Operation Backfire (FBI)

Operation Backfire is a multi-agency criminal investigation, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), into destructive acts in the name of animal rights and environmental causes in the United States described as eco-terrorism by the FBI.[1] The operation resulted in convictions and imprisonment of a number of people, many of whom were members of the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front.[2]

Operation Backfire
Part of The Green Scare
DateAround 2004-2006
United States (especially in Oregon)
 United States
* Oregon State Police (OSP)
Animal Liberation Front
Earth Liberation Front
Other environmental cells and individuals
Unknown ~20 militants (The Family)
A large number of cells
Casualties and losses


In 2004 the FBI merged seven independent investigations from its Portland, Oregon field office and called them Operation Backfire. According to an agency statement, the operational focus is on investigating acts of domestic terrorism, carried out on behalf of two activist groups, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF).[3]


In December 2005 and January 2006, with assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the FBI indicted six women and seven men on a total of 65 charges, including arson, conspiracy, use of destructive devices, and destruction of an energy facility. The defendants were named as Joseph Mahmoud Dibee, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, Sarah Kendall Harvey (née Kendall Tankersley), Daniel McGowan, Stanislas Meyerhoff, Josephine Sunshine Overaker, Jonathan Paul, Rebecca Jeanette Rubin, Suzanne Savoie, Justin Franchi Solondz, Darren Thurston, Kevin Tubbs, and Briana Waters.[4] A number of other unindicted co-conspirators were also named. A 13th alleged co-conspirator, William "Bill" Rodgers, also known as Avalon, committed suicide while in police custody.[5]

According to reports,[6] and their own websites,[7][8][9] most of the indicted individuals initially claimed to be innocent of the charges. Prosecutors alleged that the 11 conspirators collectively referred to themselves as "The Family" and had taken an oath to protect each other.[10] The FBI indicated that some of the charges relate to a 1998 arson attack, claimed by the ELF, on the Vail Ski Resort in Colorado. Other charges were related to another attack on the botany labs at the University of Washington in 2001.[11] The combined cost of the damage from the attacks is estimated at approaching $80 million.[12]

Convictions and abscondings

In late 2006, a number of self-described ELF members pleaded guilty to arson and other charges in U.S. federal courts.[13]

On November 11, 2006, Joyanna Zacher, Nathan Block, Daniel McGowan and Jonathan Paul pleaded guilty to several eco-sabotage related charges, as part of a global resolution agreement with prosecutors. Judge Ann Aiken presided over the hearings. The change of pleas from the four defendants resolves all current "Operation Backfire" cases in Oregon.[14]

On December 15, 2006, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach and Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff, pleaded guilty to $20 million worth of arsons committed between 1996 and 2001 by the Eugene-based cell of the ELF known as "The Family". Their fire-bombing of a Vail ski resort resulted in damages totaling $12 million, with the FBI characterizing the ELF as the United States' "top domestic terrorism threat". Gerlach has previously pleaded guilty to 18 counts of arson in other attacks, saying she was motivated by "a deep sense of despair and anger at the deteriorating state of the global environment," but adding that she has "since realized the firebombings did more harm than good." Meyerhoff has renounced ELF and pleaded guilty to 54 counts, but is still under indictment in Michigan, Arizona, Washington, Wyoming and California.[15]

On March 6, 2008, Briana Waters, who was arrested in Operation Backfire for another ELF attack in Washington State, was found guilty of two counts of arson[11] and sentenced later that year to six years in prison.[16]

The FBI alleged that the group was led by William C. Rodgers, who was arrested in December 2005 and committed suicide in jail just before he was to be transferred to Oregon. Josephine Sunshine Overaker has not been apprehended;[17] she is believed to be in Spain.[18]

Justin Franchi Solondz was arrested in Dali, China in March 2009 on charges of growing marijuana.[19] He pleaded guilty to manufacturing drugs in a daylong trial and was sentenced to three years in prison by a local court.[19] He was deported back to the U.S. to face charges there after serving his sentence.[20] On December 20, 2011, Solondz pleaded guilty to planning the UW arson.[21] On March 16, 2012, Solondz was sentenced to seven years in prison.[22]

Rebecca Jeanette Rubin surrendered to FBI agents at the Canada–US border in Blaine, Washington on 29 November 2012.[23][24]

Joseph Mahmoud Dibee, was apprehended in Cuba and returned to the US on 10 August 2018, after twelve years on the run. Dibee was believed to be beyond the reach of the FBI in Syria, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States, and was ultimately discovered to be traveling through Central America, en route to Russia. With the assistance of Cuban authorities, the FBI detained him before he could board a plane to Russia, and brought him to Portland for trial.[25][26] The last fugitive militant Josephine Sunshine Overaker sought for the delits of Conspiracy to Commit Arson of United States Government Property and of Property Used in Interstate Commerce; Conspiracy to Commit Arson and Destruction of an Energy Facility; Attempted Arson of a Building; Arson of a Vehicle; Arson of a Building; Destruction of an Energy Facility, offering $50,000 for information leading to the arrest.[27]

In January and February 2006, as a result of separate investigations, but widely reported as extensions of Operation Backfire,[28][6][29] three more individuals, Zachary Jenson, Eric McDavid and Lauren Weiner, were arrested in Auburn, California for conspiring to damage facilities "by explosive or fire."[6] Eric McDavid, the only one of the three who refused to sign a plea agreement, was found guilty on all counts and faces up to 20 years in prison, and a $250,000 fine, when sentenced on the 6th of December.[30][31] In Washington, Nathan Block and Joyanna Zacher were arrested on charges relating to a 2001 arson on a farm near Clatskanie, Oregon[32] and in Tucson, Arizona, Rod Coronado, a prominent American eco-anarchist, was arrested on a felony charge of demonstrating the use of a destructive device.[33]


