Joe Dibee’s 12 years on the lam came to an end last August, when Cuban authorities detained the 50-year-old environmental activist during a layover in Havana and turned him over to the United States.
More than a decade earlier, police and FBI agents had arrested a dozen of Dibee’s associates in the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front within the span of a few months. They were charged with conspiring to burn down factories that slaughtered animals for meat, timber mills that disrupted sensitive ecosystems, government facilities that penned wild horses, and a ski resort perched on a pristine mountaintop. Dibee, a former Microsoft software tester known for his ingenuity, had slipped away in the midst of it all.
While the arsons, which never hurt or killed anyone, largely took place in the late 1990s, the wave of arrests known as the “Green Scare” came in the post-9/11 era, when terrorism was the FBI’s prevailing obsession. The fur and biomedical industries had spent years lobbying the Justice Department and lawmakers to go after eco-activists, who had damaged their property, held audacious demonstrations decrying their business activities, and cost them millions of dollars. When the planes hit the twin towers, industry groups seized on the opportunity to push legislation, and federal law enforcement ramped up pursuit of radical activists in the name of counterterrorism.
In 2009, when a Department of Homeland Security intelligence report raised alarms about the rising threat of right-wing extremist violence, it provoked a very different response. After outcry from conservative groups, DHS backtracked on the report and later disbanded the domestic terrorism unit that produced it.
Daryl Johnson, a former domestic terrorism analyst at DHS, says there’s a reason law enforcement took a less aggressive approach to right-wing white supremacists and anti-government attackers. In the case of the eco-extremists, the government had a powerful ally: industry. “You don’t have a bunch of companies coming forward saying I wish you’d do something about these right-wing extremists,” said Johnson, who left his position in 2010, after his warnings about right-wing violence were dismissed. “If enough people lobbied congresspeople about white nationalists and how it’s affecting their business activity, then I’m sure you’ll get legislation.”
Now, in the wake of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer by white supremacist James Alex Fields, past and current Justice Department officials have argued that a new domestic terrorism statute is necessary to better respond to far-right violence.
But law enforcement and federal prosecutors already have powerful counterterrorism authorities at their disposal, and their history of using them to go after radical activists who committed property crimes suggests that any new crackdown is likely to sweep up far more than domestic extremists who pose a lethal threat.
No new law was required to treat eco-saboteurs as terrorists in the wake of 9/11. Of 70 federal prosecutions of radical environmentalists and animal rights activists identified by The Intercept, 52 did not result in charges under anti-terrorism laws. Yet the defendants were repeatedly called terrorists by the Justice Department in public statements and internal communications. The designation opened up additional resources and gave the government powerful leverage in the form of terrorism sentencing enhancements, which prosecutors sought in more than 20 cases.
Meanwhile, in the remaining 18 cases, prosecutors applied an anti-terrorism law written with the help of industry that was designed exclusively to target animal rights activists. Six cases involved activists releasing mink and vandalizing fur facilities, and six involved individuals accused of encouraging radical acts like sabotage but not participating in any themselves. Four of the cases involved activists protesting outside researchers’ homes and were dismissed because the allegations were too vague.
The story of how years of corporate lobbying ended with Dibee in cuffs contains lessons for those considering how to handle the surge in right-wing violence, as well as for a new generation of environmental activists again facing accusations of eco-terrorism.
Joe Dibee grew up camping in the spectacular forests, mountains, and coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest. His parents, members of Syria’s Catholic minority, had immigrated to the U.S. before he was born, settling into Seattle’s middle class. His mother worked at the public library and his father was a finance professor at Seattle University, where Dibee would eventually study civil engineering and general science. Dibee came of age just as law enforcement in the U.S. was beginning to take notice of the budding animal rights movement.
In 1977, when he was 9 years old, a group called the Undersea Railroad released two dolphins from a University of Hawaii marine laboratory — the first known animal liberation in U.S. history. A countermovement was rapidly launched, led by organizations like the National Association for Biomedical Research, which lobbies for the use of live animals in scientific research.
NABR and other industry groups were way ahead of law enforcement in gathering intelligence on the animal rights movement, and federal agents were happy to make use of the information. In March 1987, for example, FBI agents met with NABR about four chimpanzees that had been abducted from a research laboratory. The group “maintains a large intelligence file on the activities of most of the significant animal rights groups in the world,” an agent noted after the meeting, and “furnished the FBI with many documents which deal with these groups as well as outline their significant activities dating back to 1976.”
