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Animal activists still a top threat

Games security focus broadened after Sept. 11

After hijacked jetliners smashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, Utahns began openly wondering if the 2002 Winter Games might become a target of Islamic terrorists.

But Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney, in a meeting with the Deseret News shortly after the attacks, downplayed any threat posed by Osama bin Laden, explaining instead that the real threat of terrorism against the Winter Olympics lay with home-grown terrorists acting under the flag of animal rights.

"Until Sept. 11," Romney told the paper, potential actions by animal rights activists "was our primary terrorism concern."

When questioned about the statement recently, however, Romney backtracked somewhat, saying security officials were concerned only that animal rights activists and others might disrupt the Games through violent protests similar to those in Seattle and more recently in Geneva and other cities during global conferences of the World Trade Organization.

His source for that concern? Web sites that encourage protesters to come to Salt Lake City and use the Games as a political forum.

Olympic security officials, Romney said, are "considering all possible sources of violent disruption of the Olympics."

The Utah Olympic Public Safety Command would not discuss the issue either, saying only it had no plans to hinder legal protests. "Protests are not an issue as long as they stay within the boundary of the law," said UOPSC spokeswoman Tammy Palmer.

Officers involved in investigating past crimes by animal rights activists would not return calls to the newspaper. The FBI, which has labeled the Animal Liberation Front — a loose-knit national organization that has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks on businesses, research labs and government offices across the nation, including Utah — a "terrorist" organization, is also mum, refusing to talk about Utah ALF cases past or present.

Where's the beef?

If law enforcement is mum on the topic, animal activists are not. They're talking to whoever will listen.

According to the Web site, activists claim to have been harassed by officers assigned to the Olympic Joint Terrorism Task Force. At least two activists say they have been singled out for questioning by authorities.

Jeremy Parkin, a member of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC), was charged last year with four felonies for freeing mink and destroying property at a Magna farm in 1999. A judge later dismissed the charges for lack of evidence.

Eric Ward, UARC administrative director, was also charged with a felony in a case involving a fur store protest, but the count was reduced to Class B misdemeanor trespassing; he was placed on probation until April, after the Olympics conclude.

"The timing (of the probation) is sure convenient," Ward said, calling the charges "harassment."

Activists maintain that law enforcement used the two arrests on "trumped up" charges to justify harassment of UARC, despite the group's public disavowal of violence and property destruction.

"They choose to publicly scapegoat groups like UARC instead of deal with the truth," said Sabrina, a spokesperson for Build Underground Resistance, Not the Olympics, or "Burntheolympics," a group that supports property destruction.

"No law enforcement official wants to admit it can't nab a bunch of people running around in ski masks setting fire to things," said Sabrina, who uses only her first name.

Under watchful eyes

Law enforcement has been actively gathering intelligence on activists for years, but activists say it has accelerated in recent months. They say officers have been videotaping them, writing down license numbers of cars parked at their homes and even infiltrating a meeting sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union to discuss protests during the Winter Games.

According to the Web site, Salt Lake Police detective Jill Candland, a member of the terrorism task force, has been telling activists that law enforcement's objective is to stop animal rights terrorism leading up to and during the Winter Games.

But Candland denies ever telling activists the task force was targeting animal rights activists or animal rights terrorism. Nor, she said, do security forces have concerns about peaceful protests planned for the Olympics.

"Our concern is they could be infiltrated by anarchists who come to town, whose only agenda is to cause violence and property destruction," Candland told the Deseret News. She added the anarchist agenda is to "cause disruption like what happened (at the WTO) in Seattle."

"But we would never target a group for their peaceful demonstrations," she said.

So concerned about the potential for violent protests is Salt Lake Police Chief Rick Dinse that he recently announced creation of "mobile field forces" trained in crowd control — a euphemism for riot police, according to officers interviewed on the condition of anonymity.

Beyond Utah's borders

Law enforcement's concern is rooted in the history of the animal rights movement in Utah — a crusade that over the past 10 years has initiated more than 50 attacks on private and government property resulting in nearly $3 million in damage. In the past decade, nearly a dozen activists have been arrested on felony arson, burglary and weapons charges.

Most have served their jail time and are currently free, while several were acquitted or had charges dismissed.

Officers say they know exactly who the Utah animal rights activists are and who poses a threat. But they aren't so certain about outsiders who might be coming to Utah to draw attention to the causes.

Surveillance of the movement also apparently extends far beyond Utah borders. One Utah activist attending a rally in Southern California was approached by an officer there who called him by name.

In late October, the FBI, Secret Service and other representatives of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command met with Utah business representatives to warn them about potential domestic terrorism during the Games. Among the targets they identified were animal products companies.

"It is pretty much self-evident," said Salt Lake Police Sgt. Steve Wooldridge, co-chairman of a UOPSC terrorism task force. "The (ALF) Web site speaks for itself."

