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FBI warns of neo-Nazi plots as attacks on Northwest power grid spike

  • Jan 24, 2023
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Source: 
The Astorian

A white pickup truck with a rack of roof lights blazing pulled up to an electrical substation in the small town of Morton, Washington, about 70 miles south of Seattle on June 16.

In the predawn dark next to the city cemetery, a man in a dark hoodie and baseball cap hopped out of the truck. He broke a steel gate apart, likely with a crowbar later found at the scene, and walked inside the fenced facility on his way to sabotaging its high-voltage transformers.

Electrical substations transform high-voltage electricity to the lower voltages that keep America's lights on, its food cold, its medical devices operating and its phones charged. Far-flung substations can be difficult to secure. Damaging even a single one can shut off critical services to thousands of people.

Attacks like the one in Morton are on the rise in the Northwest - there have been 15 since June, more than in the previous six years combined. The recent attacks make this region a hot spot for such activity, according to a joint investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting and KUOW. In most cases, the motives aren't known. But as the FBI and extremism researchers have noted, neo-Nazis have been calling for just such attacks.

"The individuals of concern believe that an attack on electrical infrastructure will contribute to their ideological goal of causing societal collapse and a subsequent race war in the United States," according to an FBI memo obtained by Oregon Public Broadcasting and KUOW.

The substation in Morton that was attacked in June is connected to transmission lines that deliver hydropower from the Cowlitz Falls Dam. The energy coursing through those lines is more than 500 times the voltage that comes out of your light sockets or power outlets and, experts say, is easily lethal to anyone foolish enough to mess around with it.

Despite the danger, the Morton substation intruder entered the facility and deliberately damaged equipment.

"I saw a white flash through the garage door window," one eyewitness across the street told Morton police. "The power cut off."

The 4 a.m. incident plunged about 7,500 customers, or most of the eastern half of rural Lewis County, into darkness for several hours, according to police.

The intruder climbed back into the passenger seat of the truck, which sped off to the north, according to another eyewitness.

The incursion kicked off a rash of attacks on the Northwest power grid in 2022, according to public records obtained by Oregon Public Broadcasting and KUOW. It is unclear whether most of the attacks are connected.

As with most of them, no one has been arrested, and no one has claimed responsibility.

A rash of attacks

Pacific Northwest utilities have reported a surge of attacks to the FBI in recent months. Attacks on substations in Oregon and Washington state predate a December attack in Moore County, North Carolina, that left at least 40,000 people without power for days.

In some cases, the attacks appear to follow manuals disseminated online by neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists.

For years, law enforcement and academics have warned about plots on the nation's electrical grid from accelerationist groups that advocate, however implausibly, that taking down the grid will hasten the demise of the federal government and start a race war.

A Nov. 22 alert from FBI headquarters and the agency's Newark field office warned of an increase of "threats to electrical infrastructure" from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists. Those would include white supremacists and other so-called accelerationists attempting to sow chaos.

Weeks later, a second bulletin sent by the FBI's Portland field office reported specific attacks were carried out in Oregon and Washington state. The attacks were carried out using firearms, hand tools, flames and chains "possibly in response to an online call for attacks on critical infrastructure," according to the bulletin dated Dec. 2.

"In recent attacks, criminal actors bypassed security fences by cutting the fence links, lighting nearby fires, (and) shooting equipment from a distance," the bulletin stated. "No theft was reported in either case, making it apparent that the intent was likely to disable electrical systems and not for monetary profit."

A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the bulletins but said people should report suspicious activity near substations to law enforcement.

Neo-Nazis plot to take down the grid

Plots by white supremacists to target electrical infrastructure in the United States have increased dramatically since 2016, according to a report published by the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University in September.

"The rise of accelerationist ideology and doctrine during the past decade likely fueled the increased risk of attack plots within white supremacist milieus targeting critical infrastructure, and the energy sector in particular," according to the report.

The U.S. Department of Justice has charged six individuals with a "discernible, tangible connection" to neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division and The Base with plots to destroy power lines, even a nuclear reactor, the report states.

Other white-supremacist plots have threatened electrical infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest.

In 2020 and 2021, federal prosecutors charged five neo-Nazis in connection with conspiracy to damage an energy facility. According to court documents filed by the government, one of the defendants carried a handwritten list of about a dozen locations in Idaho and surrounding states, each housing "a transformer, substation, or other component of the power grid for the Northwest United States, that if destroyed could cause damage" to the grid.

