The Accidental Terrorist
“People’s movements of resistance against deprivation, against unemployment, against the loss of natural resources, all of that is termed ‘terrorism.’”
– Edward Said
Following a decade on the run, suspected eco-saboteur Rebecca Rubin surrendered this week to the FBI as part of a plea deal. Rubin was one of the most wanted women in the U.S. for a series of arsons to protest public lands policies and private development of wilderness areas throughout the American West. In 2009 I traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she was born and raised, to write about her story while she was still on the lam.
The only known photograph of Rebecca Rubin is a headshot that looks like it was taken for her driver’s license. She’s wearing a plain gray sweatshirt, her long brown hair is unkempt, and her expression is careworn. But splashed across thousands of ‘Wanted’ posters across the country, her face aligned next to those of serial murderers and bank robbers, the headshot sends a message that she is someone to be frightened of. This, though Rubin — aliases “Kara” and “Little Missy” — has never harmed a soul.
According to the FBI, Rubin, 37 years old, belongs to an ultra-radical group known as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which along with its sister organization, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), authorities describe as “the most active extremist elements in the United States.” In the late 1990s, Rubin is alleged to have participated in a spree of arsons that caused upwards of $55 million in damages. As recently as 2008 FBI spokesman Richard Kolko described the loose-knit confederacy of eco-guerillas as “what we would probably consider the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat.”
But those who know Rubin best will point out, correctly, that while she has perhaps destroyed property, she has never harmed nor even deliberately targeted a human being. They will tell you, also correctly, that the FBI’s Most Wanted poster, which warns Rubin is “armed and dangerous,” is false, since no member of the ELF or ALF has ever wielded a firearm to further their cause. They will argue that the acts of “terrorism” Rubin and others are accused of came after many years when protests and boycotts failed to prevent the logging of old-growth forests, or to deter polluters from violating environmental regulations, or to protect animals from being abused in the name of medical science. They will say that radical animal and environmental rights activists like Rubin ? who has not been accused of any further crimes since she went underground five years ago ? are being redefined as terrorists in a post-9/11 era of increased surveillance and hobbled due process.
Rubin grew up in the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, surrounded by a wilderness of forests and mountain peaks. Nearby Vancouver Island is so wild it’s believed to have the world’s highest concentration of mountain lions. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she grew up with her mother, a nurse. As a girl Rubin was quiet, at times painfully shy, with a lifelong affinity for the outdoors and wildlife. According to friends, she lived for some time in a cabin in Canada’s Kootenay region, east of Vancouver, with only her cats for company. She worked odd jobs but mostly she volunteered at wildlife sanctuaries. She studied at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, but was soon itching to be in the field. When renowned anthropologist Jane Goodall came to guest lecture there, Rubin was so inspired that she trekked to East Africa and spent time on a gorilla reserve. She dreamt of someday starting her own wildlife rescue facility.
In 1994, 20-year-old Rubin was back in Canada, protesting a landfill project proposed for Burns Bog, a spectacular peatland in Vancouver, when she met David Barbarash, a fellow Canadian animal rights activist based in the Pacific Northwest. They began dating amidst the spirited and often combative environmentalist movement emerging in the region at the time. Barbarash was drawn to Rubin’s earnest devotion. “The thing with the radical fringe,” says Barbarash, “is it attracts people who are isolated in society for whatever reason and are looking for something to belong to. Rebecca was intelligent and she didn’t have emotional problems. She was one of the true people in the movement ? she was in it for the right reasons.”
At the time environmental and animal rights advocacy was increasingly generating results. The activists were organized, capable, uncompromising. They built tent cities and chained themselves together to thwart loggers. In California a woman named Julia “Butterfly” Hill lived for 738 days in an ancient redwood nicknamed Luna, in order to prevent the tree from being logged. In Oregon, activists blockaded police and loggers for nearly a year at the Warner Creek area of the Willamette National Forest, until they secured an agreement from the Clinton Administration that no logging would be permitted there. The four days of mass protests surrounding a meeting of the World Trade Center Organization in Seattle in 1999 emboldened the movement and infuriated industry interests.
But the movement itself was no monolith. Among the ranks of anarchists, vegans, hippies, misfits, and intellectuals, there were those who were more hardcore than others, who argued that corporations and the government could not be reasoned with. It was this militant faction that would take up the banner of the ELF and ALF, and it was to this more militant strain that Barbarash belonged and to which Rubin was soon drawn.
