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Opinion: Opinion: Terrorism expert warns of increased attacks on energy infrastructure

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The lights are back on for the estimated 45,000 customers who lost power when a gunman or gunmen knocked out two electric substations in North Carolina earlier this month. 

But don’t think this was an isolated matter. There have been similar incidents in South Carolina, Oregon and Washington state in recent weeks. 
All told, attacks on America’s electric grid—as rickety as it is essential—have risen four years in a row, according to Energy Department data. 

Lone wolves and small cells

The North Carolina attack came just days after the Homeland Security Department, in its latest terrorism advisory bulletin, issued an ominous warning that the threat to the U.S. remains “heightened,” and poses a “persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland.”

The threat comes from both so-called “lone wolves” and small groups, who harbor a variety of motivations or grievances, and are using the internet to recruit or motivate others to join in future mayhem. It’s important to remember that by “terrorists,” DHS means both the homegrown and foreign kind.

Although terrorist attacks can occur anywhere, anytime, and against any sort of target, our electric grid seems to be a favorite target. Why? Much of it is unguarded, with small substations and facilities scattered in often remote areas. Causing disruption and damage is far easier than attacking a hardened target like an airport. And such attacks can play into broader ideological and political goals. 

Lots of angry people

Speaking with me recently for my “Disinformation” podcast, John Cohen, the former acting undersecretary for intelligence and the counterterrorism coordinator at DHS, said: “You have to remember that some terrorists want to attack the government, even bring it down.”

“We have an increasing number of people in our society who are angry,” said Cohen, who has served four presidents over the span of a four-decade career. “They’re looking for the justification to use violence as a way to express that anger,” and that attacking the electric grid is regarded as a good way to do just that.   

It’s probably easier—though not cheap—to protect the grid from physical attacks like the North Carolina shootings. Walls or barriers can be built to prevent gunmen from being able to aim directly at transformers and circuit breakers. But the threat is always evolving: Portions of Ukraine’s electric grid, for example, have repeatedly been knocked out by Russian drones. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen here? 

But the far greater threat to grid security comes from cyber attackers, who theoretically could turn off the lights from halfway around the world. “The grid is becoming more vulnerable to cyberattacks,” warned a recent U.S. government report, and that “nations, criminal groups, terrorists, and others are increasingly capable of attacking” it, the report added. A recent study by Lloyd’s, the British-based insurance giant, estimated that a large-scale cyberattack on America’s grid could inflict about $240 billion in damage, rising in an extreme case to as much as $1 trillion.

Threat from within

But while the possibility of such an attack by a foreign actor is always possible, Cohen and other security officials keep hammering away this: The threat of terrorist attacks from within—by our fellow Americans—is a huge worry today, a clear and present danger—and a marked change from the terrorist attacks of September 2001, when 19 foreigners—15 of them from Saudi Arabia—hijacked four passenger jets and attacked New York and Washington. 

“The threat has evolved,” Cohen tells me. “It’s a very different threat, and in many respects, the threat we’re dealing with today is not only different, but scarier than the threat before, because we’ve spent billions and billions of dollars establishing a counterterrorism capability that was intended to stop attacks by foreign terrorist groups operating abroad who worked within an organizational framework. Who engaged in certain communication and travel activities. And it was that communication and travel activities that allowed us to identify operatives before they conducted an attack. Today, the primary terrorist threat facing the U.S. comes from lone offenders, individuals who feel socially disconnected and angry.”    

Such loners or groups are part of what the U.S. intelligence community calls “accelerationists” who, Cohen said, see “violent activities as the way to accelerate what they call the coming violent overthrow of the government.” In addition to the electric grid, they have, the government says, targeted 5G infrastructure—which come conspiracists think is helping to spread COVID-19. 

More on domestic terrorism

Senate report concludes FBI and DHS are not adequately focused on domestic extremists

Vindication for Justice Department as two men are convicted in 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor

Son of Buffalo shooting victim urges Congress to take action against white supremacist ‘cancer’ and gun violence


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