“Death to the Grid”: Ideological Narratives and Online Community Dynamics in Encouraging Far-Right Extremist Attacks on Critical Infrastructure
Since 2020, a discernible surge in extreme far-right attacks has been observed on critical infrastructure across North America, Europe, and Australasia. This emerging trend represents an attempt at strategic diversification by individuals and groups affiliated with the extreme far-right. The movement appears increasingly focused on disrupting critical infrastructure — particularly, electric grids and telecommunication systems—to foment political and societal chaos in pursuit of their ideological objectives. This article assesses the pivotal role of online interactions surrounding infrastructure-related extremist content on digital platforms, alongside ideological narratives, in facilitating radicalisation and the uptick in infrastructure attacks.
In February 2023, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) voiced growing concerns about the continued threat of attacks on the country’s critical infrastructure by violent domestic extremists, particularly from the extreme far-right. This warning came amidst a series of attacks and foiled plots on electrical and telecommunication infrastructure in the country. In late 2022, numerous reports surfaced of targeted attacks on electrical facilities in five states, with incidents in North Carolina and Washington, leading to extensive power outages affecting thousands of people. While these instances may not be definitively attributed to the far-right, DHS intelligence officials have raised the possibility of future copycat attacks from the extreme far-right.
A notable development was the arrest of two American neo-Nazis, Brandon Russell and Sara Clendaniel, in February 2023. Both were detained and charged with conspiring to attack an electrical substation in Baltimore, Maryland. Russell, a founding member of the Atomwaffen Division (AWD) , along with Clendaniel, had devised plans to illicitly acquire rifles and attack multiple electrical substations with the intention of causing widespread destruction in pursuit of their white supremacist goals.
The gravity of these developments, with the potential to cause extensive societal disruption and devastation, has increasingly prompted Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (PCVE) scholars to shed light on the far-right’s alarming shift towards focusing on critical infrastructure.
This shift can be attributed to two factors analysed in this article. First, the role of ideological narratives in underpinning these attacks.  More specifically, militant accelerationism has been propagated and adopted by a wide range of far-right extremist movements to advocate for infrastructure attacks. Colin Clarke et al, for instance, argues that the proliferation and mainstreaming of accelerationist far-right ideologies, which often intersect with conspiratorial and disinformation narratives, played a critical role in the elevation of critical infrastructure as a prime target.
Second, this article will examine the role of online community dynamics within far-right extremist groups in facilitating the consumption of infrastructure-focused extremist ideology towards the intended outcome of radicalisation.
While existing literature acknowledges the influence of digital platforms in propagating these ideologies, the mere online dissemination of extremist ideologies and conspiratorial disinformation narratives is insufficient in explaining the present allure of and shift towards infrastructure attacks. Rather, the extreme far-right’s strategic expansion to include critical infrastructure attacks should be understood as a convergence between ideological narratives and online community dynamics. Specifically, online community dynamics serves as a medium through which infrastructure-focused extremist ideological narratives is both amplified and interpreted, thereby influencing the current trajectory of the far-right’s violent pursuit of infrastructure attacks.
The Rise in Far-Right Extremist Attacks on Critical Infrastructure
The recent wave of critical infrastructure attacks across Western societies can be traced back to 2020, coinciding with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising prominence of the extreme far-right. Europol’s 2023 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report reveals a persistent advocacy for attacks and sabotage on 5G infrastructure by segments of the far-right driven by COVID-19 conspiracy theories in Europe. Adherents of these groups, convinced of the supposed public health risks and potential for mass control posed by the official responses to the pandemic, had carried out over 100 documented attacks, primarily arson, on cellular towers across Europe by the end of 2020.
As recently as June 2023, two UK Covid-19 conspiracy theorists, Christine Grayson and Darren Reynolds, were convicted of plotting to destroy 5G masts and encouraging the lynching of politicians. The duo believed that 5G masts were a “weapon array” aimed at the vaccinated population, and had engaged in online discussions proposing various methods of destruction. However, the attacks on critical infrastructure in Europe extend beyond the far-right COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, encompassing far-right white supremacists.
Parallel developments are notable in the United States. According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), the number of direct physical attacks on electrical grids has increased by 77% in 2022 from the previous year. In relation to infrastructure attacks linked with the far-right, a recent report from George Washington University’s Programme on Extremism found that there was a significant increase in plots orchestrated by far-right extremists specifically targeting electrical facilities between 2016 and 2022. Of these, 11 out of 13 perpetrators were charged after 2020.
