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.
The KUOW/OPB piece highlights one such attack, last June in the timber-country town of Morton, Washington. In that case, a man wearing a hoodie entered a substation that is part of the system delivering power from Cowlitz Falls Dam and deliberately damaged equipment that brought the transmission to a halt. He also apparently had an accomplice: He was seen jumping into the passenger seat of the truck in which he arrived and riding away in it.
There have been 15 total attacks like this on power substations around the Northwest since June, and the motives remain unknown in all of them. An FBI memo obtained by KUOW and OPB noted that most of the acts don’t indicate an immediate theft-for-profit motive.
“In recent attacks, criminal actors bypassed security fences by cutting the fence links, lighting nearby fires, [and] shooting equipment from a distance,” the bulletin stated. “No theft was reported in either case, making it apparent that the intent was likely to disable electrical systems and not for monetary profit.”
In the case of the two Puyallup men, there was an indirect profit motive. The men—Matthew Greenwood, 32, and Jeremy Crahan, 40—were arrested six days after the Christmas Day attack on two Tacoma Power substations and two substations operated by Puget Sound Energy. Both now face federal charges of conspiracy to damage energy facilities
Hal Bernton and Mike Carter of the Seattle Times spoke with Greenwood’s girlfriend, Holly Fisher, at the Puyallup property where they lived. “He figured that a power outage would make it so they could get inside somewhere and take something of value,” Fisher said of Greenwood. The story explains:
Fisher said through tears that she is eight months pregnant and that Greenwood was out of work and scared about not having money to support their child. The couple had been evicted from another home earlier in December. And, after watching television reports of other attacks, Greenwood and Crahan came up with the plan to cut power from substations as cover for the theft, she said.
“He isn’t a terrorist. He is just trying to support me and the baby I’m going to have in three weeks,” Fisher said. “He wasn’t thinking about the damage that could be done to other people. He was desperate.”
Investigators said they found evidence that the men had burglarized at least one business affected by the ensuing blackout and stole $100 from the till. The attacks on the substations caused an estimated $3 million in damage.
“The recklessness and the lack of judgment that is displayed in order just to commit some burglaries by putting the power out in four separate locations, it's just beyond words,” federal judge J. Richard Creatura observed at Greenwood’s January detention hearing.
In other power substation attacks, however, the motive may be less mundane.
Back in January, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned that American extremists have begun exhibiting an unhealthy interest in attacking the power grid—at first regionally, then nationally—as a means of disrupting the country. Far-right domestic extremists “have developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020, identifying the electric grid as a particularly attractive target given its interdependency with other infrastructure sectors,” according to the DHS report.
There were indications that such an agenda may have been behind a series of incidents last month in Washington and Oregon, when at least six different attacks on power substations were reported to the FBI. Two unidentified substations operated by Puget Sound Energy, as well as two others operated by Cowlitz County Public Utility District in the Woodland area of southwestern Washington, were subjected to “vandalism,” the latter causing a brief power outage in the area. The attackers cut open a fence and then shot up transformers, apparently targeting specific pieces of equipment.
Another significant attack was reported by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) against one of its substations in Clackamas County, Oregon, which it described as a “deliberate physical attack” early on Thanksgiving morning. Oregon Public Broadcasting and KUOW report that a BPA security specialist described the attack in an email: “Two people cut through the fence surrounding a high-voltage substation, then ‘used firearms to shoot up and disable numerous pieces of equipment and cause significant damage.’”
Four days later in Clackamas County, there was another attack, this time on a Portland General Electric substation, though details of the attack were unavailable. (Most of the utilities, understandably, were tight-lipped about the incidents.) However, records indicate the attack managed to disrupt electricity in at least some areas of Clackamas County: The county’s computer systems were knocked offline.
The BPA specialist’s memo also referenced “several attacks on various substations,” recently in Western Washington, “including setting the control houses on fire, forced entry and sabotage of intricate electrical control systems, causing short circuits by tossing chains across the overhead buswork, and ballistic attack with small caliber firearms.”
