As gas prices reshape midterm, US extremists plot to attack energy sites


As rising fuel prices threaten Democrats’ political hopes in the upcoming midterm elections, an ominous chorus of online chatter among domestic extremists in dark corners of the internet advocating attacks on critical infrastructure across the country may pose an even greater threat to American consumers.

Newsweek obtained two documents that provide insight into the extent of the threat, including reports of several real attacks that have occurred over the past few months.

The first is a corporate intelligence security memo detailing at least 15 cases over a period of just over a year showing suspected extremists openly threatening and calling for acts of sabotage against energy sites, particularly electrical substations, but also includes other targets such as cell phone towers and pipelines.

The material included materials that could help groups and individuals carry out such attacks, including maps, manuals and instructions on vulnerabilities in electrical infrastructure and easily accessible methods for disrupting their operation. Those behind the posts, which were shared on various online platforms and chat rooms, expressed ties to a number of anti-government ideologies, primarily far-right and neo-beliefs. -Nazis, but also including eco-activism and at least one user who shared a message of support for the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group.

Several of these same messages appeared in a second document obtained by Newsweekan intelligence assessment released this month by the California State Threat Assessment Center, which cites, among other sources, government intelligence reports prepared by the Department of Homeland Security.

This report has gone beyond simply exposing the desires of those who seek to do harm to also include recent notable incidents of groups or individuals acting on such fantasies. This included an act of vandalism causing “fairly significant” damage to a transformer serving the Keystone pipeline in South Dakota and a shooting that caused a chemical spill at a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) site in California, both of which happened last July. . In March, thousands of customers in southern Oklahoma were reportedly without power after bullets riddled a transformer site, causing a “major oil leak”.

And in February, three men pleaded guilty to planning to recruit partisans to attack electrical substations in an attempt to destroy the U.S. power grid, cost the government millions of dollars, and “probably start a race war.” “, according to the assessment.

“We believe that domestic violent extremists (DVEs) are likely to remain a threat to the
electricity sub-sector through 2023, as DVEs share more detailed information claimed to be authoritative to convince adherents that they have the requisite knowledge on targets, vulnerabilities, tools and techniques to succeed” , indicates the rating.

A map shows every power plant and electric transmission line in the contiguous United States as of December 22, 2021, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
US Energy Information Administration

The reports offer a glimpse into a murky world of largely anonymous individuals conspiring to undermine the power grid in favor of radical beliefs. Even attacks that do occur, causing outages and damage, are often underreported.

One high-profile exception is a still-unsolved case from 2013, in which an apparently organized group of perpetrators cut fiber optic cables and opened fire on a PG&E substation in Metcalf, California. Since then, there have been numerous shootings targeting energy infrastructure in various parts of the country, including incidents not included in the two reports, which detailed larger and more destructive plans to plunge the United States into darkness. .

Brian Harrell, who served as assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security from December 2018 to November 2020, is among those who have expressed concern about these threats.

“DVEs are looking to make an impact with media attention,” Harrell said. Newsweek. “Today we are seeing active targeting and harmful discussions in all corners of the dark web and chat rooms. Given the criticality of the energy sector, it is not surprising that they are a prime target. Fortunately, the industry has made significant investments and improvements to keep bad actors out of critical substations and other sites.”

“The utilities industry is aware of these threats because of our ongoing relationship with our national security partners,” he said, noting steps were being taken to bolster defenses.

“While any threat is significant, companies have been working to build redundancy and resilience into the power grid,” Harrell said. “Essential services that all Americans depend on should never be used as part of a domestic terrorism plot.”

Manny Cancel, senior vice president of the North American Electronic Reliability Corporation (NERC) and CEO of the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC), said the issue is also on his radar.

cancel says Newsweek that while E-ISAC “is not currently aware of any specific threats to the mass power system or electrical assets from domestic violent extremists, this is a serious threat and which we are actively monitoring”.

“Various extremist groups maintain a long-standing interest in disrupting the status quo through the use of vandalism and sabotage,” Cancel added, “including promoting physical attacks on critical network infrastructure, such as towers. transmission, transformers and substations, through online propaganda.

And while such efforts have been underway for some time, he said “its continued promotion in the current environment is cause for concern”, prompting E-ISAC to communicate on the matter with colleagues in the industry. infrastructure, as well as with law enforcement agencies such as the FBI.

Concerns about potential acts of violence linked to the upcoming midterm elections have increased as Election Day approaches, particularly after former President Donald Trump’s rejection of the 2020 election results was followed by deadly riots that stormed the Capitol building early last year. Counties have already begun to tighten security at voting sites, but those dangers can manifest in a variety of ways.

Adding to the volatility of the situation, inflation and rising gasoline prices proved to be the main issues among voters, making energy sites an attractive target for groups and individuals seeking to wreak havoc on a politically sensitive moment for the nation.

While Cancel said “we are not aware of any specific link” between “energy volatility” and the continued stream of threats against energy sites, he stressed that the election was nonetheless an opportunity for those seeking to sow chaos.

“Given the current social and political environment that the election represents, there is potential for civil unrest and violence,” Cancel said, “which is why collaboration between government, law enforcement and critical infrastructure sectors remains crucial”.

Newsweek contacted the California State Threat Assessment Center and the US Department of Homeland Security for comment.

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