Report: Mayhem, Murder, and Misdirection: Violent Extremist Attack Plots Against Critical Infrastructure in the United States, 2016-2022

 


Executive Summary

In their attempts to use violent force against civilian targets to achieve political aims, violent extremists of all backgrounds frequently choose critical infrastructure systems as targets. In the United States, a wide-reaching swath of sectors of the U.S. economy are considered critical infrastructure, from energy and transportation to agriculture and public health. Because the disruption of critical infrastructure sectors would, by the very nature of the targets in question, impede “business as usual” for large parts of American society and the U.S. government, extremists of varying ideological backgrounds who seek to accomplish this aim tend to view critical infrastructure as an attractive target.

The two types of actors at the forefront of these types of planning are domestic violent extremists (DVE) and homegrown violent extremists (HVE). Despite having different ideological goals, white supremacists and Salafi-jihadists have placed critical infrastructure as a top target contenders within the last six years.

This report investigated 94 cases of white supremacists and Salafi-jihadists charged between 2016 and 2022 for plotting to conduct violent extremist attacks in the U.S. Of the 35 cases targeting critical infrastructure systems, the report found that:

  • 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.