part of a development that threatened the local water supply.

The group has evaded detection by staying so compartmentalized that some law-enforcement officials wonder if it is even a real group. The ELF's website seems to hint that it may not be anything more than a common name for isolated individuals who advocate economic sabotage. Anyone agreeing with the ELF's goals, advises the website, can "begin taking action in the name of the Earth Liberation Front."

The result is an "organization" so loosely knit that an FBI agent says finding members is "like trying to grab Jell-O." Lance Robertson, a veteran environment reporter for the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard newspaper, says he has never been able to track down anyone he knew to be a member. Even a self-proclaimed ELF spokesman in Portland says he merely passes on anonymous messages.

A grand jury in Portland is investigating attacks in the West, and the FBI's Joint Terrorist Task Force has joined the New York investigation. Says an FBI official: "We certainly hope we're not seeing the beginning of a trend."