Attacking the power grid was central to at least one known neo-Nazi terrorism plot in the region: A group of Marines who moved to Idaho from North Carolina tried to set up a terror cell that would conduct assassinations and other criminal acts targeting “leftists” and the government, using attacks on the Pacific Northwest power grid as their primary tool. In a propaganda video, the members of the neo-Nazi organization, which called itself “BSN,” could be seen practicing with firearms in the vicinity of high-power transmission lines.
The FBI memo obtained by KUOW and OPB points to the increasing interest in attacking electrical infrastructure by neo-Nazis and other far-right accelerationists who see themselves as the vanguard of a larger attack on democracy.
“The individuals of concern believe that an attack on electrical infrastructure will contribute to their ideological goal of causing societal collapse and a subsequent race war in the United States,” according to an FBI memo obtained by KUOW and OPB.
“We're in a real wave of domestic extremist violence right now that's been increasing for several years,” Georgetown law professor Mary McCord told KUOW/OPB. She explained that extremist groups aren’t particular about who carries out the attacks, so long as they are happening.
“People might not know whether a particular attack on a power station or a power grid was part of an ideologically motivated plot or was just done for criminal purposes,” McCord said. “White supremacists and others who are seeking to advance their own causes for ideological reasons can use that to advance their purported goals of causing chaos, undermining the government, undermining general stability.”
Tens of thousands of North Carolinians in Moore County were left without power and under a state of emergency in early December after two substations were reportedly damaged “intentionally” by gunfire. The outage is being investigated by authorities as a “criminal occurrence.”
During a press conference the day after the attack, Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields said of the incident, “It was targeted, it wasn’t random. The person, or persons, who did this knew exactly what they were doing,”
Probably not coincidentally, power in the state went out at the same time as a significant number of protestors arrived at a drag show in downtown Southern Pines, North Carolina. The show finished early due to the outage, The Pilot reports.
The circumstances of the attacks on the substations—including the fact that two of them were disabled by gunfire directed precisely at targets that would bring down the grid, indicating possible coordinated action and the likelihood of more than one perpetrator, as well as their timing at around the same time as a scheduled drag queen show that drew far-right protesters—certainly point in the direction of domestic terrorism.
Researcher Joshua Fisher-Birch of the Counter Extremism Project told KUOW/OPB that the some extremists were energized by the attacks in North Carolina and those in the Northwest.
“The recent substation attacks have been spoken about in glowing terms by certain members of the extreme right, particularly by neo-Nazi accelerationists and white supremacist accelerationists who subscribe to this ideology where they want to push chaos,” Fisher-Birch said.
A manual describing how to attack power substations—identifying what facilities and which pieces of equipment to target—has been circulating widely in far-right forums since last summer. As Eric Ward of the Western States Center observed to KUOW/OPB, the manuals are designed to invoke crude video games, and even tap into cosplay subculture.
“White nationalists have tapped into gaming and ‘cosplay’ in order to convince individuals that what they’re engaging in is nothing more than play and gaming,” Ward said. “It downplays the real consequences.”
One reason to suspect these extremist manuals as a source of motivation for the attacks is that a number of the physical attacks have featured certain targeted pieces of equipment that are also identified in those manuals as to knocking out power. The techniques used in June by the Morton substation attacker appear to have been incorporated in several of the other Northwest attacks later on. At least two of the 15 attacks in the Northwest also involved firearms.
Federal authorities in the West have taken an intense interest in the attacks in no small part because the region has been a hotspot for intentional damage to electrical infrastructure, as well as interest in targeting, suggested by the Idaho gang’s assassination plot. As KUOW/OPB notes: “The western grid, serving 11 western states and the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, has had more vandalism, sabotage, and physical attacks reported in the first eight months of 2022 than the rest of North America combined.”