The first fire broke out at 2 a.m. at a Mitsubishi dealership in the Los Angeles suburb of Duarte. By 5 a.m., sport-utility vehicles at three nearby dealerships also were in flames. When local authorities arrived, more than 40 SUVs, mostly gas-guzzling Hummer H2s, were charred or damaged. Most also were spray-painted with slogans such as "polluter" and "I love pollution." Greeting the police was a red smiley face plastered on several of the vehicles along with the letters "elf" scrawled in blue.
The Aug. 22 pyrotechnics appear to be a sign of stepped-up efforts by a furtive group called the Earth Liberation Front. A loose amalgam of environmental terrorists, ELF on its Web site says it intends to "inflict economic damage on those profiting from the destruction and exploitation of the natural environment." Experts say that in recent months, ELF members have grown more brazen and accelerated their attacks -- and the police are hard-pressed to stop them. "Their tactics are proliferating and the attacks seem to becoming closer together," says University of Florida professor Bron R. Taylor, editor of Ecological Resistance Movements. "The size and scale seem to be unprecedented."
ELF has become more ferocious since it emerged in Britain in 1992. At first, the group pulled tamer stunts, such as gluing locks at McDonald's and at gas stations. But the gloves are coming off. Only weeks before Molotov cocktails hit the L.A.-area car dealers, ELF arsonists torched a five-story apartment complex being built near San Diego. The group also has claimed responsibility for burning two Vail (Colo.) lodges, in the name of stopping forest development, and torching homes under construction in California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. By its own tally, ELF has caused $100 million in property damage nationwide.
Little is known about those involved with ELF. Its Web site offers how-to manuals for setting fires, tips on evading police, and a chronology of firebombings. ELF glories in its anonymity. The group did not respond to an e-mailed interview request -- and makes a point of having no spokespeople, eschewing a central organization, and encouraging unaffiliated cells to follow its attack guidelines.
Given its deliberately liminal nature, ELF is proving tough to bust. "It's such a shadowy, loose-knit collection of cells that it's hard to find them," says Randy Parsons, who heads the FBI's Los Angeles anti-terrorism branch. Why not trace the attackers through their Web site? Because the site provides information but has no direct link to the perpetrators. Only a few ELF-affiliated footsoldiers have ever been tried and convicted.
So what are the authorities doing to stop ELF? The FBI has a national strike team that is coordinating local investigations into environmental terrorism, says agent Parsons. But ELF recruits mostly minors, says Richmond (Va.) FBI agent Lawrence Berry, making it harder to convict them under September 11 anti-terrorism laws. If police manage to catch these folks, they will likely charge them with arson -- a lesser offense. Until then, SUV dealers in L.A. are hiring more guards -- and bracing for more attacks. By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles