What was the objective?

April 16, 2013 there was an attack on communications in the area near San Jose California. Minutes later there was an attack on a electrical power substation.

Stories on the events are here:

The WSJ February 5 version is the most complete. But it requires a subscription. Some of the most insightful information comes from this article, such as:

“This wasn’t an incident where Billy-Bob and Joe decided, after a few brewskis, to come in and shoot up a substation,” Mark Johnson, retired vice president of transmission for PG&E, told the utility security conference, according to a video of his presentation. “This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components.”

Mr. Wellinghoff, then chairman of FERC, said that after he heard about the scope of the attack, he flew to California, bringing with him experts from the U.S. Navy’s Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center in Virginia, which trains Navy SEALs. After walking the site with PG&E officials and FBI agents, Mr. Wellinghoff said, the military experts told him it looked like a professional job.
In addition to fingerprint-free shell casings, they pointed out small piles of rocks, which they said could have been left by an advance scout to tell the attackers where to get the best shots.
“They said it was a targeting package just like they would put together for an attack,” Mr. Wellinghoff said.

Ry stopped by my office today to discuss something else and we talked about it some. Ry has friends “everywhere”. One of his friends works for one of the companies that owned some of the fiber optic cables which were cut. Indications are the perpetrators had inside knowledge about the communication system.

There have been no arrests to date. The entire operation shows good planning, execution, and post operation discipline at keeping their mouths shut.

But, as Ry repeatedly asked me this morning, what was the end goal? They didn’t really accomplish anything. Power was rerouted and there wasn’t a significant power outage. They knocked out the substation for a month but “so what?”

Ubu52 trolls with:

To me, this sounds more like one of these Patriot militias trying to start something than it does anything else. So where are the rest of the people just itching for a civil war?

Yeah. Right. And how would attacking infrastructure used by everyone help their cause? These weren’t stupid people. Next?

Mark Johnson, quoted above in the WSJ is also quoted in Foreign Policy as saying:

My personal view is that this was a dress rehearsal.

I’m skeptical. If it was a dress rehearsal then why wait so long for the main event? And it wasn’t exactly a ‘dry’ run. A successful dry run would have been undetected. This was not intended to be undetected.

The dominate speculation on the gun email list at work is foreign terrorists.

Maybe. But why not follow it up with similar attacks? It’s been nearly a year now. Does it take that long to train and coordinate a dozen teams to take down a multi-state region?

An additional reason I’m skeptical of any hypothesis of it being a dress rehearsal is that I would think they would have “burned the bridge” to their inside knowledge of the security communications with that attack. They would assume that coupon would expire within a month or two after they used it. The hardening of the electrical power substations to attacks is much more difficult than hardening the communications vaults and plugging information leaks. They would have to do the “live show” within a week or two to use the same methods as in this attack.

I proposed the following two hypothesizes to Ry which he didn’t immediately shoot down:

  1. They had something additional planned but the power didn’t go out in the target area like they figured it would so the end goal was not attempted.
  2. Proof of capability for an extortion demand but they very nearly got caught, were spooked, and chickened out on following through.

It is interesting stuff regardless of the objective.

Update: See also the Infogalactic entry.


58 thoughts on “What was the objective?

  1. Hypothesis 3: They figured out what they needed to know and someone in charge didn’t want those knowledgeable to know any more.

    Hypothesis D: Mapping what they took out with what they thought they knew.

    Though both are similar to the dry run theory.

    • Ry sort of suggested this as well. But the goal would be to send everyone back to the days of being “one with nature” for a month?

      I’ll going to be needing some more convincing on this one.

          • Not always. There was some demo of some electric distribution lines and the Vail lodge fire that they didn’t take credit for.

  2. One reason I read why it wasn’t foreign terrorists is that the foreign guys would have used explosives — and I think they are right.

    To me, this points to a “3 Percenter” attack, the kind we were discussing in the other thread. The kind that I don’t believe will work. (And it obviously didn’t work in this case.) Or, as someone else put it: “Anti-government self-styled “militias” that think that if they can successfully attack a few government or other infrastructure buildings, everyone else who they assume agrees with them will spontaneously pick up weapons and overthrow the government?”

    Someone (FBI or one of those) probably knows who did this which is why they are poo-pooing the idea. They don’t have good evidence from this particular event so they have to wait for something better.

    • Threeper philosophy is to not initiate direct action. Plus explosives are much more difficult to obtain than rifles and ammunition. Plus explosives would be much more difficult to deploy against this particular target without being caught.

      I obviously can’t completely rule it out but lacking further evidence I think this hypothesis is less credible than it was eco-terrorists who have a significant amount of history of doing similar stuff and keeping their mouths shut afterward.

      • I can’t see eco-terrorists cutting fiber optic cables.

        So you don’t think this was like the “bricks through windows” stunt?

        • You’re likey correct about eco-terrorists — they are FAR more likely to go straight to murder and mayhem than a minor, readily restored, isolated attack on a communications node.