Wooldridge also identified concerns about potential terrorism perpetrated by the Earth Liberation Front, a cousin of ALF opposed to urban sprawl and destruction of animal habitat.

Prime targets

Why are February's Olympics considered a major target of such groups?

Some of it has to do with some of the sponsorship tie-ins associated with the Games. McDonalds, a major corporate sponsor of the Olympics, has been a longtime target of animal rights attacks. Another potential target could be Certified Angus Beef, a supplier for Olympic Products of the United States, the marketing arm the U.S. Olympic team.

Wooldridge believes any of the large corporate Olympic sponsors could be targets.

"They (ALF activists) are sponsors of a campaign against globalized economics that they see as being in conflict with their belief systems . . . to raise the level of animal rights to human rights," he said.

And the tactics of the more extreme, he said, go far beyond First Amendment speech and into the realm of terrorism.

Some animal rights activists have over the past decade engaged in a destructive campaign to rid Utah of mink farms, stop the use of animals in scientific experiments and free wild animals from government holding pens and research centers.

Their tactics have ranged from Molotov cocktails and shrapnel bombs on one extreme, to freeing caged animals and smashing windows on the other.

No one has been hurt in the attacks — a fact heavily played up by the animal activist community. As a result, the public either hasn't noticed or seemed to care much. With few exceptions, the attacks have generated little media attention.

Lawmen grumble that Utahns have been living with a form of terrorism for a decade and likely won't demand action until someone is injured or killed. And frustrated prosecutors label the animal-rights actions — most attributed to ALF — nothing short of terrorism, and they have grumbled over the years that Utah judges don't share their perspective, as in cases like these:

Cameron Kraus and Bret Walton pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated arson in the 1997 firebombing of the Montgomery Fur Store in West Haven, Weber County. Both could have received up to five years in prison on the third-degree felony but instead received sentences of 30 days in jail and 30 days of home confinement for pouring gasoline around the business. A night watchman in the building came outside just as the men were preparing to light the fuse, averting potential disaster.

Other activists have received jail terms of one or two years for crimes that caused, in many cases, in excess of $100,000 damage. One was sentenced to 13 days in jail for his role in two attacks on Utah mink farms that, according to court documents, caused about $400,000 damage.

Disobedience vs. terror

Utah's most visible animal rights activists — those protesting fur shops and carrying placards denouncing rodeos and zoos — distance themselves from those who burn buildings, destroy businesses and attack research facilities.

Sean Diener, director of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC), says there is no evidence linking any member of his group to terrorist acts. And he maintains there is no connection whatsoever between UARC and the ALF.

"We have no activists in our organization that have been or are ALF activists," Diener said. "It is very easy to look at a high-profile group like ours and say we are responsible. But there is no evidence of that."

Utah activists believe they are being unfairly targeted for legally speaking out on a social issue, and they say concerns such as those voiced by Romney go far beyond paranoia and are a slap in the face to a nonviolent movement.

Are they guilty of civil disobedience for protesting perceived cruelty to animals? Absolutely, Diener says.

But civil disobedience engaged in by groups like UARC and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is a far cry from terrorism.

"To say that simple actions of free expression and speech can be related to tragedies such as these is a mockery and a deliberate distortion of the facts," according to Crystal Hammer, a fellow animal rights activist and Weber State University student.

Diener insisted UARC's official policy is one of nonviolence toward animals, people and property. It is a mantra Diener preaches to all who will listen. But he also admits some UARC members may have different beliefs and attitudes.

Hammer, for one, insists that animals are not the private property of any human, and therefore liberating them can-not be viewed as damaging someone's private property.

That concept is a fundamental premise of the ALF, which over 25 years of actions against property claims it has never injured anyone. That, says Sabrina, is not "random chance or good luck but comprehensive preparation, research and surveillance on the part of ALF cells."

Sabrina also insists that property destruction is not violent because property is not alive. "When you set fire to a fur shop, it does not cry out in anguish," she said. "But when you skin a stunned mink while she is still alive, she screams and writhes in pain. That is real terrorism."

Is it illegal? Yes, she said, but only because current laws are immoral.

The Burntheolympics Web site and correspondence with the Deseret News are emphatic. UARC is not involved in property destruction, "whereas Burntheolympics supports property destruction," she said.

Utah law officers are careful not to directly accuse UARC of involvement in alleged ALF attacks. But one member of law enforcement said the high-profile group is to the Utah ALF activists what Sinn Fein is to the violent Irish Republican Army — the legitimate political front for an organization that engages in terror.

Diener dismisses the comparison as nonsense.

Vague membership

Law enforcement has struggled to crack animal terrorism cases because ALF membership is so nebulous. Anyone can claim membership while engaged in actions supported by ALF, but there are no membership rolls or dues or meetings — just a Web site telling would-be activists in exacting detail how to go about inflicting maximum damage on certain targets.