The FBI’s account of the meeting is included in documents obtained via public records requests by Ryan Shapiro, executive director of the transparency organization Property of the People. The documents show that throughout the 1990s, the FBI and Justice Department collaborated with a range of industry groups including Americans for Medical Progress, the Fur Commission, the National Board of Fur Farm Organizations, the Foundation for Biomedical Research, and the American Feed Industry Association.
In 1987, an animal diagnostics laboratory under construction at the University of California, Davis was burned to the ground — the first U.S. arson claimed by ALF. It was meant “to retaliate in the name of thousands of animals tortured each year in campus labs,” a communique from the saboteurs said.
A month after the arson, a Justice Department public information officer sent a letter to the Fur Retailers Information Council, whose members had also been targeted by the Animal Liberation Front. “I encourage you to send to me any evidence you have indicating criminal activity committed by animal rights activists,” the official wrote. “I am happy to be of assistance to the Fur Retailers Information Council.”
In response, the industry group worked with the Justice Department to create “a directory of some 200 animal rights and animal welfare organizations operating in North America which provides office addresses, names of officers and spokespersons, and a diary of incidents,” according to an October 1988 letter from the council.
“We would occasionally contact the [FBI] to ensure they were aware of a threat or action involving animal extremism. We also sent FBI officials occasional alerts about animal rights actions or threats that might be considered illegal,” said Jim Newman, a spokesperson for Americans for Medical Progress, a nonprofit funded by the biomedical industry to foster support for animal research. “There was no concerted effort in place.” The other groups did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment.
In some cases, corporations went beyond intelligence sharing to actively ferreting out activists they viewed as threats. One of the strangest efforts involved Leon Hirsch, a manufacturer of surgical staples whose sales demonstrations involved cutting open live beagles and stapling them back together. His company, United States Surgical Corporation, paid a security firm called Perceptions International to infiltrate the animal rights movement.
Mary Lou Sapone, the firm’s undercover agent, befriended a troubled activist named Fran Trutt, who was subsequently accused of planting a pipe bomb at the headquarters of the surgical corporation in an attempt to murder Hirsch. But Trutt was on the phone with Sapone throughout the day before the alleged murder attempt, and another undercover operative working for the company actually drove her to the crime scene and gave her money for the pipe bomb. Trutt pleaded no contest to attempted murder charges. Despite industry’s role in manufacturing the incident, it would later be presented in a key report to Congress as the only “confirmed case” of an animal rights activist using an incendiary device “with intent of harming an individual.”
Industry groups also lobbied for federal legislation that would heighten penalties for activist tactics. “The DOJ has advised that there is significant special interest pressure on Congress to pass legislation which would protect animal and health research property, facilities and personnel from attacks,” according to a 1990 FBI memo.
Two years later, Congress enacted the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which created a new crime of “animal enterprise terrorism.” The law was aimed at anyone who physically disrupted or conspired to disrupt an animal enterprise by intentionally damaging or causing the loss of its property. It created a legal pathway to imprison a broad range of saboteurs and their allies.
But the AEPA didn’t lead to the kind of crackdown the biomedical and fur lobbyists sought. The law was used only once before the turn of the century, in the prosecution of two activists who released mink from Wisconsin fur farms. And although the FBI charged a few individuals for eco-arsons throughout the 1990s, it would be the next generation of saboteurs — Dibee’s generation — that would bear the brunt of the government’s crackdown on eco-radicals.
Radical Tactics Reach Their Peak
By the late 1990s, Dibee was known within activist circles, regularly participating in spectacular demonstrations designed to draw attention to moneymaking activity built on animal and ecological suffering.
At the Warner Creek occupation in 1995, activists blockaded a logging road to prevent a timber company from accessing Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. The occupation lasted for nearly a year, thanks in part to 28-year-old Dibee, who designed a “bipod” structure, a precariously rigged platform between two tall poles where activists perched, complicating police efforts to remove them. The federal government, which managed the national forest land, put the company’s timber harvest on hold, as well as 150 other timber sales.
In the summer of 1997, Dibee was involved in another dramatic action, this time to protest the overfishing of pollock in the Bering Sea and the harm it was causing the endangered Steller sea lion. Seven Greenpeace activists planned to dangle from ropes off Seattle’s Aurora Bridge, more than 200 feet above Lake Union, in an effort to block four giant American Seafoods trawlers from entering Puget Sound. A skilled climber, Dibee was to position himself underneath the bridge, maneuvering along its metal support structure to assist the other climbers as needed.
