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Friday, February 3, 2023

‘Targeted’ N.C. Substation Gun Attack Comes Amid Escalating Critical Infrastructure Threats

Attacks resulted in "multiple equipment failures leaving about 45,000 customers without power" in Moore County; sheriff says attacker(s) "knew exactly what they were doing."

Two power substations serving Moore County, N.C., were attacked with gunfire Saturday evening, leaving tens of thousands of residents without power and prompting the sheriff’s office to declare a state of emergency and curfew tonight.

Sheriff Ronnie Fields said at an afternoon press conference today that the FBI is assisting in the investigation and security has been beefed up at substations. While the sheriff said a motive had not yet been established, electricity infrastructure is frequently cited as a prime target in domestic extremist materials and online posts.

“Folks, we’re living in some challenging times,” Fields said. “Challenging times that — I never thought in my 40 years of law enforcement we would be seeing things … and dealing with the things we are dealing with.”

Moore County is just northwest of Fayetteville and Fort Bragg. The 11 municipalities in the county are working together to protect citizens and businesses during the outage and “to try to catch these individuals or person responsible for this,” the sheriff said. “…No group has stepped up to acknowledge or accept it … I call them cowards.”

Fields confirmed that the attacker(s) were in a vehicle and went through the gate at a substation before shooting at it.

The sheriff said investigators would be determining whether the attack is domestic terrorism. “It was targeted,” he stressed. “It wasn’t random.” Later he noted that the person or persons responsible “knew exactly what they were doing.”

Fields said he did not want to reveal details of the crime that might jeopardize the investigation but said “it was multiple shots” directed at the substations, and the  amount of damage “is going to be millions, folks.”

“But what it’s done to the citizens here of Moore County, and what we’re losing… all the businesses — we’re just getting over the COVID, and now this, and how it’s going to hurt all of our restaurants and the businesses and stuff,” the sheriff added. “It’s gonna hurt. But Moore County is strong and we’ll get through it.”

Duke Energy said in a statement today that the attacks resulted in “multiple equipment failures affecting substations leaving about 45,000 customers without power.”

“Duke Energy is pursuing multiple repair paths to restore as many customers as possible, as quickly and safely as possible,” said Jason Hollifield, Duke Energy’s general manager for emergency preparedness. “This is a significant local outage that is affecting nearly all customers in Moore County. While some customers will be restored sooner, most customers should be prepared for an extended outage that could last until Thursday.”

County officials put a curfew into effect from 9 p.m. this evening until 5 a.m. on Monday. Moore County schools are closed Monday as “all school operations are impacted by this power outage,” the school system said in a statement. With freezing temperatures forecast overnight, the Red Cross is operating a shelter located at the Moore County Sports Complex in Carthage.

Recent extremist materials have discussed and encouraged targeting critical infrastructure including cell phone towers, railways, the agriculture sector and more — but the greatest share of these public-facing infrastructure threats focuses on the power grid.

One accelerationist handbook circulated last summer called for shooters to bypass softer targets in favor of causing chaotic blackouts by emulating on a broader scale an unsolved sniper attack on a California transmission substation. “So long as the power turns on, the status quo, the downward decline of our race, and the increase in nonwhites in our lands will carry on unhindered,” the guide stated.

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, is commonly referenced on social media by domestic extremists — especially accelerationists and ecofascists — as an example of how to inflict damage on electricity infrastructure with the goal of hastening governmental and societal collapse. There have been no arrests in the attack, and PG&E’s response ensured there was not significant impact on customers’ power.

A larger subsequent handbook released by accelerationists was 261 pages long, and at least 45 pages contained attack threats, tips, or encouragement directed at critical infrastructure sectors, from short memes to detailed instruction. One article offering advice on ways to attack the power grid described it as a prime target because electricity is “the last thing stopping people from eating one another.”

The October manifesto of Juraj Krajcik, who was declared a “saint” by online accelerationists after he killed two people and wounded a third outside a Bratislava LGBT bar, advised others to “target infrastructure; destroy necessary utilities in non-White or jewish areas – electricity, water supply, sanitation, fiber-optic cables, cell towers.”

Online posts that emphasize how power stations are a vulnerable and enticing target for violent extremists also commonly cite founder of the eco-fascist Pine Tree Party Mike Ma: “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.

In January, a Department of Homeland Security memo warned that 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.

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis document produced at the request of energy-sector stakeholders said 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 Metcalf attack.

“We have seen a significant uptick in DVE chatter surrounding sabotage and physical attacks on distribution and transmission substations,” former DHS Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection Brian Harrell told HSToday. “The utility industry is aware of these concerns, and over the years, proper investments have been made to mitigate such attacks. However, a determined adversary with insider knowledge as to what to shoot, and how to cripple key components, is difficult to stop. This is why the energy sector invests in resilience.”

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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