The FBI says eco-terrorism -- acts of violence in protest of harm to animals or to the environment -- is the United States' No. 1 terrorism threat from inside its own borders.
In the early 1990s, biotech executives and scientists were inundated by harassment and violence in the United Kingdom and Europe. In 1996, the violence began spreading to the United States when demonstrators burned a U.S. Forest Service truck in the Willamette National Forest in Oregon. In August 2003, two pipe bombs exploded at Chiron, a pharmaceutical company in Emeryville, California, followed by another explosion in September 2003 at Shaklee, a health and beauty products company in Pleasanton, California.
The FBI has linked much of the harassment and violence to groups including SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty), the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front. But the groups have largely evaded authorities by operating in cells and using aliases.
"This is the most vexing and troublesome issue that the FBI investigates," said Philip Celestini, a special agent for the FBI, during the Biotechnology Industry Organization meeting in San Francisco last week. "We don't think for a minute that these groups are entirely different sets of people."
No one was hurt in the Chiron and Shaklee bombings. But Celestini and industry executives who are paid to think about these things believe companies should prepare themselves for an escalation of violence. Still, biotech execs don't seem to be losing sleep over the threat of eco-terrorism.
"This has been partly the problem, to be completely frank," said Kelly Stoner, director of Stop Eco-Violence. "Executives do not realize what a serious threat eco-terrorism is to their organization."
Several biotech companies contacted for this story did not respond to requests for comment. Genentech declined to comment. SHAC also did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.
Chiron employees received threats from SHAC starting in May 2003. Linda Short, vice president of corporate resources at Chiron, who also spoke at the BIO conference, said since the bombings the company has ramped up its efforts to thwart and respond to attacks, and recommends that all biotech companies devise their own antiterrorism plans.
The FBI has one suspect in both bombings: Daniel Andreas San Diego, who is 26 and now considered a fugitive. Among other evidence, FBI agents found that near the time of the bombings, San Diego had made phone calls to SHAC members, including Kevin Kjonaas, the leader of SHAC USA.
SHAC's stated purpose is to shut down U.K.-based Huntingdon Life Sciences, one of the largest animal-testing companies in the world, because it uses primates, dogs, rabbits, pigs and other animals for research.
SHAC has targeted Huntingdon directly. In February 2001, SHAC members beat the company's president, Brian Cass, with clubs outside his home in the United Kingdom while his wife and 3-year-old child looked on. He survived and remains head of Huntingdon. One attacker served three years for the incident. But SHAC's most potent weapon has been harassing Huntingdon's business partners.
Shaklee's parent company had done business with Huntingdon, while Chiron continues to employ Huntingdon's services.
The FBI says SHAC vandalized Chiron employees' homes and harassed them by posting fliers around their neighborhood, calling them "puppy killers," knocking on their doors and using a bullhorn in the middle of the night.
According to the FBI, SHAC was formed in Birmingham, England, by members of other groups that successfully shut down companies that provided animals for testing, including Consort Beagle Breeders, Hillgrove Cat Farm, Shamrock Monkeys and Regal Rabbits.
Huntingdon has proved to be a more stubborn victim for SHAC. Partly to try to escape the harassment, Huntingdon has moved much of its operations to New Jersey. But SHAC followed the company across the pond, threatening Huntingdon's customers, investors and suppliers. SHAC has claimed responsibility for causing 87 businesses to dump Huntingdon.
In 2000, accounting firm Deloitte and Touche dropped Huntingdon after vandals damaged the homes of several of Deloitte's managers.
The Stephens Group, a privately held brokerage and money management firm, abandoned its financial interest in Huntingdon in 2002 after its president's home was vandalized. Stephens had bought a $33 million loan of Huntingdon's from the Royal Bank of Scotland, which had also decided the demonstrations that came with having Huntingdon as a client were not worth dealing with.
Huntingdon's former insurance broker, Marsh & McLennan, severed ties in 2002 after managers received hand-delivered death threats at their homes.
Short said Chiron will not cave to SHAC's demands. If the group succeeds in closing down Huntingdon, it'll move on to the next animal supplier until no more exist, she said. Mary Hanley, executive vice president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, agreed, recommending that biotech officials encourage employees to immediately report strange activity like threats or unauthorized people on the company's property.
The FBI estimates that domestic eco-terrorism has caused $110 million in property damage since 1976. Gary Perlstein, a professor of criminal justice at Portland State University, points out that the figure excludes lost research, increased security costs, lost productivity and abandoned grants. About 1,100 criminal acts have been committed in the name of animals or the environment since 1976, the FBI says.
The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for an August 2003 arson incident in which condominiums being built in San Diego burned to the ground, causing up to $50 million in damage, according to Perlstein. Another fire in 1998, protesting the destruction of lynx habitat, destroyed buildings and ski lifts at Vail Mountain resort in Colorado, causing $12 million in damage. Other incidents over the past decade include torching SUVs in Southern California and other intentional fires at university tree research sites, logging sites and fast-food restaurants.
The BIO panel's purpose was to encourage biotech executives to make combating eco-terrorism a top priority. But the panel's turnout was sparse, and Perlstein doubts companies will take the threat seriously until they're forced to.
"We didn't take terrorism seriously until 9/11," Perlstein said. "Until they actually target somebody or kill somebody, the companies are probably not going to take it too seriously either."