“There was a lot of this macho ‘me big eco-warrior’ thing, where the guys just wanted to be rock stars,” said Helga Kahr, an activist and friend of Dibee’s. But despite his willingness to take risks, she added, “Joe was not like that.” He sewed specialized backpacks for fellow activists, trained friends in computer encryption, and donated money to whatever corner of the movement needed it.
Few of his comrades were aware, however, that Dibee was also involved in the controversial eco-radical underground. In July 1997, the Associated Press published an investigation revealing that 90 percent of the horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program ended up in slaughterhouses. Among the buyers named in the article was the Cavel West slaughterhouse. According to court filings, Dibee and four other animal rights activists came up with a plot to strike back.
The activists surrounded the Cavel West facility in Redmond, Oregon, and planted incendiary devices fueled by so-called vegan jello — a mixture of soap and petroleum. They timed them to go off at an hour when they believed the facility would be empty, then fled, stopping to dump their clothing in a hole, which they covered with acid and filled with dirt. An anonymous communique attributed the action to the Animal Liberation Front and the Equine and Zebra Liberation Front. The facility burned to the ground and did not reopen.
The fur and biomedical industries “dramatically increased their efforts to convince the FBI and the DOJ to treat animal rights and environmental protesters as terrorists.”
During the same period, other activists burned down a Forest Service ranger station, set SUVs on fire, and toppled an 80-foot high-voltage transmission tower. The attacks and demonstrations were costly. In response, the fur and biomedical industries “dramatically increased their efforts to convince the FBI and the DOJ to treat animal rights and environmental protesters as terrorists,” said Shapiro of Property of the People. “This was the true genesis of the Green Scare.”
It wasn’t just about arson. Patti Strand, a Dalmatian breeder and co-founder of the National Animal Interest Alliance, which works to “promote responsible animal ownership and use, and to oppose animal rights extremism,” said that after she published her 1998 book on animal extremism she was targeted by radical activists. They put dead animals and garter snakes in her mailbox. “I received letters that included information about my son, who was 11 at the time — what path he was taking to school and that they liked his new green jacket,” she said. When others who had been targeted reached out to Strand with their stories — “If their fences were cut, if there were lawsuits that were going on, if they had started to receive death threats or things that were intimidating” — she would pass along the details to the FBI.
By April 1998, the anti-environmental lobbying campaign was again bearing fruit. The Justice Department held a conference on animal rights terrorism and invited the executive director of the Fur Commission “to address the attendees with her perception of the animal rights terrorism trends, and recommended investigative aids,” according to an FBI summary of the event. Along with federal prosecutors, the attendees included officials from the FBI, the Justice Department’s terrorism and violent crime section, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Later that year, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Acts of Ecoterrorism by Radical Environmental Organizations.” U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs, who had accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the forestry industry, described an activist stunt in which a large tree stump was dumped in the middle of his Northern California office. “My office was quite literally assaulted by a group of environmental terrorists,” he said. “Upon responding to the horrific sound, my two female staff members were greeted by the visage of several Earth First! terrorists, one wearing a black ski mask, and another wearing dark goggles and a hood.”
The Fur Commission celebrated. “Over the last year, the people of the fur trade have been key players with other animal and resource-based industries in a concerted effort to push eco and animal rights terrorism up the government’s priority pole,” according to a March 1999 newsletter. “These efforts have resulted in a strong statement of commitment from the FBI.”
Detective Greg Harvey joined the Eugene Police Department’s special investigations unit in June of that year. For the better part of the next decade, solving the string of ALF and ELF arsons would become his primary task.
Harvey’s work on the team coincided with an intense national tug of war over the meaning of terrorism. Indeed, Harvey had his own taxonomy. Blocking a road and trespassing? Not terrorism. The ALF and ELF arsonists? Not in the same category as international terrorists who kill people, but terrorists just the same. “Their whole intent is to change the way things are done,” Harvey told The Intercept. “They’re trying to close down businesses. Well, that’s terrorism. When the families or the workers are afraid to do something, that’s what I consider terrorism.”