In addition to the recent Russell and Clendaniel case, there have been other instances of foiled far-right plots aimed at infrastructure. In January 2020, three members of the neo-Nazi group The Base—Brian Lemley Jr., Patrik Mathews, and William Bilbrough IV—were arrested for planning to destabilise the US government by disrupting rail lines and targeting power infrastructure.
Likewise, Australia and New Zealand have faced threats against their 5G infrastructure from far-right COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, leading to reported 5 and 17 attacks in 2020, respectively. Furthermore, instances of far-right plots to attack electrical infrastructure were evident. In March 2020, 21-year-old neo-Nazi sympathiser Joshua Lucas was arrested and charged for planning to attack an electrical substation in New South Wales, Australia. He was discovered attempting and planning to acquire military equipment, including firearms and materials to make improvised explosive devices.
The Role of Far-Right Extremist Ideology in Encouraging Critical Infrastructure Attacks
This apparent rise in critical infrastructure attacks is caused in part by the proliferation and mainstreaming of far-right extremist ideology— specifically, militant accelerationism— which advocates for such attacks as a means of achieving ideological goals. This trend is recognised by the aforementioned Europol report, which highlighted ongoing online efforts by far-right extremist groups to spread accelerationist propaganda that not only endorses but also provides instructions for large-scale attacks on critical infrastructure.
Accelerationism, as defined by Jade Parker, refers to an “ideologically agnostic doctrine of violent and non-violent actions taken to exploit contradictions intrinsic to a political system to ‘accelerate’ its destruction through the friction caused by its features.” In the context of far-right extremism, accelerationism is predominantly conceived in its militant form, where the belief emphasises the necessity of widespread acts of violence to hasten the collapse of the current ‘corrupted’ political system (i.e., liberal democracies). In turn, this paves the way for the realisation of a desired white ethno-state.
One of the many violent acts advocated by far-right militant accelerationists is the deliberate targeting of critical infrastructure. Specifically, given the large number of potential targets and ease of access, far-right militant accelerationists perceive critical infrastructures as ‘easier’ targets, believing that damaging them could set off a chain reaction to distract and overwhelm security forces, allowing them to begin their takeover.
A notable proponent of militant accelerationism among the extreme far-right is Terrorgram, a loose network of white supremacist Telegram channels and accounts dedicated to advocating and propagating militant accelerationism. With reportedly over 200 public channels, Terrorgram represents “a major online hub for contemporary violent extremist” having shared propaganda materials produced by Atomwaffen and the Base, as well as manifestos of previous far-right shooters such as Brenton Tarrant and Dylann Roof, whom they glorify as “saints”. It is also known for publishing and distributing their own manifestos such as Hard Reset and Militant Accelerationism, which provided ideological rationale, calls to action and instructions for conducting attacks such as targeting of critical infrastructure.
Another advocator of militant accelerationist is far-right internet influencer Mike Mahoney, also known as Mike Ma. Ma had gained prominence, especially among eco-fascists, for establishing the Pike Tree Movement in 2017 and authoring several accelerationist-themed fictional novels such as Harassment Architecture and Gothic Violence. Blending elements of Ted Kaczynski’s anti-technology environmentalism with militant accelerationist white supremacism, Mike Ma and the Pine Tree Movement advocate for the use of violence to safeguard nature as a means of promoting the advancement of the white race.
Aside from promoting unbridled mass shootings, Ma also promoted the targeting of critical infrastructure as a means of expediting the destabilisation of the American government and society. This was evident in his book Harassment Architecture, where he issued instructions in the guise of a warning: “do not cover your face and destroy the many and largely unprotected power stations and cell towers.”
Given the ongoing online efforts of far-right groups and figures to promote militant accelerationism, it should come as no surprise that some of the COVID-19 conspiracists and white supremacists involved in infrastructure attacks displayed signs of being influenced by militant accelerationism ideology. For instance, in the Grayson and Reynolds Covid-19 conspiracy theorist case, Reynolds was discovered sharing a link in his Telegram group leading to a far-right literature depository that included the manifestos of previous far-right shooters.
Reynold’s exposure to the writings of militant accelerationists and his reiteration of their ideas in a Telegram post in which he lamented the futility of nonviolent protests and called for violent action against the political establishment strongly indicate that he was influenced by militant accelerationism. Likewise, the case of the US neo-Nazi trio showed signs of being influenced by militant accelerationism.
This influence was evident not merely from their affiliation with The Base, a well-known promoter of militant accelerationism and an associate of Terrorgram, but also through their discussions of accelerationist tactics such as causing disruptions to transportation (e.g., railway and highway sabotage) and electrical systems.
