Reward Raised Eco-Terrorism Fugitives

November 21, 2008

Today we’re talking about eco-terrorism, what it is, how dangerous it can be, and about rewards doubled for four dangerous individuals allegedly involved in eco-terrorism…

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello I’m Neal Schiff and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. Today we’re talking about eco-terrorism, what it is, how dangerous it can be, and about rewards doubled for four dangerous individuals allegedly involved in eco-terrorism…

ASAC Nielsen: “You got arson, vandalism, property damage…”

Mr. Schiff: That’s Dan Nielsen. He’s the Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the FBI’s office in Portland, Oregon. Since the 1990s there have been episodes of eco-terrorism and it’s believed to have started in the Northwest. About 10 years ago there was an awful firebombing at a ski resort in Vail, Colorado. Nielsen says there are subjects wanted in connection with that case and they’re still at large…

ASAC Nielsen: “The four who are still outstanding as fugitives are Justin Franchi Solondz, Rebecca Rubin, Joseph Mahmoud Dibee, and Josephine Sunshine Overaker.”

Mr. Schiff: There are rewards out for these people and they’re doubled.

ASAC Nielsen: “The reward has been increased to $50,000 for each individual.”

Mr. Schiff: The FBI’s investigation into eco-terrorism is called Operation Backfire. We asked the Deputy Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division, Mike Ward, about it…

DAD Ward: “Operation Backfire is actually an investigation targeting individuals who collectively are known as ‘The Family,’ who were involved in a series of eco-related arsons in the Northwest United States.”

Mr. Schiff: What does eco-related arson mean?

DAD Ward: “Eco-related arsons are arsons in which the motivation behind that are those who feel like the ecological issues in our environment are being challenged and being encroached upon by urban sprawl or development and these people believe that the way to protest that is to take action in their own hands. Sometimes that action involves violent means.”

Mr. Schiff: What groups are allegedly committing these crimes?

DAD Ward: “There are all sorts of individuals who come together and form groups. Two of the better known groups are called ELF, which is the Earth Liberation Front, and then ALF, the Animal Liberation Front.”

Mr. Schiff: What’s their history? How long have they been allegedly committing these acts of crime?

DAD Ward: “The Earth Liberation Front has actually been known to the FBI since 1992 whereas the Animal Liberation Front came into existence in the mid 1970s.”

Mr. Schiff: Ward says eco-terrorist activity is not isolated to just one area of the United States…

DAD Ward: “Activities can occur anywhere in the country but most specifically, most activities have occurred in the Northwest part.”

Mr. Schiff: What are some of the acts that these people, these groups, allegedly have committed that the FBI is investigating?

DAD Ward: “Arson is one of the primary crimes that are committed. But also there are other crimes where there will be vandalism or defacement of property which will result in significant property damage. Or you’ll have instances where animals that are involved in biomedical research will be released from the facilities and the economic cost involved with that can also be great at times.”

Mr. Schiff: Ward says that violence is not out of the question in some of these eco-terrorist activities.

DAD Ward: “The supporters of animal rights or ecological rights movements will argue that violence is not involved. But actually we’ve seen it not only an increase in rhetoric, the threat of violence against individuals involved in research, but we’ve also seen a step up in the danger issue involved in the arsons whereas previously arsons might be committed against facilities after business hours in which the facilities would believe to be vacant. But now we’ve seen where arsons have targeted the homes of individuals involved in research, placing not only those individuals but their families at risk.”

Mr. Schiff: Now what is the FBI doing and what other federal, state, and local agencies are the FBI working with?

DAD Ward: “These matters are investigated thought the Joint Terrorism Task Force. So they work collectively with all members of the task force. Some of our biggest partners involve the IRS and ATF as well.”

Mr. Schiff: Can you explain “task force?”

DAD Ward: “Sure, the task force concept involves bringing investigators from multiple agencies, each who have unique perspectives in looking at a criminal matter, and that way we’re able to give the issue a 360 degree view and use not only the talents but also use the abilities of individual agencies and kind of pick and choose from among those abilities what is the best way to focus on a particular investigation or the best way to pursue a specific prosecution.”

Mr. Schiff: The category of these acts is domestic terrorism. How does this fit in with the overall description of terrorism?

DAD Ward: “Terrorism itself is an effort to bring about political change through fear and intimidation often through the use of violent means. domestic terrorism is really no different. We look at domestic terrorism and international terrorism in many of the same ways, you know, focusing on those that are operators or facilitators; those that are wishing to personally bring about harm or bring about some violent conflict. We’ll look at those that are involved in material support in both categories. We’ll look at those that provide assistance. Really the difference in domestic terrorism is they are located within the boundaries here in the U.S. and they are often times trying to bring about change in smaller areas, as opposed to international terrorism where they’re trying to bring about global change.”

Mr. Schiff: The FBI’s Operation Backfire file isn’t small but there’s more. Checking back with the Portland Assistant Special Agent in Charge Dan Nielsen, he says there’s a lot of eco-terrorism cases that are on the books.

ASAC Nielsen: “The statistics that I’ve read say there have been about 1,800 acts of domestic terrorism nationwide. I’m not speaking about this particular group within Backfire, but just domestic terrorism at large, there’s been about 1,800 acts. In this particular case, the Backfire case, I think the damages were assessed to be about $45 million.”

Mr. Schiff: Nielsen says that know one really knows what will, if anything, happen next. But he says the FBI will investigate if necessary.

DAD Ward: “Well, one of the things that they never issued us coming out of the Academy was a crystal ball. And the crystal ball that we do have is the community; the public at large out there. We only have so many agents; there’s only so many policemen on the streets but there’s any number of people that are out there in the public. What we in the FBI do; what we in law enforcement do is we interact with the public on a daily basis. So that is our number one weapon that we utilize—is the public’s eyes and ears out there.

Mr. Schiff: You can help by being vigilant and reporting anything that looks out of the ordinary. Nielsen says that can happen anywhere; on a street, in the woods, along some back roads…

DAD Ward: “These, these crimes are not committed in broad daylight in front of an audience. They try to hide themselves. Whether that’s going to be night; whether that’s going to be by remote location...”

Mr. Schiff: Nielsen says don’t put it past these people that they may use improvised explosives when trying to do damage in an act of protest or when sending a message.

DAD Ward: “One of the things in the arsons they tend to use a lot are going to be improvised devices. A lot of those will be things like empty milk cartons. If somebody’s toting around a lot of empty milk cartons and you’re out in the middle of the woods, that could be a clue. Likewise, some of the SUV burnings that we had, the same kind of thing. They’re going to need some sort of device; it’s going to be something simple and inexpensive that they’re going to get their hands on; and things like a milk container that will contain flammables is going to be a real clear thing that one might see. So I would say it’ll be a gathering of people in an odd location at an odd time and looking as though they are working in an orchestrated manner and carrying probably things that might seem to be out of place given the locations that they’re at.”

Mr. Schiff: Remember, you may be able to help solve these cases. Check the Internet at for Operation Backfire. Look at the wanted flyers for the four fugitives still on the run. They could be your neighbors. And the reward is now up to $50,000 for each of them. That concludes our show. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

Audio Download