“One of the things we were really trying to focus on was breaking the movement,” he said. Harvey and other law enforcement officials went after the group’s omerta — its staunch refusal to cooperate with authorities. “That was one of the things that we broke.”
But it would take a disaster even bigger than the Vail arson to give industry and law enforcement the political capital needed to cripple the movement. “They called us eco-terrorists before 9/11,” said John Sellers, former director of the Ruckus Society, which trains environmental justice organizers in direct action. “But no one really believed them.”
From 9/11 to the Green Scare
Rescue workers were only beginning to survey the damage when Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young picked up a call from an Anchorage Daily News reporter on September 11, 2001. Few details had emerged about who was behind the attacks, but Young was unfazed. “War has been declared as far as terrorists go,” he told the newspaper. “I’m not sure they’re that dedicated, but eco-terrorists — which are really based in Seattle — there’s a strong possibility that could be one of the groups” behind the assault.
Young’s remarks were prescient: Eco-saboteurs would become one of the U.S. government’s lesser-known war on terror adversaries. September 11 was a crisis perfectly suited to the groundwork industry groups had laid in the 1990s, and corporate actors stood ready to exploit it. It didn’t hurt that the saboteurs aligned themselves against capitalism, which was being defended as critical to America’s suddenly imperiled way of life. With political careers freshly dependent on hammering terrorism, eco-sabotage became an easy target.
The attacks “did not set off the Green Scare,” Shapiro said. Instead, “9/11 was exploited by Green Scare warriors to turn up the volume on their surveillance and suppression of the animal rights and eco movements.”
The Patriot Act’s broad new definition of domestic terrorism, signed into law in October 2001, was another step toward institutionalizing the notion that eco-saboteurs were terrorists. The law targets those who commit criminal acts “dangerous to human life” that “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or influence government policy. It also made it easier for the FBI to wiretap and surveil U.S. citizens. Even though a core tenet of ALF and ELF was to avoid harming living things, the Justice Department considered the movement’s acts of arson and vandalism dangerous enough to count.
At the hearing, representatives from both parties offered anti-ALF and ELF soliloquies. “On the morning of December 28, the employees of U.S. Forest Industries arrived at work to find their offices smoldering. The scene is reminiscent of what we saw of the damaged part of the Pentagon after September 11,” said Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden. “It didn’t take a jetliner to destroy this office. An ELF firebomb did the job. And while fortunately there was no loss of life, the destruction was just as severe.”
The domestic terrorism section chief of the FBI, James Jarboe, announced that ALF and ELF were “the No. 1 priority in the domestic terrorism program.”
Rosebraugh tried to turn the tables on his accusers. “If the U.S. government is truly concerned with eradicating terrorism in the world, then that effort must begin with abolishing U.S. imperialism,” he wrote in prepared remarks. “Members of this governing body, both in the House and Senate as well as those who hold positions in the executive branch, constitute the largest group of terrorists and terrorist representatives currently threatening life on this planet.”
Lawmakers at the hearing proposed various legislative fixes, including an Agroterrorism Prevention Act, which would have made activists eligible for the death penalty if someone were to die in one of the arsons. That bill was never passed, but another proposal — an expansion of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act — did become law, with help from industry.
In tandem with politicians’ maneuvers, Quimby and the other law enforcement officers assigned to the arsons were doubling down on capturing the saboteurs. In the summer of 2001, they had met to discuss how they could crack open what had become stubbornly cold cases. “We decided we were going to be much more overt, and we were going to go start knocking on doors,” Quimby said.
Armed with a list of 30 to 40 targets, the lead agent on the case began popping up in coffee shops and neighborhoods where he knew activists would recognize him. “You start to induce a little bit of paranoia,” Quimby explained. The idea was that the activists would start thinking, “Are they on to us? Are they watching me? Are they on my phone? Are they monitoring my email account?” she told The Intercept. “It sewed some seeds of doubt.”
“They called us eco-terrorists before 9/11, but no one really believed them.”
Eugene detective Harvey’s job was to remain unseen. “I lived in the shadows. I basically sat in my car, watching people, buildings,” he said. At one point, he said, he spent hours sitting outside the Castle Superstore where one of the activists worked, in the hopes that Dibee would show up to visit.
The operation zeroed in on Jake Ferguson, who was suspected of being one of the most prolific arsonists. “We were following around Jake Ferguson for months and months,” said Harvey. “You’re looking at a heroin user, which makes him unbelievably paranoid.” Agents from multiple states moved into a shared office in Eugene, where the walls were papered with charts, photos, and timelines.