The Role of Online Community Dynamics in Encouraging Critical Infrastructure Attacks
Specifically, by facilitating the acceptance of militant accelerationist ideology, online community dynamics have contributed to the promotion of critical infrastructure attacks as viable and desirable strategies within the extreme far-right community.
An examination of the events preceding Russell and Clendaniel’s plot to target an electrical substation reveals two plausible patterns of online community dynamics: (1) the influence of far-right online influencers; and (2) the influence of peer-to-peer encouragement.
An investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that Russell, using various pseudonyms, played an active role online as a “white-power propagandist and organiser.” Specifically, he was discovered promoting accelerationist propaganda, which advocates for critical infrastructure attacks, and even explicitly called for such attacks across numerous Telegram groups. Apart from acting as a propagandist, Russell was found participating in a ‘casual’ capacity as a member of the far-right online community.
The Influence of Far-right Online Influencers
Far-right online influencers— by cultivating close parasocial relationships with their online followers— can strategically position themselves to shape their followers’ views and mobilise them in support of their extremist ideological agenda. Here, parasocial relationships refer to a one-sided, non-reciprocal relationship that an online user develops with a far-right influencer, which creates the illusion of real-life interactions that could foster identification with the influencer and generate a sense of intimacy. As posited by Sophia Rothut et al., the “persuasive effect” of far-right influencers is dependent on the strength of the parasocial relationship they develop with their followers.
Specifically, far-right influencers can cultivate close parasocial relationships with their followers through their online prominence (i.e., consistent production and/or dissemination of extremist content) and their sustained online interaction with the community (i.e., direct/indirect engagement with followers). In other words, their extensive online presence and active community engagement, can serve as a catalyst to effectively persuade followers to adopt extremist ideas and beliefs, including by leveraging the trust that these followers place in them.
For example, Mike Ma’s eminence in the online far-right community, to the extent that his novels are now acknowledged as indispensable literature for proponents of militant accelerationism, is arguably linked to his adeptness in nurturing parasocial relationships with his followers. In 2020, Mike had built a significant online presence, garnering 20,000 Instagram followers, where he regularly published posts encouraging his followers to reject governmental authority and implicitly advocate for armed violence. Ma also acknowledged and showcased his followers’ support by posting Instagram stories highlighting them engaging with his books, among others.
Hence, it is unsurprising that even after Ma’s Instagram account was suspended, an eco-accelerationist Telegram channel analysed by this author continued to share PDF files, audiobooks and quotes of Ma’s novels, often accompanied by violent imagery associated with white supremacism and militant accelerationism.
Similarly, some Terrorgram affiliates, aside from their consistent propaganda production, frequently attempt to forge parasocial relationships with and influence their online followers. This includes by responding to significant events and developments such as certain infrastructure related attacks. For example, following the substation attacks in Moore County, North Carolina, several Terrorgram-affiliated posts centred on various themes were shared in a militant accelerationist Telegram group observed by the author.
While most posts applauded the perpetrators for “daring to strike back against the American System” and implicitly encouraged others to follow suit, others appeared to address a community-wide divisive debate centred around the effectiveness of shootings versus sabotage. In one instance, a Terrogram affiliate was observed emphasising the need to appreciate the “TACTICAL DIVERSITY present across White Terror attacks,” as well as asserting that “[b]oth strategies— mass casualty attacks AND sabotage attacks on critical infrastructure— are effective and indeed necessary to achieve our goal.”
The Influence of Peer-to-Peer Encouragement
Peer-to-peer encouragement emerges within a trusting online environment fostered by like-minded far-right adherents socialising over shared interests. In some instances, it may compel individuals to align their beliefs and identities with those of their radicalised peers. By integrating Social Identity Theory (SIT), Anders Strindberg explained how normative conformity, or the internalisation of radical ideas and beliefs, often develops through direct peer-to-peer relations with other in-group members who frequently share with others the appropriate way to think and operate.
In particular, he emphasised how individuals who consider themselves as “peripheral members” within a community are frequently pressured to adhere to the norms of the in-group and may turn into a “zealous extremist” who attempt to exemplify the community’s extremist values and beliefs to demonstrate their loyalty. Similarly, Alexandra Evans and Heather Williams explain in the context of online extremist communities how such peer-to-peer influence to conform to the in-group occurs through participation in online echo chambers, where like-minded individuals can discourage the consideration of alternative views and instead encourage the adoption of more extreme views and practises.