Most recently in Utah, ALF claimed responsibility for vandalism at the Bed, Bath and Beyond store in Salt Lake City. Twenty-eight plate glass windows were smashed, and ALF graffiti was sprayed on the walls.

The store's "crime" was doing business with an investment company that also did business with an unrelated company accused of conducting shoddy scientific experiments on animals.

For years, farmers and ranchers have become increasingly worried by the brazen ALF attacks. And the problem, they say, is getting worse across the country.

"The perception we have and what we are telling our people is they have to be concerned about their personal safety, as well as for their animals and fences and buildings," said C. Booth Wallentine, president of the Utah Farm Bureau.

Wallentine said most of the ALF terrorist actions have been directed at agricultural businesses — meat-packing plants, egg producers and mink farms — close to populated areas along the Wasatch Front.

But there is growing concern the ALF actions will extend to dairy farms, feed lots and even family farms in rural Utah. The Farm Bureau recently issued a a 17-step outline to help members maintain security at their farms and ranches.

National organizations like the Farm Bureau are wholeheartedly endorsing legislation proposed by Rep. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, that calls for spending $1.1 billion next year and $271 million each year thereafter for 10 years, all for research, training and security at the nation's agricultural research facilities.

Roberts' bill is clearly directed at threats that foreign terrorists could infect America's food supply, but the funding would also go to deter domestic terrorism at research facilities.

Favorite targets

Over the past decade, Utah mink producers — and those elsewhere across the nation — have been a favorite ALF target. In fact, the ALF deems the slaughter of animals for their fur a particularly egregious sin.

In Utah, a producer cooperative was bombed, causing about $1 million in damage, and attacks at several ranches resulted in the destruction of buildings, fences and breeding information, as well as the release of thousands of mink.

Chris Falco, general manager of the Fur Breeders Agricultural Cooperative, said things have been fairly quiet, with the exception of continued bomb threats, since the arrest of six activists several years ago. But mink farmers are still concerned.

"We've heard a lot of information that the animal-rights groups are trying to recruit more people" to carry on the attacks, Falco said.

The cooperative has toughened its security, installed better lighting and hired guards. It no longer lists its phone number under its business name.

Other companies that process and package meats have also beefed up security.

Wallentine said law enforcement officials have pleaded with skittish farmers and ranchers not to resort to packing loaded weapons. But that is easier said than done when farmers and ranchers hear almost weekly reports of attacks somewhere in the nation by animal-rights activists on livestock auction houses, feedlots and other businesses that buy their produce.

Since Sept. 11, there have been a firebombing at a federal corral for wild horses in northeastern California, a fire at a primate research center in New Mexico and back-to-back break-ins in Iowa, one at a fur farm to release more than 1,000 mink, the other to free pigeons raised for research.

Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Portland, which is looking into the incidents, told the New York Times. "This is a horrible time in the nation's history, and to be adding to that with your own brand of violence just goes beyond the pale."

The ALF attacks have Utah's agribusiness on edge.

"The perception is we have a lot of enemies out there, and we have for some time," Wallentine said.

Olympic spotlight

But attacks on Utah's family farms and ranches during the Winter Games wouldn't generate much publicity — certainly not the kind of publicity animal-rights activists are seeking.

With 10,000 or so reporters in Salt Lake City to cover the Games, it may be an irresistible political forum for activists. Recently, PETA enlisted the support of famed figure skater Scott Hamilton to demand that SLOC cancel a professional rodeo scheduled as a cultural event during the Olympics.

The request fell on deaf ears.

Diener said UARC will also use the Games as a political platform to draw attention to animal rights, but he insisted it will be nonviolent.

"All of our actions are done keeping in mind we need to respect the rights of others," he said. "But humans are animals, as well, and as animal-rights activists we believe in the rights of humans so long as they do not infringe on the rights of other creatures."

Sabrina promised that activists of all kinds will be converging on the Games, including those advocating native sovereignty, Tibetans opposed to China's control of their nation, environmentalists, anti-globalization protesters and "anarchist/class warriors of all sorts."

Should law enforcement be concerned? "Anywhere you have a gathering of thousands of overzealous cops and thousands of protesters, you are going to have conflict," Sabrina said, adding that incidents in Seattle and Switzerland escalated out of control only because of provocations by police.

Tight-lipped security officials have been watching and preparing for the worst. Long before the events of Sept. 11 added to the urgency, Utah anti-terrorism officers were combing through "worst case" and "most likely case" scenarios.

And yes, Wooldridge said, animal-rights terrorism is part of security preparations, just like every other possible form of terrorism.

"We look at terrorism as one package, whether it be domestic or international, state-sponsored or rogue individuals," he said.

In the case of animal-rights terrorism, "we know what their behavior has been in the past." And as counterterrorism experts, it is their job to consider all possibilities.

"Everybody had a wake-up call on Sept. 11," Wooldridge said. "But we were already awake."