Barbarash, who for several years was the North American spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front, already had a history of run-ins with the law. Two years before hooking up with Rubin he’d served four months in prison for releasing cats from a University of Alberta lab ? cats that had been earmarked for use in medical experiments. By 1994 he and a fellow member of the ALF, 24-year-old Darren Todd Thurston, were the subject of an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in connection with a number of threatening letters that had been sent anonymously to Vancouver game hunters. Inside were razor blades, which the letters alleged had been smeared with rat poison and HIV-infected blood.
In March 1997, police executed a series of raids that targeted Thurston and Barbarash, including one on the home of Rubin’s stepfather, Douglas Taylor, where Rubin was living at the time. According to RCMP records of the raid, Barbarash “ran from the rear door away from the [Taylor] residence, without shoes or a jacket, and fled the area.” The police continued their surveillance of Barbarash and Thurston for another year, before finally arresting them in March 1998 for the threatening letters. Police also picked up Rubin, and charged her with possessing packaging for batteries, which they claimed she was going to use to build an incendiary device. “Poor Rebecca,” recalls Barbarash’s attorney, Michael Klein. “She was this bewildered woman, going ‘What am I doing here?’ There really wasn’t much evidence against her.” The following year, after revelations that Canadian authorities had dispatched undercover officers to incite Barbarash and Thurston into burning down a barn ? with the undercover cops going so far as to provide the gasoline ? the charges against all three were thrown out.
Barbarash says the intense scrutiny from the Canadian authorities brought him and Rubin closer together. After the raid on Rubin’s house, which he says left her parents none too pleased, the pair rented a tiny apartment in Vancouver. “We were both feeling under siege and paranoid,” he said. But ultimately, within six months, Rubin had broken up with Barbarash, packed her things and moved out. Barbarash says the relationship was a casualty of stress; he regrets their parting. “I was in love with her,” he said.
Yet investigators claim it was during this period of intense scrutiny that Rubin stepped up her involvement in the radical animal rights movement and began traveling into the United States to commit acts of sabotage on behalf of the Animal Liberation Front. According to the FBI, in October 1997 Rubin was involved in the illegal release of 2,000 minks from a farm in Palmer, Idaho, where the ALF claimed the minks were being electrocuted and skinned alive. And a month later, the FBI contends, Rubin and several other members of the group traveled to a horse corral in Burns, Oregon, where it was rumored that wild horses, captured in wilderness areas managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, were being auctioned off (to slaughterhouses, the ALF maintained). Rubin was apparently a last-minute recruit for the action, which involved releasing the horses and burning down the barn using timed explosives. She was given the task of “obtain[ing] the necessary items to make the timing devices,” which she allegedly helped assemble and carry to the barn. On a frigid winter night, the group released the horses, set the barn ablaze, locked the access road gate to prevent fire trucks from getting in, and then buried their clothes after dousing them in acid. The next morning, BLM employees arrived to find the barn a smoldering heap, the damages totaling some $200,000. The ALF issued a statement claiming responsibility and denouncing the BLM’s policies as “genocide against the horse nation.”
Jacob Ferguson, a former ALF member who would later become an FBI informant, describes Rubin, whom he knew by her alias “Kara,” as a reliable partner. “She wasn’t super athletic, but she was really smart, and she was really good,” he said. Rubin would take elaborate routes to the site of a planned arson, he said, making multiple transfers on buses to ensure she wasn’t being followed. She always kept her long hair in a tight bun, he recalls, “so she wouldn’t leave any evidence.” But, he adds, “She wasn’t really into doing arson. She was into setting animals free.” Still, after calling it off with Barbarash, Rubin linked up romantically with Kevin Tubbs, a longtime animal rights activist who would later confess to participating in at least 14 arsons, among them a handful at which he said Rubin was present.
A year after the Oregon arson, Rubin participated in an arson at a stable in Rock Springs, Wyoming. But the action didn’t go as planned. As the devices were placed near the barn, Rubin prematurely opened the gate to release the horses. In the chaos that ensued, the action was abandoned and the group fled. The ALF nonetheless issued a press release decrying the “slaughtering of horses for foreign dinner plates.” Though the operation was a bust, the crew was already onto their next act, which unfolded just a week later.
The October 1998 arson at the ritzy Vail Mountain ski resort in Colorado ? a high-end getaway frequented by celebrities and moguls ? catapulted the ALF to national attention. Angry over a planned 4,100-acre expansion, which they believed would endanger the local lynx population, the group assembled to take out their most visible target yet. According to court records, Rubin was dispatched to help construct several incendiary devices and was also among a handful of participants assigned to drive to a staging area on the mountain to drop off canisters of gas and diesel fuel. As the group made their way to their destination, however, their truck got stuck in the snow, and Rubin and the others were forced to bury the canisters and drive back down the mountain, with the plan of returning a few days later to finish the job. For reasons of scheduling, however, only two individuals returned to the Vail site; Rubin was not among them. Nonetheless, she was inextricably connected to the events that followed, as one of her confederates retrieved the fuel she helped to bury and placed the firebombs she helped to build next to several buildings along a one-mile span on the ridgeline.