Quimby doesn’t fully credit 9/11 for the intensified investigation. But “there’s no question that funding that became available as a result of 9/11 may not have been there” if not for the attacks, she said. The ALF and ELF cases “became a priority and a very visible priority.”
By the end of 2001, however, Dibee and fellow activists had begun to move away from radical protest tactics like arson, according to Lauren Regan, a lawyer who would later represent one of the Backfire defendants. “It was causing division, because there was no way to control who was doing what,” she said. “They felt as if, sooner or later, some wildcard would potentially screw something up and kill themselves or kill someone else.” An October 2001 arson, of a hay barn at a Bureau of Land Management holding facility for wild horses, would be the last fire prosecutors attributed to Dibee and other Backfire defendants.
Dibee also had a falling out with one of his closest collaborators in the movement, Jonathan Paul. Paul had participated in the Cavel West arson, and he and Dibee had co-founded an organization called Sea Defense Alliance, which sought to physically disrupt the Makah people’s whale hunt (an action that is hard to imagine in today’s environmental movement, which seeks to follow the lead of Indigenous people).
The two activists sued each other over ownership of the organization’s boat, and at one point, Dibee drove toward Paul’s home with a gun, allegedly planning to confront him, according to law enforcement accounts included in federal court filings. But Dibee got lost and was pulled over by police, and the meeting was averted.
For a time, Dibee appeared to move on with his life, maintaining his adrenaline high by racing cars and flying planes. But the Backfire case was about to break. In 2003, Ferguson, who had a young child to consider, agreed to wear a wire and travel around the U.S., visiting his activist friends and convincing them to talk about the old days.
Breaking the Movement
Among the earliest casualties of the Green Scare was a group known as the SHAC 7. After reporters and undercover activists obtained disturbing footage from inside the laboratories of the research company Huntingdon Life Sciences, a campaign called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty emerged to shut it down. The nerve center of the campaign was a website where administrators posted communiques describing protest actions that targeted not just Huntingdon, but any company or individual that supported it — from clients to investment firms to the club where the CEO played golf. In response to persistent disruptions, dozens of companies severed ties with Huntingdon.
In January 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful organization whose members include legislators and corporate lobbyists, released draft legislation meant to strengthen the Animal Enterprise Protection Act to make it even easier to crack down on activist groups like SHAC. Under ALEC’s model, titled the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” filming an animal facility without the owners’ consent could be prosecuted as terrorism. ALEC’s version would also have created a “terrorist registry” of anyone convicted under the law.
But prosecutors didn’t need ALEC’s draft legislation to go after SHAC. A few months after the proposal was finalized, seven SHAC organizers were arrested and six were later sentenced to prison terms under the original version of AEPA. They were accused of encouraging and publicizing radical tactics, but not participating in acts of sabotage themselves.
Nor did authorities need a new anti-terrorism law to go after the ALF and ELF arsonists. In December 2005, FBI agents carried out simultaneous arrests in five states. Over the next year, 18 alleged ALF and ELF saboteurs would be accused of participating in a domestic terrorism conspiracy. The feds interviewed Dibee. Then he disappeared.
The pressure on the eco-radicals to inform on their friends in exchange for reduced prison time was immense. Hanging over their heads were terrorism sentencing enhancements developed in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which could increase prison time for a specific list of crimes if they were “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.” Among the charges that fit the enhancement were arsons of buildings involved in interstate commerce or belonging to the U.S. government.
Given the prison time at stake, with some facing possible life sentences, nearly every activist shared information. “Some named every name they could,” Harvey said, while others “listed involvement without naming names.”
Prosecutors declined to negotiate with the handful of defendants who refused to cooperate, according to Regan. But that changed overnight, she said, after defense lawyers issued an extensive motion demanding the government reveal whether the National Security Agency or FBI had used warrantless wiretapping or Patriot Act-authorized surveillance against the activists. When the judge supported the motion, and prosecutors changed their tune. “They said, ‘OK, we’ll do a noncooperating plea deal if you’ll drop this motion,’” Regan recalled.
“If I had to choose who was the greater threat, I would obviously go with the ones who were killing people.”
