Right-wing domestic extremist groups — for the most part meaning neo-Nazis and white supremacists — now represent the most significant terrorist threat to the U.S., according to a leading Homeland Security official. That’s not headline news; law enforcement and national security officials have been saying that for years. But now those hate groups are allegedly engaging in both physical attacks and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, such as the electrical power grid.
In the past week, two white supremacists, one of them a neo-Nazi, were indicted by a grand jury for allegedly plotting attacks on five power stations in a bid to “lay waste” to the city of Baltimore. But those guys are just the tip of the iceberg. As noted by the Hill, there have been nine attacks on U.S. power stations since November. One resulted in days-long power outages, affecting thousands of people.
Kenneth Wainstein, undersecretary of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, told CBS News in February that domestic terrorist groups have become the department’s primary concern, rather than Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS.
“The primary terrorism threat, the most lethal and persistent terrorism threat that we’re facing now, is not from the al-Qaidas and the al-Shababs and the ISISes, though they remain a serious threat,” he said. “But it’s from the lone actors and the small groups who are ideologically driven here within the United States and motivated out of ideology to foment, conspire to and engage in violence.”
That violence, according to both mounting research and criminal reports, increasingly takes the form of physical and cyberattacks on energy sector critical infrastructure.
“We’ve seen attacks against the power grid for a number of years, and some of those attacks are simply people shooting into substations around the country for purely criminal reasons,” Wainstein said. “But some of these shootings are also being done by domestic violent extremists.”
In September, a study from George Washington University found that 55 white supremacist attack planners faced federal charges between 2016 and August of 2022. Sixteen of those actually charged were planning critical infrastructure attacks, and 14 were known participants in online networks for neo-Nazi “accelerationism” — the attempt to speed up and amplify the spread of far-right political ideologies in order to create radical social change.
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“The rise of accelerationist ideology and doctrine during the past decade likely fueled the increased risk of attack plots,” the authors report.
“Between 2016 and 2022, white supremacist plots targeting energy systems dramatically increased in frequency,” the report continues. Thirteen individuals associated with white supremacist movements movement were charged with planning “attacks on the energy sector,” with 11 of these alleged “attack planners” charged after 2020.
Neo-Nazi cybercrime is not entirely new, despite its recent surges. The international right-wing extremist network known as Atomwaffen Division has engaged in cyberstalking, harassment, bomb threats and “swatting,” or falsely reporting a crime in progress at someone’s residence in hopes of triggering a SWAT team raid. Other online-facing neo-Nazi groups have hacked Holocaust memorial sites, tried to interfere in French elections, targeted Black student groups and hacked into remote printer networks to distribute Nazi propaganda.
Even in Germany, where Nazi symbols and pro-Nazi political groups are illegal, authorities have struggled to control a growing neo-Nazi movement in recent years.
Payment processors, cloud hosting, domain services and a variety of app makers have stepped up to denounce neo-Nazis and ban them from platforms. But the online neo-Nazi problem isn’t going away, and has spread well beyond unmoderated chat apps and marginal social media sites, their traditional zones of organizing DDoS attacks or real-world violence.
As cybersecurity experts have warned for years, energy technology in the U.S. is a patchwork system, about 80% in private ownership, that is highly vulnerable to attack. It appears that dangerous elements on the far-right fringe have noticed.
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