Just before dawn, explosives ignited Vail Mountain in an inferno that engulfed a radio tower, the resort’s elaborate Two Elk Lodge restaurant, and four ski lifts. More than a hundred firefighters from ten different battalions converged on the scene to battle the blaze ? an effort hampered by the rugged terrain and a lack of water on the slopes. All told, the damages exceeded $25 million. At a press conference the next day, Vail Resorts President Andy Daly told reporters, “I’m very grateful that no one was up there.” In fact, the group had gone to lengths to avoid human injury, setting the fires at night when the resort was closed, and avoiding a cabin where they discovered a pair of sleeping hunters. Nevertheless, even as the resort burned, the ALF issued a press release warning skiers to steer clear of Vail until it “cancels its inexcusable plans for expansion.”
By this point the FBI had launched a probe into the string of arsons in the region. John Ferreira headed up the bureau’s investigation, initially dubbed “Arson Heat,” a moniker that agents found so objectionably lame that it was changed to “Operation Backfire.” The case wasn’t an easy one. Ferreira, now retired and the owner of a sports memorabilia shop in Eugene, said the groups’ raids were carefully executed, leaving almost nothing in the way of clues. The case languished, evincing little attention outside Oregon and Colorado, where the arsons were concentrated, and mustering few additional funds and manpower from FBI headquarters. As if sensing the FBI’s impotence, the ELF and ALF launched action after action. Rubin was spotted at several of these, including one in August 1999, where she was reportedly the getaway driver during the release of 55 beagles implanted with human pacemakers at a medical research laboratory in Orange, California.
But then came the attacks of September 11, 2001, which gave the federal government a mandate and an influx of cash to track down homegrown terrorists of every stripe. The decisive break came in 2003 when agents were able to gather enough evidence to summon Jake Ferguson before a grand jury. He would later admit to at least 15 acts of sabotage and agree to cooperate in exchange for leniency. Central to that agreement was the concession that he would wear a wire, and the conversations that he taped with his friends and fellow activists enabled the FBI to link Rubin and a dozen other individuals in a grand conspiracy case that covered twenty acts of eco-sabotage. “Rubin came to our attention because of Jake,” Ferreira said. “We had no idea who she was before that.”
In truth, many of the participants barely knew each other and weren’t even involved in the same events. But under the definition of conspiracy laws in the U.S., they were all linked into a group dubbed “The Family” by law enforcement, and held liable for every arson. This spurred law enforcement to devote serious manpower to apprehending the various members of the ALF and eventually to put Rubin on the most wanted list.
The last arson to which Rubin is linked came in October 2001 ? the burning of another government-owned horse corral, this one in Litchfield, California. According to a participant who asked not to be named, the group was jittery about the operation, fearing that security would be tighter in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Still, they proceeded as planned, with Rubin illegally crossing into the U.S. in the company of Darren Todd Thurston. Rubin and Thurston were picked up by two other participants and driven to Seattle. The following day the pair washed down the truck to be used in the operation, and wiped clean the equipment they’d need?backpacks, water bladders, flashlights, pepper spray?to remove any traces of fingerprints. They then drove to Eugene, Oregon, to pick up Rubin’s boyfriend, Kevin Tubbs, before continuing on to Litchfield, where they set up camp. The following night, dressed in all black with socks over their shoes to avoid leaving identifying footprints, Thurston and Rubin cut and removed part of the fence and used a rope and plastic tarp to funnel the horses out of the corral. The others set up handmade incendiary devices attached to buckets of fuel. The operation would cause approximately $200,000 in damages.
