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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

DHS: Extremists Continue to Plot, Encourage Physical Attacks on Electricity Infrastructure

Communications and tactics that give "few indicators of suspicious activity will likely render these attacks difficult to detect," warns intel memo.

Domestic violent extremists including white supremacists and accelerationists continue to aspire to attack the power grid utilizing encrypted messaging platforms and simple tactics that could make a plot harder to detect in the planning stages, according to a new memo from the Department of Homeland Security.

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis document produced at the request of energy-sector stakeholders says that the dispersed nature of electricity infrastructure — with more than 6,400 power plants, 55,000 substations, and 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines serviced by 3,000 companies — leads extremists to believe that they will have breathing room to commit an attack and escaped undetected, perceptions “likely reinforced” by the 2013 incident in which multiple gunmen opened fire on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation south of San Jose, Calif., causing more than $15 million in damage to 17 transformers.

“DVEs adhering to a range of ideologies will likely continue to plot and encourage physical attacks against electrical infrastructure,” DHS I&A assessed, adding that communications and tactics that give “few indicators of suspicious activity will likely render these attacks difficult to detect.”

Since at least 2020, domestic violent extremists have developed “credible, specific plans” to attack energy infrastructure, noting the downstream affects that taking out power would have on other critical infrastructure sectors. Even small-scale attacks, which are more likely without insider help or “significant technical knowledge,” pose risks to operations or personnel, the memo notes.

One of the cases cited by DHS I&A is the indictment last year that alleges a quartet of neo-Nazi accelerationists — some with military experience — “discussed their plans to take out the power grid,” including “a handwritten list of approximately one dozen intersections and places in Idaho and surrounding states” that “contained a transformer, substation, or other component of the power grid for the northwest United States, that if destroyed could cause damage exceeding $100,000 to the power grid.” Also noted is the 2020 case in which a trio of professed Boogaloo adherents allegedly plotted to attack a power substation in Las Vegas as part of a wider accelerationist plot to stoke violence and chaos in the city.

Recent online narratives have also been attempting to inspire physical attacks on energy infrastructure with a range of tactics adapted to the perpetrator’s skillset, the memo states. As HSToday previously reported, a National Socialist Order (formerly known as the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division) video posted on Telegram last year used simple animation to encourage followers to identify allies and enemies and finally act – and the first “act” depicted an individual chucking an incendiary device at a power substation that subsequently bursts into flames. The video encouraged followers to educate themselves with books such as The Turner Diaries before attacking. The Base, another neo-Nazi group, in New Jersey distributed a 2019 propaganda image showing two members saluting in front of power lines.

One social media account that was sharing accelerationist memes and references to the Boogaloo Bois posted an animated meme depicting a masked shooter in front of a power substation to the tune of “Electric Avenue.” Another meme posted on YouTube in April 2020 and circulated in other online forums asked people to “repost if you would dismantle the electrical transmission grid with your male followers” and included a short video showing an unknown individual blowtorching the leg of a transmission tower.

The DHS memo notes that online activity from 2019 also “suggests that suspected DVEs with links to violent anarchist ideologies discussed tactics to attack infrastructure.”

Potential indicators to watch for include online discussion and encouragement by extremists to attack critical infrastructure, individuals probing the perimeter or photographing substations or other electrical grid components without a reason, noted physical security breach attempts to fencing or security equipment, and suspicious attempts to gain information about security measures at substations. Suspicious drone activity with no reasonable explanation “coupled with other factors” can be “reasonably indicative of plans to attack substations in the same geographic area.”

A Joint Intelligence Bulletin released late last year from DHS, FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center to law enforcement said that on July 16, 2020, a small, four-rotor off-the-shelf drone was discovered on the top of a building next to a Pennsylvania power substation. Nylon ropes hanging from the drone dangled a two-foot curved piece of copper wire, and analysis of the device indicated that this was likely intended to short circuit the substation in “the first known instance of a modified UAS likely being used in the United States to specifically target energy infrastructure.”

The day after the bulletin was first reported, posts popped up online that emphasized how power stations are a vulnerable and enticing target for violent extremists and accelerationists. One Twitter account that gave “mad respect” to the Nazis for mass murder at Auschwitz, glorified Oklahomas City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, and spouted other racist and antisemitic content posted a map of power grid interconnections, writing that the fragility of the grid is “convenient for foul play” and recommending a specific portable band saw for cutting metal, and separately posting images of power lines, a cell phone tower, a tanker truck and a bridge while citing founder of the eco-fascist Pine Tree Party Mike Ma — a meme commonly seen across social media and online forums. “Electricity is a ghost, but one you can catch and kill… Do not become the sort of person who gets really good at blowing power stations up while never getting caught,” Ma wrote in his 2019 book Harassment Architecture.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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