An example of the influence of peer-to-peer encouragement was evident in an eco-accelerationist Telegram group surveyed by this author. In this group, members were observed exchanging accelerationist content, which included manifestos from previous shooters and publications from Terrorgram advocating for infrastructure attacks. Additionally, tactical manuals for crafting homemade weapons and explosives like thermite were shared among the members.
However, this sharing was not confined to mere dissemination; instead, it frequently evolved into active discussions where members exchanged their views and thoughts regarding the content. For instance, when a user shared a poster and manifesto of the Bratislava shooter, several users celebrated the shooter’s actions, while another admitted that it was their first-time hearing about him.
In a recent case involving three American men who pleaded guilty for giving material support to terrorism in February 2022, it appears that peer-to-peer relationships had a significant impact. Mirroring the aforementioned case of Russell, the trio—Christopher Cook, Jonathan Frost, and Matthew Sawall—planned to employ high-powered rifles in attacking electrical substations across the US, aiming to incite civil unrest as a means of furthering their accelerationist white supremacist cause. Notably, Frost and Cook first met through an online chat group, where Frost first proposed the idea of targeting power grids to Cook.
Following this, the pair initiated online recruitment—by distributing a list of white supremacist and neo-Nazi readings—to draw individuals into their scheme. Frost’s initial online interaction with Cook underscores how peer-to-peer encouragement plays a pivotal role in attracting similarly-minded individuals towards radicalisation, and in some instances leading to the embrace of critical infrastructure attacks for realising their ideological objectives.
To summarise, understanding the extreme far-right’s strategic orientation towards critical infrastructure attacks necessitates a dual understanding of both ideological narratives and the influence dynamics within online communities. Examining ideological narratives in isolation falls short of providing a complete picture, as the role of online communities in interpreting and disseminating these ideologies is crucial. While accelerationist narratives may wield influence over various far-right extremist movements, it is the online community dynamics that reveal the mechanism by which these narratives take root and flourish.
Moving forward, effective policy recommendations and strategic measures must go beyond a narrow ideological focus. Instead, policymakers and security agencies should prioritise investigating the online relationships that bind perpetrators to their communities, elucidating the precise mechanisms that steer them towards specific strategies. Only through this comprehensive lens can we gain a better understanding of radicalisation and its subsequent manifestations, fostering a more informed and proactive approach to countering extremist activities.
About the Author
Saddiq Basha is a Research Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at [email protected].
Thumbnail photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
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 The Atomwaffen Division (AWD), also known as the National Socialist Order (NSO) since July 2020, is an accelerationist neo-Nazi militant organisation based in the United States with affiliates around the world. AWD promotes the use of violence to overthrow the US government, incite a race war, and establish a new society based on national socialism and white supremacism.
 United States Department of Justice, ‘Maryland Woman and Florida Man Charged Federally for Conspiring to Destroy Energy Facilities’, United States Department of Justice, 6 February 2023, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/maryland-woman-and-florida-man-charged-federally-conspiring-destroy-energy-facilities.
 Recent reports on critical infrastructure attacks have primarily focused on their link to militant accelerationism and inspiration from previous right-wing terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik. For more on the role of accelerationist ideology, see The Soufan Center, ‘IntelBrief: Far-Right Extremists Continue Obsession with Targeting Critical Infrastructure’, The Soufan Center (blog), 10 February 2023, https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-2023-february-10/; Clarke et al., ‘The Targeting of Infrastructure by America’s Violent Far-Right’.
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 ‘EU Countries Sound Alarm about Growing Anti-5G Movement’, POLITICO (blog), 19 October 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-needs-plan-to-counter-anti-5g-movement-capitals-say/.
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 For instance, in May 2022, a 22-year-old Slovak adhering to white supremacist ideologies was arrested for inciting government overthrow and disseminating online guides for producing automatic firearms, explosives, and conducting sabotage on critical infrastructure. See ‘Slovak and Czech Authorities Take Action against Right-Wing Terrorism’, European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, accessed 6 August 2023, https://www.eurojust.europa.eu/news/slovak-and-czech-authorities-take-action-against-right-wing-terrorism.
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 Jade Parker, ‘Accelerationism in America: Threat Perceptions’, GNET (blog), 4 February 2020, https://gnet-research.org/2020/02/04/accelerationism-in-america-threat-perceptions/.
 Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Samuel Hodgson, and Colin Clarke, ‘The Growing Threat Posed by Accelerationism and Accelerationist Groups Worldwide – Foreign Policy Research Institute’, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 20 April 2020, https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/04/the-growing-threat-posed-by-accelerationism-and-accelerationist-groups-worldwide/.