After the Litchfield arson the participants scattered and the arsons stopped. By now a series of grand jury subpoenas had been handed down in connection with the arsons, and the group was spooked by a fear that the FBI was closing in. Rubin returned to the work that had inspired her at the outset ? protecting animals. She went home to Canada and finished her undergraduate degree in April 2002, majoring in geography. A few months later she started as an intern at the Island Wildlife Natural Care Center on Salt Spring Island, near Vancouver. Jackie Ballarone, a longtime employee, recalls Rubin as “dedicated and passionate,” but said “she had a very veiled past and didn’t reveal anything about herself.” A background check conducted during the interview process at the wildlife center yielded no evidence of her previous life, and Rubin didn’t offer details. Given what they know about her now, said Ballarone, the organization doesn’t want any association with Rubin. Neither do other groups that hired Rubin, like the Ventana Wildlife Society in California, where she spent six months in 2004 as an intern working with endangered California condors. Current Ventana employees wouldn’t comment, but a former colleague, Curt Mykut, says that while Rubin was at Ventana she showed no evidence of her tumultuous past. “She was one of the more dedicated employees,” he said. “It’s a very solitary job, mostly hiking in the park to keep tabs on the birds.” To feed the condors Rubin would often be tasked with hauling carcasses of stillborn calves deep into the forest. “She never complained,” said Mykut. She was also taking ornithology courses online and talked about a future devoted to rehabilitating wild birds. “I think she probably [viewed the job as] an opportunity to leave her past behind and really make her way in the field,” he said.
It was not to be. In December 2005 the FBI made a series of sweeping indictments in the Operation Backfire case. The indictments, which named 18 people, decimated the radical environmental and animal rights underground in the U.S., and ended any chance of a quiet redemption for Rubin. Most of the accused were captured or turned themselves in, and pled guilty. One of the group’s leaders, William Rodgers, who went by the alias “Avalon,” asphyxiated himself with a plastic bag in his jail cell. The others, most with the threat of domestic terrorism charges looming over their heads, made the wrenching decision to give confessions that implicated their compatriots. Kevin Tubbs, Rubin’s former boyfriend, was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Darren Thurston served three years in prison before being deported to Canada. Rubin, along with three others, fled the U.S. and became fugitives.
Jacob Ferguson, the ALF member turned FBI informant, laments that everything they burned down was rebuilt, bigger and better. If anything, Operation Backfire has benefited industry groups that have for decades sought to classify radical environmental and animal rights activists as eco-terrorists. The term “eco-terrorism” has been in circulation since the early 1980’s, coined by the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, a group backed by mining and timber interests, property rights advocates, off-road vehicle clubs, and conservative think tanks. In 1988 the group drafted what came to be known as the “Wise Use Agenda,” which called for opening 70 million acres of federal wilderness areas to commercial development, mining in national parks, old growth forest logging, and increased oil exploration in Alaska wilderness areas. A few years later an organization known as the “Alliance for America” was formed by similar groups, who defined themselves as those “who view big environmental groups as a threat to their livelihood and way of life.”
Their efforts came to full fruition when Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006, which effectively made it a crime of domestic terrorism for individuals to interfere with any animal-related company, including medical researchers, grocery stores, even zoos. The measure amended a 1992 law known as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act with changes in language that were subtle but crucial: The term “economic damage,” which in the old legislation referred exclusively to physical property damage, became “economic disruption,” a broader category that covered a company’s loss of profits, both “real and projected” ? an important caveat because sentencing guidelines are based on the dollar amount of financial damages. The term “animal enterprise,” which previously covered only businesses directly related to animals ? such as laboratories, zoos, furriers, circuses, and grocery stores ? was expanded to include third party companies doing business with animal enterprises, such as accountants, investors, and securities firms. Most important, disrupting any of these animal enterprises or causing “reasonable fear” amongst their employees would now be a crime of terrorism?a designation that, in addition to ratcheting up potential prison terms, brought with it an array of enhanced investigative and surveillance authority.
The law itself was largely inspired by a March 1997 documentary, “It’s a Dog’s Life,” which aired on Channel 4 television in Britain and depicted the treatment of test animals at Huntingdon Life Sciences, then the largest contract animal testing company in Europe. Shot surreptitiously over two months by an animal rights activist working undercover as a technician at Huntingdon’s laboratories in Cambridge, England, among the footage captured were images of beagle puppies being kicked and punched in the face by laughing workers when the animals cried out and wriggled during blood tests. The film sparked an international animal rights campaign called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, whose aim was to shut Huntingdon down through protests and the “secondary targeting” of the company’s clientele, investors, and business affiliates. In an effort to quell the outrage, Huntingdon moved its corporate headquarters to New Jersey, but activists in the U.S. continued the campaign through a website that published the home addresses of Huntingdon’s corporate officers, who were then visited by protestors shouting “murderer” and throwing red paint at their doors. By 2000 Huntingdon had lost major investors, was nearly bankrupt, and was delisted from the New York Stock exchange.
