The Bioengineering Action Network recently posted this photo on its Web
site next to an article offering tips on how to be a "nighttime gardener"
against genetic engineering.
U.S. gets a new crop of extremists
Underground groups go after research, property that involve genetic
By Miguel Llanos
June 14 The FBI calls them special interest terrorists and youve heard
of a few animal rights and anti-abortion extremists, in particular. But
theres a relatively new subgroup thats doing more and more damage:
saboteurs opposed to genetic engineering of plants, produce and animals. A
review by MSNBC.com found that 2000 is on track to be a record year for
violence by these biotech extremists.
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ALREADY THIS YEAR, activists have struck 11 times, compared with 18
reported attacks in 1999 and only a handful in prior years.
"There does seem to be a trend towards more actions, says Denny Henke, a
spokesperson for GenetiX Alert Press Office, a group that sympathizes with
the extremists and monitors their activities. "Im guessing that there will
be at least twice as many actions this year."
The activists say theyre willing to destroy property because they feel
genetically modified organisms can potentially harm humans. A spokesman
for one major group, the Earth Liberation Front, acknowledges it espouses
"economic sabotage" but insists that does not include violence against
Like many other groups, criminal and legitimate, these activists have also
found a useful tool for organizing on the Internet. Encrypted messages
have become more common, and public documents include Web-based primers on
how to pick targets, how to do "nighttime gardening" against biotech crops
and even a daily calendar of protests.
With names like the Cropatistas, the Anarchist Golfing Association and the
Petaluma Pruners, the activists dont sound like much of a threat, but
their damage runs into the millions of dollars, and many of their victims
research groups and businesses have had to pay even more money to provide
24-hour security for their properties.
In California, the state hardest hit by the attacks, lawmakers are moving
to pass a law doubling the civil penalties for destroying genetically
The attacks first gained momentum in Europe, and the trend has now reached
the United States. The science, at least so far, doesnt offer strong
support for the extremists concerns about genetic engineering, though many
scientists are calling for, and some are carrying out, field tests to see
if any dangers do exist.
The latest domestic strike was the work of the Anarchist Golfing
Association. On June 4, activists used the cover of darkness to destroy
experimental plots of grass in Canby, Ore., causing $300,000 to $500,000
in damage to the owner, Pure-Seed Testing.
In a news release sent to GenetiX, the group said it had targeted the
company because its testing a putting-green grass, known as creeping
bentgrass, that is genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide
The company later said it had responded to an e-mail from the activists.
It said it is not involved in genetically engineering grasses but is
simply doing research to properly assess the dangers and precautionary
measures that must take place before producing any such grasses.
Groups like the anarchist golfers have proved hard to track down. No
significant arrests have been made, and an FBI spokesman says going after
the extremists is difficult because "theres no real pattern."
Thats not to say the FBI isnt taking their actions seriously. In testimony
before Congress last year, Director Louis Freeh placed them in the
category of "special interest extremist."
"The current domestic terrorist threat primarily comes from right-wing
extremist groups, Puerto Rican extremist groups, and special interest
extremists," he said.
"The most recognizable single-issue terrorists at the present time are
those involved in the violent animal rights, anti-abortion, and
environmental protection movements," he said.
GRAND JURY INQUIRY
Freeh specifically cited two groups, the Animal Liberation Front and the
Earth Liberation Front, as posing "significant challenges for law
The groups are tied to an Oct. 19, 1998, arson at the Vail Ski Resort that
caused $12 million in property damage. The groups claimed that the resorts
proposed expansion would destroy the last remaining habitat in Colorado
for the endangered lynx.
A federal grand jury in Portland, Ore., has been looking into the two
groups, which have claimed responsibility for other arson and property
attacks as well.
Craig Rosebraugh, an activist who says he is a spokesman for the ELF, has
been a focus of that investigation, which he says has been "expanded
tremendously" in recent months to include biotech sabotage.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization believes authorities should be
able to crack down on extremists using existing property laws. "They
should be sufficient," says spokeswoman Lisa Dry, "and should be
rigorously and stringently enforced."
But lawmakers in California, where 14 strikes have occurred since July
1999, feel tougher sanctions are needed. In a 67-6 vote last month, the
state Assembly passed a bill to double the liability now limited to the
actual value of the damage for destroying research crops at public
"We introduced the bill in response to eight or nine acts of vandalism
targeting University of California research crops," says Chris Tapio, a
spokesman for state Rep. Helen Thomson.
The bill is now in the state Senate, Tapio said, "and we dont anticipate a
whole lot of trouble" given how easily it passed the Assembly.
MORE AGGRESSIVE ACTIONS
The most violent biotech sabotage so far was carried out by the Earth
Liberation Front, which chose an arson attack as a way of announcing it
had added genetic engineering to its other causes. Since 1996, the group
is suspected of having carried out eight arson strikes, including Vail ski
The group said it was responsible for a biotech arson on New Years Eve
that caused $400,000 damage to the agriculture department building at
Michigan State University. In February, the group claimed responsibility
for an attack at the University of Minnesota, where oat plants were
destroyed and building locks glued shut.
The front has no public leader. Rosebraugh says he knows no one in the
group, and instead gets anonymous communiqus sent to him.
What the group and many others like it have in common is an anarchist
foundation that uses the Internet to recruit and network. An online
"Internet Anarchist University" and an Anarchist Yellow Pages are among
the sites linked to from other sites sympathetic to the biotech saboteurs.
Rosebraugh says networking used to be the domain of the rich and mighty,
but now the Internet has opened those channels of communication, enabling
"people around the world to be in close contact with one another."
The biggest fear of authorities is that biotech extremists might someday
target humans, not just crops and research. That is partly fueled by
incidents last year in which animal rights activists sent letters
boobytrapped with razor blades to researchers experimenting with primates.
Rosebraugh says the Earth Liberation Fronts strategies have not included
harming humans. "It is a non-violent organization that does use economic
sabotage," he says.
He expects a "dramatic increase" in biotech sabotage this year, and says
the Earth Liberation Front's decision to join the attacks is partly
responsible for the new momentum.
Rosebraugh believes the group, and others like it, are drawing supporters
away from mainstream environmental groups.
"Judging from the lack of success in popular environmental movements in
this country, they are being very successful," he says. "And they pose a
greater risk to entities profiting off the destruction of the environment"
than mainstream environmental groups.
The group, along with the Animal Liberation Front, already has a new
target in mind: the International Society for Animal Genetics, which holds
its annual conference in July 21-26 at the University of Minnesota.
Rosebraugh says he expects "quite extensive" protests.
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