The lights are coming back on in Moore County, North Carolina, where tens of thousands of people were plunged into darkness after two power substations were shot up over the weekend.
But days later, there are still no answers about who might have been responsible for the attack or what their motivation was.
The attack on the Duke Energy substations coincided with a planned drag show in Southern Pines that had been the target of an escalating harassment campaign by far-right extremists in the area. The timing fueled speculation that the attack could have been ideologically motivated, part of an increasingly violent assault on LGBTQ rights and events nationwide.
So far, law enforcement have not found evidence that the drag show and substation attack were linked, but anti-LGBTQ terrorism has not been ruled out as a potential motive, sources told CNN. Investigators are also exploring other possibilities—including whether the attack in Moore County is part of a broader campaign from extremists to attack critical infrastructure in the U.S.
Law enforcement, however, appears certain that whoever was responsible for the attack “knew exactly what they were doing,” Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said Sunday. Investigators found nearly two dozen shell casings at the crime scenes. The office also applied for search warrants earlier this week.
The attacks took place on Saturday night at around 7 p.m., local time, when one or more people shot up two separate substations using high-powered rifles. Residents in the area lost power and heat for several days, as temperatures fell to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The state of North Carolina, Moore County, and Duke Energy are offering $25,000 reward for information each, totaling $75,000. The FBI also posted a public notice seeking information about the attack.
While investigators search for clues, news of other recent attacks on power substations elsewhere in the U.S. have also come to light. At least five such attacks on electricity substations in Oregon and Washington were reported to the FBI since late November, The Seattle Times reported.
Oregon Public Broadcasting obtained memos by Kenneth Worstell, a security specialist with the Bonneville Power Administration (the federal agency that markets hydropower across the Pacific Northwest). They offered some details on an attack on a power station in Clackamas County on Thanksgiving morning.
Worstell wrote that two individuals cut through the fence surrounding that facility and then “used firearms to shoot up and disable numerous pieces of equipment and cause significant damage.” Worstell also described attacks on several other substations in western Washington, which entailed “setting the control houses on fire, forced entry and sabotage of intricate electrical control systems.” They also caused short circuits by tossing chains into the overhead web of wires and switches.
He said that they were dealing with “quickly escalating incidents of sabotage” and noted that online extremist groups encourage such attacks.
On Wednesday evening, 146 miles south of Moore County, CBS reported yet another possible incident involving critical infrastructure, also belonging to Duke Energy. An individual in a truck opened fire near crews outside the Wateree Hydro Station in Ridgeway, South Carolina, before driving off. Local authorities have since determined the shooting in South Carolina to be “a random act” that just happened to take place near a hydro station and had no discernible connection to the attacks in North Carolina.
And in September, half a dozen “intrusions” were reported at Duke Energy facilities in Florida, according to federal documents obtained by NewsNation. In at least two of those incidents, the intruder manually tripped equipment that caused short power outages.
Critical infrastructure has long been eyed as a desirable target by accelerationist neo-Nazis —who seek the collapse of society through destabilizing, violent acts—and anti-government extremists. Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security circulated an intelligence bulletin warning that, since 2020, domestic violent extremists had “developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure.” The bulletin mentioned that power companies had been on the receiving end of escalating threats between 2020 and 2021 from extremists.
In February, three men between the ages of 20 and 24 were arrested as part of an alleged plot to attack power substation using powerful rifles “to damage the economy and stoke division” all “in furtherance of white supremacist ideology.”
The first major attack on the grid was in 2013, when a group armed with rifles fired on 17 electrical transformers at a major Pacific Gas and Electric Company substation near San Jose, according to Joe Weiss, a long-time consultant on critical infrastructure security. The attack highlighted major vulnerabilities in the power grid’s infrastructure, and officials said it was lucky that it didn’t cause a blackout in Silicon Valley.
As a result, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered grid operators to ramp up security around transmission substations key substations by installing walls, sensors or cameras. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission does not have jurisdiction over distribution substations (the kind of smaller substation that was attacked in Moore County). State public utility companies oversee distribution substations, and they remain largely unprotected, according to Weiss.
Because of that vandalism of those distribution substations, particularly in rural areas, has more or less continued unabated.
“People have been stealing copper out of [distribution] substations, they’ve been shooting up insulators, they’ve been targeted by vandalism for a very long time,” said Weiss. But, he added, the rise of domestic extremism in the U.S. has made security vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure even more concerning. “Now you got all these right wing crazies that want to do real harm to our society,” Weiss said.
What’s more, the kind of damage to a substation that results in a widespread outage, like what happened in Moore County, suggests that whoever was responsible knew what they were doing and understood how to do it, he added. “This wasn’t a couple of teenage kids out drinking,” said Weiss.
Even if the Moore County attack ends up having no nexus to extremist ideology, the case has excited the online communities of neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists who are now calling for additional attacks.
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