“Stay away from your old friends . . . don’t use computers or telephones for anything . . . strike your enemies suddenly,” the radical leader told his minions. “I love you all, and I’m praying for you to make it count.”

Such advice may sound as if it came straight from Osama bin Laden. Yet it was recently uttered by Rod Coronado, the 37-year-old de facto leader of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a secretive cabal of environmental radicals who are prime suspects in last week’s torching of scores of Hummers and other SUVs in the San Gabriel Valley. Penned in Earth First! Journal, the radical environmental movement’s bimonthly mouthpiece, Coronado’s admonishment is but the latest in a cascade of articles, speeches and Web-based guides that have helped incite more than 600 ELF attacks against a burgeoning hit list of capitalist tools — from clear-cutting lumber companies to ski resorts that trample wildlife habitat and real estate developers who build McMansions.

Favoring arson and vandalism, ELF activists have claimed credit for between $50 million and $100 million in property damage since 1996, a fact that fills Coronado — who served four years in the slammer for torching an animal-research laboratory a decade ago — with an almost fatherly sense of pride. Now on the sidelines, he calls the mostly college-age kids carrying out the fight, “Earth’s warriors.” And although 9/11 temporarily stalled their activities, he claims there is no shortage of new blood willing to risk their freedom for the cause.

Of arson fires like one that engulfed a San Diego–area housing project earlier this month, he speaks of the ELF’s favorite tactics with near-religious fervor that echoes his Yaqui Indian roots. “We use fires to cleanse ourselves,” the wiry Arizonan told a rapt audience of 100 followers at a Hillcrest community center on the day after the blaze. “And when we address buildings and institutions that have no other purpose but to destroy life, fire is the only way to stop them.”

Not that Coronado — or anyone else in the mostly faceless ELF — will admit to giving the order to light the match. Staunchly “leaderless,” as a recent e-mail from the group’s press office explained, the ELF has long taken its cues from the environmental pranksters celebrated in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang and from animal-rights militants, whose Animal Liberation Front’s loosely connected, non-hierarchical structure serves as the ELF’s organizational model.

With detailed Web-based primers offering advice on everything from how to make a firebomb to encrypting e-mail and listservs that provide information about the latest actions, the ELF has built a highly effective, yet largely impenetrable, guerrilla group — an amorphous collection of monkey wrenchers whose radical beliefs and Internet connections are about the only things that bind them together. Although the U.S. government has branded them domestic terrorists and devoted hundreds of agents to apprehending them, only a handful have ever been caught.

To help keep it that way, Earth First! Journal’s most recent issue includes a detailed article on dealing with snitches, and ELF’s Web site (www.earthliberationfront.com) offers a link to a manual on what to do when the FBI comes knocking. Meanwhile, would-be members are warned not to go looking in the Yellow Pages to join the local chapter. “There is no way to contact the ELF in your area,” reads the “Meet the E.L.F.” Web page.

Instead, it explains that the ELF is made up of anonymous cells, each containing a small number of activists known only to each other. If this sounds a tad reminiscent of the sort of groups the FBI has been hunting since 9/11, well, it is. “Whether it’s al Qaeda or the ELF or, for that matter, the Irish Republican Army, they’ve all adopted the same sort of cell structure,” says Gary Perlstein, a Portland State University criminology professor who has studied the group since its inception.

The idea is straight from the playbook of Mao Zedong, whose little red book is full of advice on the ideal ways to pursue guerrilla warfare. “Mao wrote about the three-person cell, and how it was an ideal organization to confound the government,” says Perlstein. “Groups like al Qaeda and ELF have made the most of it.”

Activists like Coronado bristle at the comparison to al Qaeda. While he admits that both groups are fighting lopsided struggles that necessitate guerrilla tactics, he notes that the ELF’s guiding principles call on activists to “take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human,” according to its Web site. “Terrorists target cities full of people,” Coronado said Monday in a telephone interview. “We just target property.”

That’s been true so far. Yet Perlstein and other observers worry about increasingly fierce rhetoric from some of Coronado’s comrades in the radical environmental movement. Among them is Craig Rosebraugh, a former ELF spokesperson whose master’s thesis, Rethinking Nonviolence: Arguing for the Legitimacy of Armed Struggle, served as a manifesto for the formation of a new organization, Arissa, whose stated mission is to foment a possibly violent revolution in the United States.

Some members appear to be listening. “We will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice,” stated a communiqué issued after the firebombing of a U.S. Forest Service research station last September.

The statement has stirred a growing debate among longtime ELFers like Coronado, who remains committed to the group’s nonviolent plank. Yet he readily admits that in a headless, virtually anarchic organization, he has no control over how or where those in the trenches will strike next. While, in the past, he and his contemporaries tended to choose targets like fur farms and timber mills in the forests, the new generation of activists appears to favor the icons of urban environmental destruction, such as SUVs and McMansions. “These are the tactics of a younger generation of kids who’ve grown up in the middle of urban sprawl,” says Coronado. “They’re angry and they have none of the patience that us older environmentalists have.”

If that’s the case, then maybe it’s time to trade in the Hummer.

A former Wall Street Journal staff reporter, Alex Markels is a Ted Scripps Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

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