A narrower version of ALEC’s law, introduced by Republican Sen. James Inhofe and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, passed the following November. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, or AETA, left out much of ALEC’s wish list, limiting the law to animal enterprises rather than actions targeting mining, timber harvesting, and fossil fuel extraction. However, it succeeded in criminalizing “interference” in the activities of any entity with a connection to an animal enterprise, a lower bar than AEPA’s “physical disruption.” It also increased the maximum penalty for causing economic damage, from three years in prison to 20, and allowed for up to five years in prison if an action simply caused someone a “reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death.”
The section that would have criminalized filming at animal facilities was picked up by state lawmakers across the U.S. — “ag gag” bills became law in nine states, though they’ve been overturned as unconstitutional in three, and legal battles continue.
Twelve of the Backfire defendants received terrorism enhancements. They were sentenced to between one and 12 years in prison. One defendant’s status as a “terrorist” was later used to justify his transfer to a communications management unit, where his contact with friends, family, and the public was severely limited.
But it wasn’t prison time that most deeply undermined the movement. “The level of betrayal that took place during the Green Scare and the number of hardcore activists that basically crumbled under minor pressure by the state to become snitches or informants really shook the foundations of the radical movement,” Regan said. “It was very, very difficult for a lot of people to organize and trust each other in the aftermath of that shakeup.”
As for Dibee, the FBI suspected that he sheltered with relatives in Syria. Friends thought he might have died in the violent civil war there. One by one, the other Backfire fugitives were picked up. After 30-year-old New Jersey native Justin Solondz was arrested on drug charges in 2009 in the backpacker community of Dali, China, he pleaded guilty in the U.S. to firebombing the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. Thirty-nine-year-old Rebecca Rubin, who had been hiding in her home nation of Canada, turned herself in in 2012, exhausted by years when “she was forced to live in what is, in some ways, a prison without walls,” as her lawyer told a Maclean’s reporter. She pleaded guilty to freeing wild horses and helping with the Vail arson.
While Dibee was on the lam, Obama’s election drove much of the environmental movement’s energy toward legislative change and away from direct action. The Intercept identified only 13 eco-activist cases prosecuted federally after 2008 — all but two charged under AETA. Six of the cases involved activists freeing mink from fur farms — actions that could hardly be considered terrorism even under the Patriot Act’s broad definition. Four more of the cases were dismissed. “The primary purpose of these laws is to try and brand activists as terrorists in order to turn public opinion against their advocacy and their campaigns,” Regan said.
Meanwhile, Democratic leadership failed to deliver any meaningful response to the deepening climate crisis and resulting biodiversity loss. Rising ocean temperatures caused the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which Dibee had visited as a kid, to bleach and die. Wildfires burned with more intensity through the desiccated Pacific Northwest forests that he’d fought to protect from the timber industry. Orca whale populations shrunk to perilous levels off the coast of Washington state. And Donald Trump was elected president, paving the way to reverse even the minor steps the Obama administration had taken to challenge corporate polluters.
A Rising Threat Dismissed
Daryl Johnson started at the Department of Homeland Security as a domestic terrorism analyst when eco-terrorism was still one of its major priorities. He didn’t have a problem with that. “I still believe they’re terroristic threats, because it’s ideologically motivated violence against property,” he said. “But if I had to choose who was the greater threat, I would obviously go with the ones who were killing people.”
By 2009, Johnson had come to see right-wing extremism as a severe, rising threat. That April, he became the lead author on an intelligence assessment that found that right-wing movements were using Obama’s election as a recruiting tool. That same month, three police officers in Pittsburgh were ambushed and killed by a man who regularly posted on the white supremacist website Stormfront. “Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States,” the report concluded.
The report was leaked, and the backlash was swift. Conservative groups were particularly offended by its suggestion that veterans might be vulnerable to recruitment by far-right groups. Everyone from Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner to the American Legion released statements deriding it.
At first, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano defended Johnson’s work. “We must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence,” she said in a statement a week after the report was published. But after 20 conservative groups put out ads calling for her to resign, she backtracked, claiming there had been a breakdown in internal review processes and promising to replace the report.
“Their whole intent is to change the way things are done. … Well, that’s terrorism.
In contrast to the crackdown on eco-radicals, DHS stepped back from focusing on domestic terrorism altogether. Johnson’s unit was gutted, and he left the agency along with many of his peers.