The indictments of the 18 activists for alleged acts of eco-terrorism have drawn condemnation from activists and alternative media organizations. The National Lawyers Guild condemned the operation and the resulting indictments, arguing that "life sentences for property damage offenses where the actor has no intent to harm an individual are simply unconstitutional."[34] Animal liberation activist and physician Jerry Vlasak accused the FBI of targeting "a bunch of above-ground, well-known, peaceful animal-rights activists and environmental activists and charg[ing] them with being members of the ALF and the ELF."[35]

In response, then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales argued that "there's a clear difference between constitutionally protected advocacy — which is the right of all Americans — and violent criminal activity."[28]

See also


  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation - Major Executive Speeches - January 20, 2006 Archived April 9, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  2. "Terrorism 2002/2005". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  3. Federal Bureau of Investigation - Press Room - Headline Archives - Eco-Terror Indictments Archived March 8, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  4. Eco-terror Indictments - 'Operation Backfire' Nets 11 Archived August 17, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  5. "Eco-Defense Arrestee Bill Rodgers Found Dead in Cell in Arizona". Indybay.org. 22 December 2005. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  6. "Secret Grand Jury investigations have led to indictments of 12". Independent Media Center. 24 January 2006. Archived from the original on 4 February 2012. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  7. "Charges & Court Dates at Free Darren Thurston - Support Site". Wayback Machine. 18 June 2006. Archived from the original on 18 June 2006. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  8. "Support For Daniel McGowan". Supportdaniel.org. 7 December 2005. Archived from the original on 18 October 2018. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  9. "Support Chelsea Gerlach". Supportchelsea.net. Archived from the original on 11 November 2013. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  10. Harden, Blaine (21 January 2006). "11 Indicted in 'Eco-Terrorism' Case". Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  11. Carter, Mike (6 March 2008). "Briana Waters convicted, Seattle Times". Seattletimes.nwsource.com. Archived from the original on 9 March 2008. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  12. Federal Bureau of Investigation -- Eco-Terror Indictments Archived March 1, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  13. Grigoriadis, Vanessa (21 June 2011). "The Rise and Fall of the Eco-Radical Underground". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  14. "Notes from Oregon Eco-Sabotage Plea Hearings Flies on the Wall". Wayback Machine. 11 November 2006. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  15. Two plead guilty in 1998 Vail ski resort fire Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  16. Bartley, Nancy (20 June 2008). "Briana Waters sentenced, Seattle Times". Seattletimes.nwsource.com. Archived from the original on 20 June 2008. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  17. "JOSEPHINE SUNSHINE OVERAKER". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  18. "Josephine Sunshine Overaker".
  19. Levin, Dan (27 November 2009). "China Jails Environmentalist Wanted in U.S." New York Times. New York, NY.
  20. "Fugitive Who Built Firebombs Linked to 2001 Arson of UW Center for Urban Horticulture Arrested Following Expulsion from China".
  21. "Justin Solondz pleads guilty in 2001 University of Washington fire bomb case". 20 December 2011.
  22. "Last Defendant Arrested in UW Horticulture Center Arson Sentenced to Prison".
  23. Carson, Teresa (29 November 2012). "Environmental activist long wanted in U.S. arson attacks surrenders". Wayback Machine. Archived from the original on 3 December 2012. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  24. "FBI — Eco-Terrorist Surrenders; Two Fugitives Still at Large". Wayback Machine. Fbi.gov. 7 December 2012. Archived from the original on 11 December 2012. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
  25. "Operation Backfire". Wayback Machine. Fbi.gov. 19 November 2008. Archived from the original on 10 December 2008. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  26. "Domestic Terrorism: After 12 Years on the Run, Joseph Dibee Has Been Apprehended". FBI.gov. Retrieved 21 August 2018.
  27. "JOSEPHINE SUNSHINE OVERAKER". FBI. Retrieved 17 June 2019.
  28. FBI Continues Crackdown on Environmentalists : AZ IMC Archived 2006-06-16 at the Wayback Machine
  29. "Asheville's Finest Webhost: PurpleCat.Net". Mambo.agrnews.rack2.purplecat.net. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  30. Thanawala, Sudhin. "Convicted eco-terrorist freed; government failed to disclose evidence". The Washington Times. Retrieved 22 October 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  31. "How an FBI Informant Sent a Radical Environmentalist to Prison, and How He Got Out Again". www.vice.com. Retrieved 12 November 2021.
  32. anon (26 February 2006). "Two More Indicted Today for 2001 ELF Jefferson Poplar Action". Wayback Machine. Portland.indymedia.org. Archived from the original on 8 April 2008. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  33. "SELF-PROCLAIMED MEMBER OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT CHARGED WITH DEMONSTRATING THE USE OF A DESTRUCTIVE DEVICE". Wayback Machine. 22 February 2006. Archived from the original on 22 March 2006. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  34. Azadeh Shahshahani, President. "National Lawyers Guild". Nlg.org. Archived from the original on 14 July 2006. Retrieved 10 December 2012.
  35. "Backstory: Eco-vigilantes: All in 'The Family?'". csmonitor.com. 30 January 2006. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
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