SAN DIEGO -- A sabotage campaign by the nation's most radical environmental group has moved from the countryside to the doorstep of the nation's biggest cities.
The Earth Liberation Front, a movement that originated in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, has claimed responsibility for a string of arsons in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Detroit, San Diego, and Philadelphia in the past 12 months. No one has been charged.
The attacks, which included the costliest act of environmental sabotage in US history, have targeted luxury homes and sport utility vehicles, the suburban status symbols that some environmentalists regard as despoilers of the earth.
"Their actions used to be aimed at `out in the country' industries," said Ron Arnold of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, based in Bellevue, Wash., who has written several books criticizing radicals in the environmental movement. "Now they're are moving from a save-the-wilderness focus to an anticapitalist focus."
This summer, environmentalists in Southern California turned six-figure luxury homes under construction into charred sticks of wood, destroyed an unfinished 206-unit apartment complex, and firebombed brand-new Hummers, the mammoth sport utility vehicles that start at $50,000.
Rod Coronado, a legendary figure in the underground movement who is serving as an ELF spokesman and has drawn scrutiny from the FBI, said a new generation is transforming the group.
"When I got involved in the mid-'80s, tree-spiking" -- pounding spikes into trees to prevent loggers with chain saws from cutting them down -- "was a big deal," said Coronado, 37, who played a part in sinking two whaling ships in Iceland and served time in prison for an arson at a Michigan State University animal research lab. "What that's morphed into is a more urban environmental movement, whereby people are fighting for the last wild places in urban areas."
He said the young activists are "doing the only thing they know to do, and that is strike a match and draw a whole lot of attention to their dissatisfaction with protecting the environment."
The organization has done more than $100 million worth of damage -- but caused no deaths -- since it split off from the radical environmental group Earth First! and surfaced in the United States five years ago.
The ELF first took aim at urban sprawl in 2000, when it burned luxury homes and condos under construction on New York's Long Island. But Phil Celestini, the agent in charge of the FBI's domestic terrorism operations unit in Washington, noted that the San Diego fires "are taking places in more densely populated areas than in the past."
On Aug. 1, a fire destroyed a five-story, 206-unit apartment complex under construction in San Diego's University City neighborhood. The damage estimate of $50 million made it "the single largest act of property destruction ever committed by one of these groups in the history of the country," Celestini said. "It's sheer dumb luck and providence that someone has not been killed. You set a fire that big, there's no way of predicting . . . consequences."
Other San Diego developers have installed security cameras and hired guards to keep an eye on properties around the clock, said Russ Valone of the California Building Industry Association.
"Let me tell you who the other victims of this are: you and me," Valone said. "Our insurance pays a price . . . [everybody] pays in some small way for the damage created by these maniacs."
Guidelines posted on the ELF's website stress the need to take "all necessary precautions against harming life." But in practice, the group's message has been mixed.
In a communique issued after a US Forest Service research center in Pennsylvania was attacked last year, the ELF said: "While innocent life will never be harmed in any action we undertake, where it is necessary, we will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice."
The ELF operates in a series of anonymous cells and uses the Internet to communicate and broadcast its message. It has little organization, no fees, and no membership list, frustrating FBI efforts to penetrate the group.
The recent case of an Oregon college student serving time in prison for a firebombing in 2001 opened a window into the ELF.
Jacob Sherman, a student at Portland State University, said he fell under the spell of Michael J. Scarpitti, known as Tre Arrow, a forest activist who is now the FBI's most wanted "eco-terrorist."
According to court documents, Arrow "groomed" Sherman and slowly introduced him to radical protesting. Sherman stopped bathing, refused to wear shoes, and began eating a strict vegan diet to emulate Arrow.
Sherman was no James Bond of the forest: His father called the FBI after his son drove home reeking of gasoline the night three logging company trucks were attacked. Sherman, 19 at the time, also told his girlfriend, who in turn told her father, a deputy state fire marshal, said Sherman's attorney, Andy Bates.
Authorities say Scarpitti, 29, has ties to California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado, Ohio, and Oregon. He is a suspect in at least one arson outside Oregon -- the fire at the Forest Service research center in Pennsylvania.
In the San Diego attacks, the FBI has focused on Coronado, the ELF's self-described spokesman. Search warrants obtained by a reporter show FBI agents raided the homes of two local activists in a search for videotaped copies of a speech Coronado delivered in San Diego on Aug. 1 -- the same day of the apartment arson.
Coronado has said he had nothing to do with the fire.