Here’s What the Feds Were Investigating Before 9/11. And It’s Not Al-Qaeda.

by Will Potter on March 17, 2015

in Government Priorities

atf-elf-weapons-mass-destruction-pickeringJust three months before the September 11th attacks, U.S. anti-terrorism resources weren’t focused on Al-Qaeda — they were also being spent trying to build a case against environmental activists for “weapons of mass destruction” based on website posts.

New documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms opened an investigation to determine whether Anarchist Cookbook-style booklets posted online violated a law against distributing information related to weapons of mass destruction.

The booklets were posted on, which was the public website operated by above-ground supporters of an illegal, underground group called the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF. The ELF uses property destruction, including arson, to inflict economic damage on businesses they say are damaging the environment.

The group has used arson to sabotage logging companies, ski resorts, and genetic engineering research, but they have never injured a human being.

I have reported extensively on how the FBI has classified animal rights and environmental activists as the “number one domestic terrorism threat,” but these documents show for the first time that, in the lead-up to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, multiple law enforcement agencies were aggressively trying to prosecute protest groups with no history of bloodshed.

Is Burning a SUV a “WMD”?

The zines, titled “Arson around with Auntie ALF [Animal Liberation Front]” and “Setting Fires With Electrical Timers: An Earth Liberation Front Guide,” are exactly what the names suggest: crude instructions for homemade incendiary devices.

leslie-james-pickeringA week after “Setting Fires” was posted in June of 2001, the government opened the investigation and considered whether public ELF spokespersons could face criminal charges.

The documents were released to Leslie James Pickering through the Freedom of Information Act. Pickering was once an ELF spokesperson; now he is living with his family in Buffalo, New York, running a radical bookstore, and frequently speaking at universities. He and his attorney, Michael Kuzma, have been fighting to obtain his 30,000-page FBI file, and an explanation for the government’s continued monitoring of his mail.

The ELF’s underground actions are clearly illegal. The group knows this, and so do it’s aboveground supporters. Pickering says he knew that his public support of illegal tactics years would put him under surveillance, but he was surprised to see what law enforcement was actually considering.

elf-website-earth-liberation-front“Firmly against that kind of horror”

“Back in the ’90s I would never have thought they’d be investigating me for something like weapons of mass destruction,” Pickering told me. “I’d never even heard of a WMD until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, years later, and have always been firmly against that kind of horror. If you think about it for even just a moment, you’ll realize that its this government that stockpiles and detonates WMDs, not us.”

Posting this information online is controversial, and it’s not surprising it would create a serious law enforcement investigation. But it’s the same information published in books like the Anarchist Cookbook, which has been lawfully available for years. Amazon lists the books as a “bestseller” and sells the “Starting Fires” booklet as well.

The booklets include instructions for setting fires with the kitchen timers, incense sticks and sponges—not to harm human beings or attack the government, but to sabotage SUVs, logging trucks, and lab equipment used for animal experimentation.

Opening a counter-terrorism investigation like this is “insulting to the countless victims of nuclear weapons and other WMDs,” Pickering says. “Nobody has ever even been hurt by the Earth Liberation Front’s incendiaries. You couldn’t even begin to say that about of the weapons wielded daily by federal agents of the FBI and the ATF.”


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