But Huntingdon, courtesy of Congress, had the last laugh. In 2003, with protests against the company in full swing, a little known lobbying organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), jumped into the fray. Bankrolled by major corporations, among them big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer that pay up to $25,000 in annual dues, ALEC has had proven successes in getting pro-business legislation passed and environmental regulations rolled back (the Natural Resources Defense Council denounced the group as “corrosive, secretive, and highly influential”). It counts among its members 2,400 state lawmakers, nine former governors, and 80 congresspersons, who draft over 1,000 pieces of ALEC-drafted legislation each year, 17 percent of which are passed. Working closely with members of Congress ALEC managed to draft the language for the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, right down to the proposal to impose penalties based on financial damages and a suggestion to put defendants into a terrorist registry. The group noted that the preceding legislation was “overly narrow,” and argued that existing laws, such as the Patriot Act, were of no use in these cases because “the federal definition of terrorism requires the death of or harm to people, an element not characteristic of eco-terrorists.” It was a key concern: Domestic terrorism needed to be redefined to mean harm against corporate persons, not just flesh and blood persons.
The resulting legislation, which passed in a secret roll call vote by overwhelming majorities in both houses, covers not just acts of vandalism, but virtually anything that can affect the company’s bottom line, and as such has been criticized by activists, including the Humane Society of North America, for having a “chilling” effect on a wide array of legitimate forms of protest. In 2006, the same year the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was passed, the Patriot Act was amended to allow for the wiretapping of individuals suspected of “animal enterprise terrorism,” meaning any suspected activist ? even one never convicted of or charged with a crime ? could be monitored and placed without notice on a terrorist watch-list that circulates among both local and federal law enforcement.
The AETA has already been put into action under the Obama Administration. Last year three activists from Northern California were charged under its auspices for having picketed a biomedical researcher’s home; they now face five years each in prison. Critics say the kinds of undercover investigations once mounted by groups like the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals are now prosecutable as terrorism offenses. PETA’s website, for example, has an archived video of an investigation in a hatchery where baby chicks have their beaks cut off, and another of a farm that supplies Land O’Lakes, where farmers drive spikes into the spines of cows too weak to get up. Pus drips from open sores near the udders that are giving milk.
Although ELF/ALF activists like Rubin were well aware they were breaking the law, none could conceive the impact that the terror attacks of 9/11 would have on their situation or the precedent their case would set. Even the lead FBI agent who investigated the Operation Backfire arsons was loathe to put Rubin and her peers in the same category as Osama bin Laden. “We never imagined they’d be called terrorists,” said Ferreira. His colleague, Jane Quimby, sounded sympathetic when discussing Rubin, whom she described as a “low-level participant” in the arsons ? someone who “really walked the walk, and talked the talk” when it came to helping animals. “I guess under the law she is considered a terrorist, but philosophically does she meet the standard? No,” said Quimby.
Recently I went to see Rubin’s ex-boyfriend, David Barbarash, who works as a film curator and lives in a remote coastal town near Vancouver that’s only accessible by ferryboat. Barbarash, now 45 years old, says he himself was spared prison only because he’d been deported from the U.S. and was in Canada during the time the arsons were committed. As he spoke about Rubin he was on the verge of tears. He told me that though they had remained friends after their breakup, the last time he’d spoken to her was in 2005, around the time she disappeared ? just before the first round of Operation Backfire indictments were handed down. “The thing I wonder about is, if she was arrested and convicted along with all the others, would she be out of jail now?” said Barbarash. “What’s happened to her is harsher in a way. It’s a sentence in exile.”
After visiting Barbarash I went to see Rubin’s mother and stepfather in Vancouver. They live in a large, modern, wood-frame house overlooking the city’s glittering downtown. I wondered at the pain and frustration Rubin’s absence had caused them. In 2007 Rubin’s mother traveled to Bangladesh as part of a Canadian non-profit group that had sponsored a nursing clinic in the city of Dhaka. It seemed the kind of trip a mother would have wanted to take with her idealistic daughter. Instead, any visit from Rubin with family and friends means legal jeopardy for all involved. By turning herself into a fugitive, Rubin had not just made herself disappear, but silenced herself as well. When I knocked on the front door, Rubin’s stepfather, Douglas Taylor, answered but did not invite me in. “The charges are unmitigated baloney,” Taylor told me. “I could tell you why, but I’m not allowed to talk about it because I’m fairly convinced they’re listening.” He pointed to the ceiling to signal the place was bugged. Then he said goodnight and politely shut the door.
PETRA BARTOSIEWICZ is a freelance journalist whose book on domestic terrorism trials, The Best Terrorists We Could Find, will be published by Nation Books next year. This is an expanded version of her article on Rubin’s case in the January 2011 issue of Marie Claire magazine. You can reach Petra at www.petrabart.com.