 Krill and Clifford, ‘Mayhem, Murder, and Misdirection: Violent Extremist Attack Plots Against Critical Infrastructure in the United States, 2016-2022’, 3–9.
 Matthew Kriner and Bjørn Ihler, ‘Analysing Terrorgram Publications: A New Digital Zine’, GNET (blog), 12 September 2022, https://gnet-research.org/2022/09/12/analysing-terrorgram-publications-a-new-digital-zine/.
 Jacob Davey et al., ‘A Taxonomy for the Classification of Post-Organisational Violent & Terrorist Content’ Institute for Strategic Dialogue (2021): 27.
 In their analysis of Terrogram’s Hard Reset, Matthew Kriner and Bjørn Ihler highlighted how the manifesto was heavily focused on infrastructure attacks, with 47 pages out of 261 promoting it as the best for attacks. For instance, within a segment dedicated to electrical infrastructure, the Hard Reset not only underscored the historical effectiveness of disrupting power grids during wartime and how it “will drive the masses in to [sic] panic”, but also provided detailed instructions for sabotaging power lines and transformers respectively. See Matthew Kriner and Bjørn Ihler, ‘Analysing Terrorgram Publications: A New Digital Zine’, GNET (blog), 12 September 2022, https://gnet-research.org/2022/09/12/analysing-terrorgram-publications-a-new-digital-zine/
 Ardian Shajkovci, ‘Eco-Fascist “Pine Tree Party” Growing as a Violent Extremism Threat’, Homeland Security Today (blog), 27 September 2020, https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/eco-fascist-pine-tree-party-growing-as-a-violent-extremism-threat/.
 Ted Kaczynski, also known as the “Unabomber”, is an American domestic terrorist who holds the belief that the industrial-technological society is beyond reform and can only be dismantled through violent revolution. His acts of terrorism have been celebrated by both eco-fascists and far-right accelerationists, inspiring the likes of the Atomwaffen Division and Anders Breivik.
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 Mike Ma, Harassment Architecture, 2019, 28.
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 Duncan Gardham, ‘Conspiracy Theorists Dubbed “Bonnie and Clyde” Guilty of Plotting to Destroy 5G Masts and Encouraging Attacks on MPs’.
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 Hannah Gais and Jason Wilson, ‘Leaked Chats, Documents Show Atomwaffen Founder’s Path to Terror Plot’, Southern Poverty Law Center, 23 February 2023, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2023/02/23/leaked-chats-documents-show-atomwaffen-founders-path-terror-plot.
 Gais and Jason Wilson.
 For instance, Russell engaged in discussions with members of the Australian far-right Telegram group “Australian Meditations 51,” where topics included the 1992 Australian film Romper Stomper, depicting the activities and decline of a violent neo-Nazi group in Melbourne. Additionally, Russell attempted to befriend an online user, later revealed to be an FBI informant, who was provided with accelerationist publications and introduced to Clendaniel for planning attacks on Maryland substations. See Joey Watson, ‘US Neo-Nazi Accused of Sniper Plot Appears to Have Shared Instructions with Australian Far-Right Figures’, The Guardian, 16 April 2023, sec. Australia news, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/apr/17/us-neo-nazi-accused-of-sniper-plot-appears-to-have-shared-instructions-with-australian-far-right-figures; Gais and Jason Wilson, ‘Leaked Chats, Documents Show Atomwaffen Founder’s Path to Terror Plot’.Top of Form
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 Ardian Shajkovci, ‘Eco-Fascist “Pine Tree Party” Growing as a Violent Extremism Threat’; Alex Amend, ‘Blood and Vanishing Topsoil’, Political Research Associates, 9 July 2020, https://politicalresearch.org/2020/07/09/blood-and-vanishing-topsoil.
 Based on ICPVTR’s research.
 Based on ICPVTR’s research.
 Anders Strindberg, ‘Social Identity Theory and the Study of Terrorism and Violent Extremism’, Totalförsvarets Forskningsinstitut (FOI), December 2020, 49.
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 Alexandra T. Evans and Heather J. Williams, How Extremism Operates Online: A Primer, RAND Perspective A1458-2 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2022), 8–9.
 ‘Three Men Plead Guilty to Conspiring to Provide Material Support to a Plot to Attack Power Grids in the United States’, The United States Department of Justice, 23 February 2022, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/three-men-plead-guilty-conspiring-provide-material-support-plot-attack-power-grids-united.