The attacks on four power substations in western Washington in late December seemed to follow a pattern set by apparent far-right domestic terrorists around the country over the previous year: gunfire directed at transformers and particular pieces of equipment that force the substation to shut down, depriving thousands of residents of electricity. Because it seemed to fit a blueprint being circulated by neo-Nazi accelerationists, and was similar to other attacks in the region, authorities naturally suspected it might be another case of domestic terrorism.
It apparently wasn’t, though. When two Puyallup-area men were arrested shortly afterwards for the four attacks in Pierce County, it turned out their motives were mundane: they wanted to knock out the power as cover for committing burglaries of local businesses. So far, investigators have not found any evidence connecting them to far-right groups, but did find evidence that the pair committed at least one break-in.
The incident underscores the difficulties authorities like the FBI—which is the chief federal investigative entity charged with protecting the nation’s electrical infrastructure—have when dealing with the insidious machinations of violent far-right insurrectionists, as a recent piece from KUOW and Oregon Public Broadcasting assessing the threat to the Northwest power grid illuminates. As with many incidents where domestic terrorism is suspected, the attacks may in fact be motivated by something other than political ideology (including the theft of copper wiring); unless someone claims credit for the act or leaves clues or a manifesto, or investigators can identify and arrest the perpetrators, it’s almost impossible to say which is which.