          Frankly, I don’t see most ecoterrorists as being either savvy enough to know what to shoot at, nor as likely to be able to shoot accurately enough to conduct the attack. (There are exceptions, however. . . )

          Still, to address your point about you assume that a foreign terrorist group would obviously just use explosives. . . well, . . . explosives are hard to obtain, EXTREMELY dangerous to make (especially reliable detonators), and even in long-lived radical groups like the IRA and Islamicists, brewing up explosives from scratch (as opposed to merely assembling military grade explosives into devices) tends to be a VERY specialized function, and one kept well isolated from the line dogs in field ops and generally not sent out on TDY assignments outside their known safe zone. They are too valuable to risk, and generally lack the skills and experience of the field types.

          Also, demolitions work is not “shuck a satchel charge from 50 feet away and hit the red blinking button on the radio detonator” you see on the movies. First, satchel charges are fairly heavy. Second, throwing is very imprecise. Third, for this kind of work you would want to use cutting charges, which have to be deliberately and precisely placed. Fourth, who in the heck uses RF detonators if they absolutly do not have to? I’m darned sure not to carry around an fused device that could get accidentally set off by a ham radio operator! (LOL)

          Seriously, an attack with explosives would be far more difficult to arrange logistics for, require precise recconnaisance or intelligence (can you say “engineering drawings”?), and requires not only entry for the recon (if done), but entry for the operation, plenty of undisturbed time on site to emplace the charges in EXACTLY the place you want them, and only fuzing them AFTER they are laid (you know who hurries laying cutting charges? Dead men, that’s who. Well, except pre-made hole charges to take out doors and make doors in walls, but that’s different. . . and they’re bulky. . . 😛 ).

          A demolitions attack is far harder and riskier than a small arms attack. If I was tasked (back when I got paid to break things and hurt people) with conducting that sort of attack with demolitions, I would want

          1. Detailed drawings of the equipment, including both system diagrams and installation drawings. (Failing that, I would want to conduct a completely clandestine recce penetration beforehand. Oh, sure, you can wing it if your blaster knows the equipment in general, but if you want SPECIFIC effects for maximum payoff for minimum effort, it’s best to know exactly what is going where.)

          2. An overwatch team for the main attack, to ensure that my demo guys don’t get disturbed by rude neighbors while working. (This security team would be larger than the assault team, BTW.) Figure that, while you would LIKE to be in and out in under 5 minutes, you’re likely going to have to stick around closer to 15 minutes, and then you still need to get far enough away afterwards to get lost in the weeds BEFORE reinforcements show up.

          OTOH, a ranged attack? Easy-peasy, nice and sleazy. Low risk, potentially high reward, only needs as many people as triggers I want pulled simultaneously.

          • You say explosives are hard to obtain. Joe and others here say they are easy to obtain. Obviously, it can’t be both.

          • I don’t recall saying they are easy to obtain. I did say guns are much easier to obtain than explosives.

            Low grade explosives are relatively easy to make if you can get the chemicals. But the safe ones require permits for the chemicals. Theft is an option but again, guns and ammo are easier and less risky.

          • Ubu, there’s a world of difference between “good enough to blast stumps” and “precision cutting charges”.

            Any damned fool can make a black powder pipe bomb. But he won’t do very effective demolitions with it (and the Boston Marathon shows that it takes more than an Internet search to do it correctly — those devices were WAY less destructive than they could have been, because the nature of the devices was extremely crude and inefficient.)

      • Agreed, Joe. Although, I think SayUncle has a reasonable theory as well — field test of the validity of their systems map.

        Security may well change, but the EQUIPMENT is unlikely to.

  3. General mischief is often an end goal in and of itself. “Takin’ it to the man” and all. Kurt Vonnegut stuff. My first response in hearing this stuff what the sort of thinking that would attack a Humvee dealership or spike trees in a timber sale, Vandalize a bulldozer, etc., and if history is any guide this sort of mindset is the likely candidate here, even though it MIGHT have been a little more sophisticated.

    All the cloak and dagger stuff with the .gov spooks coming up with theories of sophisticated, professional perp stuff reminds me very much of a chapter in Richard P. Feynman’s autobiography– One of the security guards at Los Alamos fired a shot out past the security fence because, as Feynman put it, he saw a rabbit or a coyote moving in the night and got spooked. The story grew and grew as it was passed around in the facility, until they had some super spy sneaking around for weeks and months, such that any subsequent curiosities and whatnots were then attributed to “the guy who tried to break through the fence”.

    The real danger they didn’t consider was Russian sympathizers working side by side with them all along – people they knew and trusted.

    So maybe it was a couple of coincidences of mischief-making and maybe it was a highly planned, sophisticated attack carried out by super secret, highly intelligent, connected foreign terrorists to probe us for our response, or it could be something anywhere in between.

    I wouldn’t leave any spent cases behind, so you know it wasn’t me. “Obviously” it had to be my political enemies, eh, ubu?

