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The Intifada

Who is behind the attacks on the power stations in Moore County, North Carolina?

Work in progress to repair a substation in Moore County, North Carolina. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

Somebody knows who is behind the attacks on the power stations in Moore County, North Carolina, that have left thousands without electricity—but I don’t know, you probably don’t know, nobody in the media knows, and, if the police or intelligence agencies know, they aren’t ready to say yet. The usual advice against uninformed speculation applies here. 

We have seen attacks on power stations from across the political spectrum. The most recent prominent case was that of a white supremacist group whose members planned to carry out attacks very much like the one that was executed in North Carolina—rifle attacks on electrical stations—at several sites across the country. In February, three members of the group were convicted on terrorism-related charges. From the Justice Department:

“The defendants in this case wanted to attack regional power substations and expected the damage would lead to economic distress and civil unrest,” said Assistant Director Timothy Langan of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. “These individuals wanted to carry out such a plot because of their adherence to racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist views.”

In the Moore County case, law-enforcement sources have reported that more than a dozen shell cases from “high-powered” rifles have been discovered at the scene, though Julie Smith, the communications director for nearby Guilford County who is helping out Moore County during this crisis, declined to say what exactly “high-powered” means in this case. “The investigation is ongoing, so we can’t release those details at this time,” she said.

In the earlier plot, the would-be terrorists planned to use semiautomatic rifles chambered in for the 7.62 x 39mm round typically associated with the infamous AK-47 rifle, though in this case the firearms were the more common AR-pattern rifles made at home from so-called 80-percent receivers bought online.

Federal officials have documented similar attacks in Washington and Oregon according to a law-enforcement memo first published by NewsNation. 

There have been left-wing plots to attack power facilities, notably the 1990 plan by Earth First! members to sabotage the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona. Eco-terrorism took off in the early 1970s directly after the first Earth Day celebration—there were attacks on mining and construction projects, while the “Bolt Weevils” attacked electrical infrastructure in Minnesota—but that kind of terrorism has mostly petered out in the United States, though episodes do pop up from time to time. In 2008, eco-anarchist Eric McDavid was convicted of plotting a range of bombing attacks on infrastructure including power stations. In that same year, the FBI estimated the eco-terror attacks had inflicted about $200 million in damage over the previous five years.

In September, the unfortunately acronymed NCITE—the National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology, and Education Center—released a report titled, “Mayhem, Murder, and Misdirection: Violent Extremist Attack Plots Against Critical Infrastructure in the United States, 2016-2022.” 

In that report, authors Ilana Krill and Bennett Clifford reported that there had been

94 cases of individuals charged in the U.S. federal court system from 2016 to 2022 with planning to conduct violent extremist attacks, 35 of whom attempted to attack critical infrastructure systems. 19 of these cases are associated with the Salafi-jihadist movement; 16 are associated with white supremacist groups. Evaluating these cases, the report finds: 

• Salafi-jihadist attack planners were significantly more likely to consider critical infrastructure systems as targets for attack than their white supremacist counterparts. 

• Salafi-jihadist and white supremacist attack planners attempted to target different critical infrastructure sectors, with the former focusing on the commercial facilities, government facilities, and emergency services sectors, and the latter predominantly focusing on the energy sector. 

• Since 2019, white supremacist attacks plots against critical infrastructure systems have distinctly increased. 

• Between 2016 and 2022, white supremacist plots targeting energy systems dramatically increased in frequency. 13 individuals associated with the movement were arrested and charged in federal court with planning attacks on the energy sector; 11 of these attack planners were charged after 2020. 

• The rise of accelerationist ideology and doctrine during the past decade likely fueled the increased risk of attack plots within white supremacist milieus targeting critical infrastructure, and the energy sector in particular.

