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With Power Grid Under Attack, U.S. Struggles to Pursue Far-Right Extremists

Newsweek 12/5/2022 Tom O'Connor
Law enforcement stand guard outside of the state capitol building in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, on January 17, 2021, during a nationwide protest called by anti-government and far-right groups supporting then-U.S. President Donald Trump and his claim of electoral fraud in the November 3 presidential election. © LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images Law enforcement stand guard outside of the state capitol building in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, on January 17, 2021, during a nationwide protest called by anti-government and far-right groups supporting then-U.S. President Donald Trump and his claim of electoral fraud in the November 3 presidential election.

An attack that plunged tens of thousands of people in North Carolina into darkness has raised new concerns over a mounting threat posed by radical homegrown extremists declaring open war on the United States power grid.

But experts and former officials note that, despite a stated priority in combatting this threat, obstacles exist for law enforcement agencies in pursuing such measures against individuals and groups on U.S. soil.

In the lead-up to the midterm elections last month, Newsweek documented the digital dissemination of a wide array of plots, manuals and manifestos by domestic extremists seeking to incite acts of sabotage against energy sites nationwide, as well as recent real-life examples of such attacks taking place in various parts of the country.

Now, a new incident has emerged in North Carolina, where authorities said two Moore County electricity substations were struck by gunfire on Saturday in what appeared to be a targeted attack against critical infrastructure. As blackouts persist alongside a curfew and state of emergency, law enforcement on the country, state and federal levels are all involved in the ongoing investigation.


But such probes often prove challenging. Though federal law enforcement often ranks the threat posed by domestic actors as even higher than that presented by foreign militant groups such as Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), agencies have a much more limited playbook available to deal with the issue.

"The difference between AQ and U.S. citizens who are white supremacists or who belong to domestic violent groups is that with an individual who is part of al-Qaeda there is a foreign connection," one former senior law enforcement official told Newsweek. "That means we can bring a different approach."

And there is a additional barrier for law enforcement.

"Meanwhile, a U.S. citizen, regardless of the racism or ideology they espouse, is afforded all the rights under the Constitution," he added.

Mubin Shaikh, a counter-extremism and counterterrorism specialist who has testified on the matter before various bodies including Congress, the United Nations and U.S. military commands, explained how this has proven to be a blind spot for U.S. law enforcement.

"Without a domestic terrorism statute to treat these hostile actors in the way the government has dealt with Al Qaeda or ISIS," Shaikh told Newsweek, "the full weight of U.S. law cannot be brought to bear in this setting."

"This means that other groups, even state-backed adversaries, can draw inspiration from such tactics as demonstrated," he added, "perhaps unwittingly by their domestic extremist compatriots."

But Shaikh warned that this approach was far from ideal, and that a more aggressive strategy is warranted.

"We have to go after these groups in the same way we did AQ & ISIS," he said. "I'm talking about infiltration operations, supported by strong prosecution and sentencing. The domestic counterterrorism lessons learned from the post 9/11 period must not be simply put to the side just because today's perpetrators look like the majority demographic."

As has been the case with similar attacks in the past, no individual or group has claimed responsibility for the Moore County substation shootings. Investigators have yet to establish any links to far-right ideologies either.

But tensions were high in Moore County even before the substation attacks on Saturday. Plans to hold a drag show at the Sunrise Theater in the town of Southern Pines that same day drew conservative backlash on social media as well as in-person demonstrations that included armed protestors donning military gear.

Among the most vocal opponents of the event, which ultimately went on despite the outcry and outages, was Emily Grace Rainey, a former U.S. Army psychological operations officer who was implicated in the January 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol by a crowd largely consisting of President Donald Trump supporters, including far-right militias. She has since taken up the title of director for a group calling itself Moore County Citizens for Freedom.

After the lights went out on Saturday, Rainey took to social media to say, "I know why" the electricity went out. She then wrote that investigators from the Moore County Sheriff's Office had visited her home but had "wasted their time" in doing so, as "God works in mysterious ways and is responsible for the outage."

"I used the opportunity to tell them about the immoral drag show and the blasphemies screamed by its supporters," she wrote. "God is chastising Moore County. I thanked them for coming and wished them a good night."

Newsweek has reached out to Moore County Citizens for Freedom for comment, as well as the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and Public Safety Department, both of whom deferred to the Moore County Sheriff's Office.

A spokesperson for the FBI told Newsweek that the Bureau "cannot comment" on "specific questions" regarding the ongoing investigation, but that "the FBI remains vigilant and works closely with our law enforcement partners on a daily basis to detect, disrupt, and dismantle any threats that may emerge."

"As always," the spokesperson added, "we ask members of the public to report anything they consider suspicious to law enforcement."

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told Newsweek that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas "has been briefed on the outages impacting residents in Moore County."

"DHS will continue to share information with the FBI, and state and local authorities as the investigation unfolds," the spokesperson added. "CISA leadership and regional teams have offered support to Duke Energy as they work to restore service."

CISA is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency established under DHS in November 2018 to shore up the nation's digital and physical defenses in this field. Brian Harrell, who served as DHS assistant secretary for infrastructure protection and CISA assistant director for infrastructure security from December 2018 to September 2020, spoke to the efforts currently being undertaken by the department.

"All year, DHS has done a good job of telegraphing these types of attacks with relevant intelligence products," Harrell told Newsweek. "Oftentimes the alert itself is not overly helpful, but you assume that they are seeing increased chatter and nefarious plans being hashed-out in discussion forums."

He referenced the infamous yet still unattributed April 2013 attack that saw seemingly organized saboteurs open fire on a substation in Metcalf, California, as well as "what now looks like a coordinated attack on N.C. substations," as "proof positive that domestic terror groups are intently looking at critical infrastructure as targets."

"I suspect that we will not see a group come forward and take responsibility," Harrell said. "If they stay underground, don't highlight themselves, and don't get caught, they preserve their ability to attack again."

Speaking to reporters during a virtual press call Monday, White House National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby also addressed the attack, saying "local officials and specifically local law enforcement are getting federal support on the investigation."

Kirby referenced President Joe Biden's previous remarks on "the resilience" of critical energy infrastructure, saying he has "made it a priority" to address the issue, "regardless of whether it's from natural threats, or man-made threats."

"We still have a long way to go," Kirby added. "I think the president would be the first to admit that there's a lot of work left to be done when it comes to infrastructure security."

Kirby felt the government was on the path through initiatives such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and that the administration would be keeping a close eye on the proceedings in North Carolina.

"The president is staying aware of this, everybody at the White House is," Kirby said. "We're going to continue to watch this investigation as it unfolds, support local law enforcement and local officials as appropriate and we'll stay plugged-in on this as the investigation goes."

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