Over the past two years, government agencies have been warning that white supremacists and far-right extremists are the most significant domestic threat to American security.
Moore County, NC experienced a blackout in early December 2022 that affected more than 45,000 residents after two local substations were sabotaged in a way resembling white supremacist plots against vulnerable infrastructure.
The events in Moore County were especially dramatic as both of the substations suffered extensive damage from gunfire. According to authorities, the attacker(s) clearly understood how to effectively disable critical equipment. In light of this incident, as well as numerous others in recent months, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has ordered a study of the physical security measures protecting the country’s electrical grid:
“In light of the increasing number of recent reports of physical attacks on our nation’s infrastructure, it is important that we fully and clearly review the effectiveness of our existing physical security standard to determine whether additional improvements are necessary to safeguard the Bulk Power System.”Rick Glick, FERC Chairman
There have been a variety of instances where the federal government expressed alarm about these dangers, under both the Trump and Biden administrations. Federal analysis of infrastructure sabotage shows that while not all incidents are definitively tied to far-right activity, it is a prevalent theme. Some examples include:
- October 2020: The DHS published its Homeland Threat Assessment, which had gathered information from law enforcement and intelligence providers nationwide. The assessment concludes that “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists––specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs)––will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”
- June 2021: The NSC, working with the White House, published a National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. Similarly, it states that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (principally those who promote the superiority of the white race) are assessed as presenting the most persistent and lethal threats.”
Despite these warnings, a Senate report released in November found that neither the DHS nor the FBI have taken appropriate steps to combat far right domestic terrorism. “In 2019,” it claims, “DHS publicly acknowledged white supremacist violence as a major threat to national security for the first time, despite being aware internally of the severity of the threat for 10 years.” A detailed assessment with similar findings produced by DHS analysts back in 2009 ended up being dismissed “due to political pressure.”
Recently, multiple electrical substations across the nation have been intentionally damaged or vandalized, warning both the industry and government of more frequent attempts.
In a December 13, 2022 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Eric Ward, director of the Western States Center, an Oregon-based human rights nonprofit, warned the U.S. was now “an environment where individuals feel empowered to carry out political violence on their own in an increasingly unpredictable way“:
“Reports of attacks on electrical infrastructure in North Carolina, Oregon and Washington are raising the stakes. Law enforcement is reportedly investigating posts by extremists on online forums that encourage attacks on critical infrastructure. Whether the North Carolina attack was intended to disrupt a local LGBTQ event, this [happened] after a series of attacks on the LGBTQ community in recent weeks and months.”Eric Ward, Director, Western States Center, witness to the House Oversight Committee, Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Hearing on “Confronting White Supremacy (Part VII): The Evolution of Anti-Democratic Extremist Groups and the Ongoing Threat to Democracy,” December 13, 2022
Accelerationists Pitch Sabotage Campaigns Online
There is a lengthy history of far-right adherents targeting the country’s infrastructure as part of a grandiose plan for white nationalist revolution and an authoritarian reset of society. This is typically called “accelerationism,” but online neo-nazi subcultures understand it to be the “Siege” or “Siege Culture” mindset; this sect of the neofascist movement is concentrated online in Telegram channels. The name comes from the title of the book “Siege,” an anthology of zine-like essays by American neo-nazi James Mason. (Siege is a common term on far-right and related chat servers on Unicorn Riot’s DiscordLeaks data journalism platform.)
In his book, Mason promotes “friction” and “chaos,” urging readers toward violent revolt and terrorism. By acting in smaller group cells, fascist accelerationists would hope to push society into collapse. Such a collapse would then allow heavily armed far-right groups to impose their vision for society onto a desperate and vulnerable civilian population.
‘The Base’ is a high-profile neo-nazi network run by Rinaldo Nazzaro, which pushed for infrastructure attacks. Even as far as New Zealand, an arrest was made after a plot in March 2020. Slotting these attacks into the “political extremism” paradigm is an August 2022 report from George Washington University’s “Program on Extremism”. (PDF)
Nazarro is believed to operate from Russia. US authorities say Russia sponsored hacks of utility networks, which are uniquely difficult to digitally secure. In 2019 the US also openly probed Russian utility networks.
(The Base mostly collapsed in 2020 due to antifascist infiltration/sabotage and FBI arrests of many members, but has recently attempted to reorganize. In 2022, a member of neo-nazi group Patriot Front arrested on sexual assault and firearms charges was revealed to have been working as a recruiter for The Base.)
Given the dramatic effect it would have nationwide, destabilizing the electric grid has been of particular interest to extreme far-righters looking for crises to exploit. Additionally, they have pointed out how security surrounding power facilities is relatively easy to overcome. This summer, a document spread among extremist Telegram channels detailing, among other things, how to cause chaos by disabling the electrical grid. The author calls power stations “sitting ducks” and points out most substations are “largely unprotected and often in remote locations.”
The author disparages more shocking events like mass shootings as inferior to attacks on substations, typically called “soft” targets. While violence is celebrated and encouraged, the author says disabling electricity is “unquestionably more effective” at pushing civilian populations into chaos and division.