“It sent a chilling effect in the law enforcement and intelligence community. They saw what happened to me and how my unit was politicized,” he told The Intercept. As a result, “you have 10 years of attacks almost,” said Johnson, who now works as a consultant on domestic extremism. “Lots of people have died. The threat [of far-right groups] is still very active right now, and so it’s thriving.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League, between 2002 and 2018, 80 percent of extremist-related murders in the U.S. were carried out by people linked to right-wing movements. Only 3 percent were linked to left-wing ideologies, and 17 percent to Islamic movements. Every single extremist killing in 2018 — 50 in all — had a link to a right-wing movement.
Journalist and civil liberties advocate Will Potter, whose book “Green Is the New Red” exposed industry influence over Green Scare-style prosecutions, argues that the federal focus on animal rights activists over right-wing extremists was driven by more than corporate lobbying. “Beliefs that motivate [animal rights] activists were presented as this ideological threat to core concepts that underpin what some people think it means to be an American — defense of capitalism, a religiously aligned state, defense of industry, the belief that humans are exceptional.”
In contrast, many of America’s foundational values — Christianity, individualism, gun rights, and white supremacy — align with those of right-wing extremists. As Johnson put it, right-wing groups “operate under some of the same values that [I], an FBI agent, might believe.”
Shapiro went even further: “No shit the FBI doesn’t like to go after right-wing groups. They’re on the same team.”
A New Generation
In October 2016, as thousands of opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline gathered in protest camps in North Dakota, activists simultaneously turned above-ground valves on five tar sands oil pipelines across the U.S., shutting off the oil’s flow in solidarity with the Standing Rock tribe. They livestreamed the actions and stayed on site, awaiting arrest.
Less than a year later, holes burned using welding tools began appearing on valves along the Dakota Access pipeline. Two pipeline activists, Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, called a press conference to claim responsibility for the sabotage.
In response to the resurgence of direct action tactics, 84 members of Congress, including four Democrats, sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in October 2017 asking whether “the attacks against this nation’s energy infrastructure, which pose a threat to human life, and appear to be intended to intimidate and coerce policy changes,” fell within the Justice Department’s understanding of domestic terrorism.
“Just because time passes doesn’t mean the FBI forgets.”
The American Petroleum Institute praised the letter and told the industry publication Natural Gas Intelligence that the group was working with the Trump administration on the issue, including the Justice Department and the FBI. “A key component of securing our nation’s energy infrastructure is ensuring that law enforcement has the tools needed to prosecute those who attack it,” an institute spokesperson said.
As if on cue, ALEC entered the fray. By December 2017, it had introduced a model Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which would increase penalties for trespassing on or inhibiting the operations of oil and gas pipelines. Under the model, “conspirator” organizations, such as activist groups, would face a fine several times that of the trespasser. Eight states are considering versions of the law, and industry groups and oil and gas companies, including Dakota Access parent company Energy Transfer Partners, have been lobbying on its behalf.
“It’s the corporate state bringing out the same old tired playbook and repeating the same plays again and again,” said Regan.
While legislators’ efforts haven’t yet translated into Green Scare-style prosecutions, their enthusiasm reveals that the anti-eco-terror framework built in the 1990s and strengthened in the wake of 9/11 could easily be deployed again.
On August 10, the FBI held a press conference to announce it had captured Dibee. “Just because time passes doesn’t mean the FBI forgets,” FBI agent Tim Suttles, who worked the Operation Backfire case for 14 years, said in a statement. “We are very gratified to have Dibee in custody.”
Dibee’s lawyer declined to comment. But if his case turns out like those of his co-defendants, he’ll probably negotiate a guilty plea. The judge is likely to consider a terrorism enhancement, and Dibee will be sentenced to years in prison.
Harvey, the Oregon detective who spent years trying to catch Dibee, learned of the arrest from a friend who’s still working on the case. “I was extremely happy,” he told The Intercept.
Quimby, the former FBI agent, was similarly gratified. “When Joe was picked up, it was sort of cool, like one more down, one to go.”
But she knows it’s not over. One Backfire defendant, Josephine Overaker, remains missing. “She speaks fluent Spanish and may seek employment as a firefighter, midwife, sheep tender, or masseuse,” the FBI said in its press release announcing Dibee’s capture.
“With Overaker still out there the case isn’t closed,” Quimby said. “It won’t be until she comes into custody.”
Source documents used in this reporting were obtained by Property of the People and shared exclusively with The Intercept. You can learn more about Property of the People’s work litigating Freedom of Information Act requests here.