“Accelerationist,” for those of you lucky enough not to be neck-deep in this stuff, refers to an ideology with its roots in Marxism adopted by far-right groups in the United States, holding that the country is headed toward a civil war and that this should be encouraged—accelerated—rather than prevented. The “boogaloo” movement is an example of this tendency. Attacks on infrastructure figure prominently in the strategic thinking (and, more often, the fantasies) of these groups. 

The collapse of technological civilization and a return to a pre-industrial, yeoman-farmer/citizen-soldier lifestyle has long been a key obsession of the far right and, in particular, its survivalist subset. The attraction of that storyline is obvious—it is Revelation and Genesis all at once, a fiery day of judgment and a return to the garden of innocence. James Wesley, Rawles (he styles his name with a comma for eccentric reasons) is the Ernest Hemingway of American survivalist literature, the author of Patriots, Founders, Liberators, Survivors, Expatriates, and other novels (I have read most of them) that are part thriller and part ideological project, seeking to push the survivalist world past its ugly history of racism and antisemitism (sympathetic nonwhite and Jewish characters play central roles in many of his stories) and toward his own blend of not-entirely-orthodox Christianity, libertarianism, and constitutionalism. There are some variations in the storylines, but throughout his œuvre—and the survivalist genre more broadly—there is a sense that the varied civilization-ending catastrophes are, in the final analysis, welcome, even if nobody is willing to quite say so aloud—the civilization-ending part is the attraction, in spite of the associated death and suffering. 

Lots of politicians talk about “revolution”—Donald Trump, to be sure, but also Bernie Sanders and his ilk. Some of their followers and sympathizers take them seriously. And a fair number of would-be revolutionaries were already in the game years before our particular moment of irresponsible, quasi-revolutionary populism. 

We do not know whether the attacks in Moore County are part of a rightist intifada in the United States, but we do know that such an intifada is under way, mostly at a simmer but sometimes boiling over: January 6, various rightist-oriented terror attacks and mass shootings, the Oath Keepers, the plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, El Paso, efforts to nullify elections when they are lost by the likes of Kari Lake, attempts to recruit law-enforcement agencies (the “constitutional sheriffs” et al.) into various schemes, etc. 

There almost certainly is no man behind the curtain directing all this—certainly not Donald Trump, whose organizational skills, if we take prosecutors’ word for it, were maxed out at clumsy tax fraud. This is instead a classic example of the “leaderless resistance” model advocated by white-power groups in the 20th century and embraced by other extremist organizations over the years. There is no Boogaloo Boys Central Committee, individual Proud Boys sets seem to operate largely independent of one another or any notional national organization on the street-gang model, etc. Most of the people associated with these movements are social media poseurs, but some are street brawlers, and a few have military or law enforcement backgrounds and the elevated technical capabilities that generally go along with such experience. But there isn’t a central command, which means that there isn’t a paper trail and that there isn’t some possible informer who knows where all the bodies are buried. It’s a text message here, a meme there, a pre-massacre manifesto posted on some social media platform, etc. 

The “leaderless resistance” model makes these groups more difficult to monitor and police than, say, traditional organized-crime syndicates, with their definite hierarchies and systematic approach to illegal activity. That, of course, is the whole idea: When the white supremacist Brüder Schweigen ended up on the federal radar thanks to the murder of radio personality Alan Berg in 1984, its members and sympathizers simply melted into adjacent organizations, the flavors of which ran from traditional Ku Klux Klan racism to Mormon fundamentalism to the long-lived crackpottery of Posse Comitatus. These organizations typically come and go very quickly, though some names get repurposed over the years. The white power groups you’ve heard of that have lasted for many years typically are first and foremost crime syndicates, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, which is principally a drug-trafficking and inmate-prostitution outfit with a very minor sideline in neo-Nazi affectations that many of the group’s members take quite lightly. But even with the mafias, the organizational questions get complicated: The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, for example, is not affiliated with the more famous Aryan Brotherhood.

We do not yet know how Moore County fits into this, if it does at all. But we should not let what we don’t know blind us to what we do know.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.