Government Pushes Warnings re: Utility Attacks; Atomwaffen Prosecutions
The DHS has made specific note of the far right’s interests before: in January 2022, a leaked intelligence bulletin said:
“[Domestic violence extremists] have developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020, identifying the electric grid as a particularly attractive target given its interdependency with other infrastructure sectors.”
Two incidents, both thwarted, stand out as being particularly associated with far-right groups or individuals:
- August 2021: Four men with connections to the neo-nazi terror group Atomwaffen Division were charged with conspiracy to damage property after being found to have researched and planned an attack on an unspecified power station. The men, two of whom were former Marines, collected and stole explosive materials and firearms. Additionally, one of the men had a written list of locations near transformers and substations, presumably targets. The damage to the power grid that could have been caused was estimated to be more than $100,000.
- February 2022: Three men plead guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists after admitting that they had each planned to attack separate electrical facilities. They spread neo-nazi propaganda, helped recruit extremists online, practiced shooting, and discussed starting a race war in the chaos that would ensue from widespread power loss. The FBI concluded that the attacks were based on “their adherence to racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist views.”
Many attacks remain unsolved and have yet to be linked to extremist agendas, but this trend has continued so extensively that it’s difficult to claim the far right has had no involvement.
Pacific Northwest a Far-Right Hotspot
On December 2, the FBI sent a memo to Washington law enforcement warning about a number of attacks that have recently occurred in the Pacific Northwest:
“Power companies in Oregon and Washington have reported physical attacks on substations, using hand tools, arson, firearms and metal chains possibly in response to an online call for attacks on critical infrastructure. In recent attacks, criminal actors bypassed security by cutting the fence links, lighting nearby fires, shooting equipment from a distance or throwing objects over the fence and onto equipment.”-FBI memo
Six incidents are reported to have occurred in the Pacific Northwest:
- In Puget Sound, two substations were vandalized in late November, but suffered no extensive issues.
- In Clackamas, OR, two substations were attacked in late November. One was damaged to the point where it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleanup and repairs.
- In Woodland, WA, two substations were vandalized in mid-November, but have since been repaired.
For decades, white supremacists have sought to reshape the Pacific Northwest into a white ethnostate. Since the 1970s, numerous neo-nazi and white nationalist groups have been fighting to bring about the “Northwest Territorial Imperative,” the idea of a racist haven, cut off from the rest of the U.S. Historically, there has been a sizable amount of activity in the area from notorious racist organizations such as the KKK and Aryan Nations. More recently, groups like Identity Evropa (American Identity Movement), Patriot Front, and the Proud Boys have made names for themselves there. In 2018, Unicorn Riot reported on “Cascadian Coffee Company,” a key Discord server with elements from multiple far-right groups in the Pacific Northwest.
Electrical fires are also becoming a greater risk as climate change dries out the American West. (See our coverage of the disastrous 2018 Camp Fire.)
On the opposite side of the country, the state of Florida has experienced six substation “intrusions” recently. Duke Energy, the same company that owned the substations attacked in North Carolina, filed reports with the U.S. Department of Energy showing that all six stations were intruded within the span of thirteen days.
- On September 10 and 13, an intruder broke into the Bay Ridge substation.
- On September 18, an intruder “targeted” the Orange Blossom substation.
- On September 21, an intruder “targeted” the Zephyrills substation
- On September 21, an intruder managed to trip equipment in the Zephyrills North substation causing a nine-minute outage.
- On September 22, an intruder caused a two-minute outage by tripping equipment in the East Clearwater substation.
In contrast to the North Carolina and Pacific Northwest incidents, the Florida intruders didn’t bother to damage equipment, but instead reconfigured it to cut the power. Based on the knowledge intruders had to disable equipment, inside involvement is suspected. Questions prevail about connections to the far-right, but as of now nothing has been proven.
Appendix: Power Grid Sabotage Chatter in Leaked Discord Logs, 2018-2021
Content Advisory: Violence, Bigotry, Sexual Assault
Messages from 12 far-right and racist Discord chat servers logged in Unicorn Riot’s DiscordLeaks journalism database show discussions about targeting power grids taking place over the last 4 years. While the conversations vary in seriousness, they demonstrate how the concept of power grid sabotage is firmly lodged within the mental pantheon of online neofascist subculture.
In one chat group called ‘The Right Cafe,’ used by far-right gamers, racists and neo-nazis, one user with a since-deleted account wrote in November 2018 that they were “waiting for the day when we will blow up all the power grid.“
Similar conversations in January 2019 in ‘The Right Cafe’ echoed the same theme, in which a Discord user with the chat handle ‘Commisar Femto’ wrote “I support terrorism but I have aspects on when to use it.” ‘Commisar Femto’ went onto say that in his view, “the system needs to be brought down and fast” and that a “quick blow” on “the power grid…will cripple the system.” ‘Commisar Femto’ also wrote a message praising the “day of the rope,” a reference to a scene from the neo-nazi sci-fi fantasy novel ‘The Turner Diaries’ in which all Jews and People of Color are killed in a violent uprising to create a whites-only utopia.