The goal, federal prosecutors stated, was "to attack the power grid both for the purpose of creating general chaos and to provide cover and ease of escape in those areas in which they planned to undertake assassinations and other desired operations to further their goal of creating a white ethnostate."

Finally, in 2022, three white supremacists from Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. According to the Department of Justice, each defendant agreed to take down substations in a different area of the country using high-powered rifles. They believed it could bring about unrest, financial ruin and even a race war, according to prosecutors.

Even though the motives behind most of the 2022 attacks are unclear, the history of white supremacists' focus on the electrical grid has troubled law enforcement and extremist researchers.

"We're in a real wave of domestic extremist violence right now that's been increasing for several years," said Mary McCord, a former acting attorney general for national security at the Department of Justice who is a professor at Georgetown Law School.

In many cases it doesn't matter to extremist groups who actually carries out the attacks, McCord said, because just the fact that the attacks are happening contributes to their goal of sowing discord.

"People might not know whether a particular attack on a power station or a power grid was part of an ideologically motivated plot, or was just done for criminal purposes," McCord said. "White supremacists and others who are seeking to advance their own causes for ideological reasons can use that to advance their purported goals of causing chaos, undermining the government, undermining general stability."

Far-right forums online provide instruction manuals for how to attack substations and other critical infrastructure.

The design of the manuals invokes a video game and taps into costume-play subculture, according to Eric Ward, senior adviser at Western States Center, a Portland-based civil rights group that advocates against extremism.

"White nationalists have tapped into gaming and 'cosplay' in order to convince individuals that what they're engaging in is nothing more than play and gaming," Ward said. "It downplays the real consequences."

A national hot spot Using utility sources, police reports, and a U.S. Department of Energy database of disturbances to the electrical grid, Oregon Public Broadcasting and KUOW confirmed a wave of 15 physical attacks on substations in the Pacific Northwest since June.

The incidents accelerated toward year's end, with 10 of 15 attacks in 2022 taking place in November and December.

The federal data also shows the West to be the hot spot for intentional damage to electrical infrastructure.

The western grid, serving 11 Western states and the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, has had more vandalism, sabotage and physical attacks reported in the first eight months of 2022 than the rest of North America combined.

"Attacks on electric infrastructure are serious crimes and need to be treated as such," Puesh Kumar, head of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response, said in an email. "We are asking the public - if you see something, say something - and encouraging utilities across the country to share information with law enforcement regarding any suspicious activities."

Washington substations suffered a spate of attacks last summer and fall, starting in the southwestern part of the state. Three sites in the Grays Harbor area were targeted in June, August and October, according to local utility officials. A substation in Toledo, 71 miles north of Portland, was hit in August.

November brought a flurry of attacks: two in Woodland, then two more at Puget Sound Energy sites in Pierce and Thurston counties, which the utility company has declined to identify more specifically.

Two substations in Clackamas County, just southeast of Portland in Oregon, were attacked on Nov. 24 and Nov. 28.

Two intruders "cut into the fence and used firearms to shoot up and disable numerous pieces of equipment and cause significant damage," according to an email from a Bonneville Power Administration security official to police departments in the area.

Petty vandalism and attempts to steal copper are nothing new for electric utilities.

"But now we are dealing with quickly escalating incidents of sabotage," the security official wrote.

Several of the Northwest attacks incorporated a similar technique for knocking out power documented by police at the Morton substation in June.

At least two of the 15 attacks in the Northwest also involved firearms, though officials have divulged few details.

Federal prosecutors say the four most recent attacks, on Christmas Day in Pierce County, Washington, were carried out by two men who demonstrated no ideological motive, only a desire to knock power out so they could commit burglaries at local businesses. According to federal charging documents for Matthew Greenwood and Jeremy Crahan, of Puyallup, Washington, Greenwood confessed to the four attacks and told the FBI he and Crahan had gone to an unnamed local business during the blackout, drilled its door lock, and stolen from its cash register.

The Pierce County Sheriff's Office reports several burglaries Christmas morning, with one business in the blackout area, the Thai Bangkok restaurant, having its door lock drilled and about $100 taken from its cash register.

"The recklessness and the lack of judgment that is displayed in order just to commit some burglaries by putting the power out in four separate locations, it's just beyond words," federal judge J. Richard Creatura said at a detention hearing for Greenwood in January in Tacoma. Both defendants remain in custody.

Federal prosecutors said in court they found no evidence the men had motives beyond burglary.

"Despite the arrests that occurred in Tacoma, we have not slowed down our efforts to further harden our substations and protect them in a physical manner," Bonneville Power Administration spokesperson Doug Johnson said. "The arrests are encouraging, but we believe that the threat still exists."

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