More than 40,000 people in Moore County, North Carolina lost electricity in early December after gunmen attacked two Duke Energy substations. Law enforcement, both local and federal, have been investigating the incident and haven’t determined who was behind the attack or why. But one thing is for certain: Attacking electrical grids is very much in keeping with the extremist playbook.
Journalist Zachary B. Wolf, reporting on the attack for CNN’s website on December 5, lays out some reasons why electrical grids are an “attractive target” for extremists and terrorists.
“The motivation behind an attack on the electrical grid in a North Carolina county remains a mystery,” Wolf explains. “But the method — apparently coordinated attacks on multiple substations — exploits a vulnerability that has long been a source of concern for authorities warning about domestic terrorism. Just last week, the Department of Homeland Security renewed a national bulletin to warn of attacks on critical infrastructure.”
The CNN reporter continues, “The details of this particular story are only starting to come into view, although Moore County, North Carolina, remains plunged in darkness. The FBI has joined the hunt for answers into how attacks on substations left around 40,000 without power over the weekend. In a Sunday news conference, the county sheriff described the attacks as ‘intentional’ and ‘targeted,’ but had no reason why the person or persons involved would choose the place.”
At the Duke Energy substations, gunfire damaged the transformers. And Duke reps have said that it will be Thursday, December 8 before power is restored to the 40,000 Moore County residents who have been without electricity.
Carol Haney, mayor of Southern Pines — a North Carolina town that has been without power — described the attack as domestic terrorism.
Haney told CNN, “It is just a horrible, horrible terrorist, in my opinion, act. Cowardly.”
John Miller, who focuses on national security matters for CNN, explains why electrical grids in the United States are vulnerable and why terrorists and extremists — including white supremacists and neo-Nazis — consider them an appealing target.
On “CNN This Morning,” Miller told his colleagues, “The challenge is most of these places are outdoors, most are in remote areas, and most of them are available for attack from a long distance…. Their theory is that if you identify the key nodes and you knock out one and they divert power to the next one, and you knock out the next one and the next one, a domino effect can actually start to topple the national grid and plunge the nation into darkness and chaos.”
Attacking infrastructure and depriving Americans of electricity, heat or gas is not a new tactic for terrorists and white supremacists. Back in the 1980s, according to federal prosecutors, neo-Nazis planned to blow up natural gas pipelines in states that included Texas and Illinois. And they also planned to dump 200 pounds of pure cyanide into the municipal water supplies of New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
In April 2013, sniper fire knocked out 17 transformers in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. And in 2020, white supremacists in Idaho faced conspiracy charges for trying to damage transformers in that state.
Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official Juliette Kayyem, now a national security analyst for CNN, notes that the attack in Moore County required some sophistication.
According to Kayyem, “You don’t just drive by these places and know where to shoot. (Investigators) will be looking at the potential there was either casing or someone who knew the area, the facilities and knew where to shoot. These aren’t drive-by incidents.”