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Violent Domestic Extremists Pose Threat to U.S. Grid: DHS

While extreme weather and wildfires increasingly cause damage to electric utilities around the world, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is flagging domestic terrorist plots as another threat to the country’s power infrastructure.

“Conversations from domestic violent extremists online in recent months have focused on encouraging lone wolf attacks, as well as attempts to inspire individuals with little or no training to go after electric infrastructure—including with firearms, improvised incendiary devices, hammers, and power saws,” reports The Daily Beast.

The country’s electricity system functions as three separate grids that include Eastern, Western, and Texas interconnections and includes about 7,700 power plants, 3,300 utilities, and more 2.7 million miles of power lines, writes CBS News. According to the DHS bulletin, obtained by The Daily Beast last week, domestic violent extremists (DVE) targeting the grid have developed “credible, specific plans” for attacks and view the grid as a “particularly attractive target given its interdependency with other infrastructure sectors.” 

The report is especially alarming in light of the January 6, 2020 coup attempt targeting the U.S. Capitol. In the past 18 months, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has doubled its resources focusing on domestic violent extremism and is sharing more intelligence with the private sector, and with state and local law enforcement. John Cohen, head of DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis, said the threat landscape from domestic violent extremists “is one of the most complex, volatile, and dynamic that I’ve experienced in my career.”

The bulletin notes some specific cases of DVEs planning to attack the grid, including four individuals who were charged with conspiracy to damage transformers in Idaho, in what was believed to be a racially-motivated attack in 2020. Extremist groups also considered an attack on power stations in the southeastern U.S. as a response to an outcome they disagreed with in the November, 2020 presidential election, CBS says.

The warning recalls a 2013 grid attack in which a sniper successfully damaged 17 transformers at Pacific Gas & Electric’s Metcalf substation, says Utility Dive. Although law enforcement officers said it was unlikely to have been politically motivated, the attack gave some idea of what the impacts of a new attack might be.

“The major concern is that large transformers, which are critical to grid operations, have a long lead time from order to delivery, often longer than 12 months,” Mark Carrigan, cyber vice president of process safety and operational technology cybersecurity at Hexagon PPM, told Utility Dive in an email.

After the 2013 incident, plans for a strategic reserve of transmission equipment were included in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, signed in 2015 by President Barack Obama. However, Carrigan said the results of that program were unclear and suggested lawmakers revisit the issue.

Despite the rising threat, the DHS bulletin notes that “absent significant technical knowledge or insider assistance, small-scale attacks are unlikely to cause widespread, multi-state power loss,” CBS says. But they may still “result in physical damage that poses risks to operations or personnel.”

A January 23 DHS bulletin obtained by CBS points to a second possible threat to U.S. infrastructure. It says Russia “would consider” launching a cyberattack against the U.S. “if it perceived (that) a U.S. or NATO response to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine threatened its long-term national security.”