Defeating Eco-Terrorism in the Post-9/11 Era

Another member of “The Family” is facing justice.

Justin Solondz was in federal court in Tacoma Wednesday, charged with making the firebomb that destroyed the Horticulture building at the University of Washington in 2001. Solondz, 31, is the last person to be prosecuted in the case and the evidence is overwhelming.

Each of his alleged co-conspirators has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate in exchange for lighter sentences. With a post-9/11 terrorism enhancement, Solondz faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.

Authorities say Solondz was part of an Earth Liberation Front cell that wreaked havoc mostly in the Pacific Northwest from 1996-2001. Known as “The Family” and based in Eugene, Ore., the cell is believed responsible for at least 17 attacks causing tens of millions of dollars in damage.

The group allegedly set fire to U.S. Forest Service ranger stations because they were apparently upset over the government’s management of national forests. They torched the offices of lumber companies, an animal slaughterhouse, car lots and a lodge at the Vail Colorado ski resort.

Investigators say the ELF cell was adept at making destructive firebombs and avoiding detection. They would communicate about meetings and upcoming attacks through codes buried in books.

“This group was largely off the grid,” says Chuck Tilby of the Eugene Police Department, “so you didn’t have a lot of the investigative tools available to you that would open doors.”

The big break came when Tilby and other investigators approached one of the arsons as a cold case. They eventually arrested anarchist Jacob Ferguson, who had long been an environmental activist in Eugene. Investigators admit now they bluffed about how much they knew of Ferguson’s involvement in the string of attacks. They played their hand perfectly, threatening Ferguson with a possible life prison term if convicted. Ferguson chose to cooperate. He agreed to wear a wire and meet one by one with other members of the cell. That gave the feds the evidence they lacked for so long.

Then in 2005, FBI agents executed Operation Backfire, rounding up more than a dozen members of “The Family” in hours. It is still the largest domestic terror investigation in U.S. history.

Author Ron Arnold, who has written extensively about eco-terrorism, says the operation has all but killed ELF’s desire to form large eco-terror cells. “We learned far more than they wanted us to,” says Arnold. “That’s why we don’t see people doing that sort of thing anymore, we pretty much figured out their game plan. We have their playbook.”

While attacks in the Pacific Northwest have almost completely stopped, Arnold and others are not ready to declare total victory. They still worry about the lone wolf attacks.

Fourteen people have been prosecuted. Solondz is No. 15. And the U.S. has China to thank. Solondz had been hiding out in China when he was arrested for manufacturing narcotics. When the FBI found out, China agreed to expel Solondz. This cleared the way for a U.S. prosecution.

Police say one of the results of Operation Backfire has been a split between animal rights groups and environmental activists. The two used to be combined into ELF-ALF, but no more.

While the violence has fallen off, at least one anarchist believes the fight for the planet is far from over. “It hasn’t gone, it’s gonna come back in a serious way,” says anarchist writer John Zerzan. “Otherwise we’ll just sit here and let it all go to hell.”

Solondz may be the final cell member to face justice for the UW fire, but he is not the last member of “The Family” who was at large. Three others are still on the run and believed to be in other countries. They are Joseph Dibee, Josephine Sunshine Overaker and Rebecca Rubin.