In a vetting channel for a separate Discord server, ‘Commisar Femto’ described himself as a “white american” and “fascist/NS [national socialist]” whose political goals include a “fascist totalitarian ethnostate.”
In another far-right chat server called ‘FreedomφClub’ (the name is taken from the writings of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski), a Discord user posting under the name ‘Tato’ pontificated on January 15, 2020 that “the best way to disenfranchise massive amounts of people is to wait for conditions to deteriorate to the point where you can just toss a pamphlet at them and then they’re down.”
Another racist discord user with the chat name ‘thenwerd’ (a not-so-subtle reference to the infamous anti-Black slur) replied “*ahem* power grid” – later suggesting that a “saboteur squad” could “yeet a pipe bomb into a substation.” The conversation then went on to include ‘Tato’ and ‘thenwerd’ discussing saving money and getting out of debt in order to be able to afford to plan an attack.
In the discord chat server ‘Zeducation,’ created by Minnesota-based far-right Youtuber Tyler Zed, some of Zed’s fans discussed sabotaging power grids in their area.
A username ‘Negan’ wrote on March 5, 2021 that he wanted to “destroy the power grid.” Chat participant ‘DrewDaPilot’ replied with an apparent interest and desire to participate: “I could take down the power grid for my county if I wanted to. All I need is someone to break into the local power distribution center and add a raspberry pi into their internal network…. tldr; its easy.”
On August 8, 2018, a chat participant using a since-deleted account in a Discord server created by neo-nazi Nicholas J. Fuentes encouraged Fuentes and others in the chat to “blow up federal buildings” and “blow up your local power grid.”
“War is more logistics and strategy than killing” wrote ‘luke5135.‘ “You have to know what to do and then kill,” ‘Big_Al‘ reflected. ‘Luke5135’ then suggested a plot to “take out the entire U.S. power grid” – and claimed to “know a place [where] I could take the entire power grid around me.”
In ‘Carpathid’s Imperium‘, a neo-nazi chat named in reference to the tabletop miniatures game Warhammer 40K, a user with a since-deleted account encouraged other chat participants to “read Siege and take down a power grid.”
In a ‘Call-In Show Server’ created by bigoted far-right anti-LGBTQ commentator Matt Christiansen, a chat user posting as ‘AlexandertheBased‘ described himself as “heavily armed” and claimed he had plans to “start tampering with the grid.” ‘AlexandertheBased‘ wrote that he hoped a power blackout in winter conditions would cause “90 % [of people] to die of exposure here.“ Others discussing the idea with ‘AlexandertheBased‘ fantasized about being able to “control the fucking power grid and create a rape based economy.”
On September 9, 2019, Discord user ‘Arthur Grayborn’ posted in ‘Athens,’ a far-right “free speech” chat, about his thoughts weighing different approaches to attacking power grids at a national versus municipal scape. “Take out four or five major power plants and you knock out half the nation’s electric grid… Whereas a smaller scale model would be far more resilient. Take out four or five power plants and four or five cities are without power.”
In ‘gear queer,’ a racist/far-right 4chan-affiliated chat for gun and body armor enthusiasts, several Discord users also discussed hitting power stations.
‘Cataclysmo‘ was skeptical about the effectiveness of targeting various infrastructure points simultaneously, speculating that “if enough substations were hit at once, someone would notice and send people to the remaining ones just to strengthen them.” ‘glacial pace’ felt that such a plan could still work as long as those involved were sworn to secrecy: “like yeah you could do it. if you had 20 people who did everything perfectly, and didn’t talk.”
Also in the ‘gear queer’ chat, later, on February 27, 2020, someone chatting on Discord as ‘Ann Hiro’ claimed that they “implied to” an acquaintance that “I was going to bomb the power grid so the elite can’t forward their agenda.” The chat handle ‘Ann Hero’ is a play on “anhero,” an older artifact of 4chan slang that is shorthand for committing suicide.
In the chat server ‘RobertGrulerEsq,’ created by Arizona-based far-right attorney and Kyle Rittenhouse apologist Robert Gruler, a Discord username ‘Dreadnaught’ ominously claimed on December 18, 2020 that “If the Right decided to revolt, the power grid will be down very quickly. Food is going to disappear and we are all going to be in a position where we will be forced to chose sides.”
Predictions by ‘Dreadnaught’ of a right-wing revolt appear to not have been entirely inaccurate, as less than three weeks later, thousands of far-right Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in a nearly-successful antidemocratic coup attempt. The crowd that stormed the Capitol included at least four members of Gruler’s chat server, if their messages claiming participation that day are accurate.
Luke Huizenga is a freelance journalist covering white supremacy, far-right fringe movements, and the growth of online extremism. You can follow him on Twitter: @huizengard. Chris Schiano and Dan Feidt of Unicorn Riot contributed additional reporting.
Title photo composition by Dan Feidt for Unicorn Riot. Photos by Chris Schiano for Unicorn Riot and Archives New Zealand for Wikimedia Commons.