    It’s always your political or cultural enemies that did the dirty deed. It could never be one from your own ranks, ’cause that would make you look bad by association.

    As I told a friend about this; in my perfect world there’d never have been any government hand in energy, and so we wouldn’t have A power grid at all, or four or five power grids. There’d be thousands or hundreds of thousands of independent and diverse systems, and so there’d be no major vulnerability there.

    • Lyle, no grid? Seriously? Your no-government-involved situation imples no generator would want to sell their power elsewhere?

  4. Perhaps no “official” arrests were made, but somehow one or more shooters suddenly found themselves at Gitmo on the receiving end of a wet towel and jug of water?

  5. Another possibility that I’ve heard folks put forth is labor union extortion. I believe that there was an ongoing labor dispute at the time between ATT and the communications workers union (not 100% sure of that, need to look that one up).

    Of course, this is doubtful because we all know that organized labor would NEVER do something like sabotage company property in order to extort an extra $5 per hour. Perish the thought.

  6. My theory is that they needed the power and com out at the same time. I would venture that an alarm or security system needed rebooting. So the question is what area was covered by that power station and data line.

  7. Flip Ubu’s suggestion on its head. The groups who recieved the most benefits from terrorist attacks have been law enforcement agencies. “We *needed* more funding to buy APC’s to fight the terrorists!” etc.

    I’m more inclined to Chubbin’s view though. Someone wanted to steal something and cutting power and comm for a bit made that easier. Or had been stealing for some time and were going to get caught unless evidence disappered – think the Argentine bank fire.

  8. It’s possible that the results were not all that the perpetrators had hoped for, and then they abandoned this method and are now working on a different plan.

  9. “Mr. Wellinghoff said, the military experts told him it looked like a professional job”

    Sorry but call BS on that. No professional military planner would try and disable anything like that. It’s easy to make or steal explosives or thermite that would done a much more complete job.

    • A professional by definition is someone who does it for remuneration, and not necessarily someone who’s good at it.

      • Good point. I think a lot of us tend to get lazy and think in terms of “professional” = “expert”.

    • I don’t think explosives or thermite would be the way to go.

      A few guys with compound bows and spools of fine copper wire would be more effective, by shorting out the wires and forcing the protection circuits to kick in immediately, before the operators have time to react. This is the “poor man’s BLU-114/B”, the bomblet we use to drop conductive filaments of carbon on substations to short them out. Shoot arrows with the copper wire attached to them so that the wire falls across the parallel wires, and *ZAP*. In fact, any way to dump a bunch of thin, conductive wires on the substation would be effective.

      • For general destruction of the node, yeah, this is probably a better, more effective, more efficient, safer, easier, and cheaper way to get it done.

      • Um, “fine copper wire” is also known as an electrical fuse. At the voltages and currents in use in even a small substation like this one, even #12 (house wire size) would flash off and they might not even notice back at HQ (though the flash would be very visible onsite). To take down this sort of facility by shorting out the conductors would take some really heavy stuff.
        Incidentally, several years ago one of the enviro-nut groups here in AZ were setting up to do exactly that out at Palo Verde NPS by using a heavy-duty rocket and a big piece of chain (woulda worked if the rocket had been better made)

  10. At some stage in the march of Progressivism, “false flag” needs must be one of the first things that come to mind. I think we’re well into that stage.

  11. To me the dry run explanation makes more sense than anything. Is there really an effective time limit to using the knowledge they gain? What’s the probability that the collection of gov’ts can secure the com links and substations for just the major metro areas in 5 years, much less a year? What’s the probability of doing it for the whole country?

    My other thought is, if one wanted to attack the electrical system, the way to do it is by hitting the high voltage lines. They’re the choke points for the entire distribution system and they typically have large sections that run through sparsly populated areas with security that amounts to a chain and lock on a cattle gate…

    • This is true, but it’s easier to replace a section of high-tension cable than it is to replace a substation transformer, especially if you destroy several of them at a time. The electric companies don’t have a huge number of them in stock, just enough to ensure they can replace them in the normal course of events. Having more than that would be an extra cost.

    • A lock? Heh. You haven’t spent much time in cattle country, have you?

      Around my stomping grounds, through which run a whole bunch of high-tension lines, because my stomping grounds are right off the Snake River and it’s hydroelectric dams, you’re lucky if the gate is even there, much less standing on its own. A chain and lock would be luxuries that most could not comprehend I could drive my pickup out to any number of high tension towers right now, without even having to get out to open a gate.

      Its facts like these that make me laugh when we talk about trying to secure ourselves from any possible terrorist attack. No one seems to understand that the possibilities are so endless that we could spend all the manpower and all the money trying to track down every possibility and still not catch them…

      …and the best part is THAT’S THE POINT. They don’t want to take out infrastructure. They don’t want to kill civilians. Those are just side shows or appetizers to the main course, which is watching US tie OURSELVES in knots, and fundamentally change or even destroy who we are as a people, VOLUNTARILY, because of them.

      By that metric, they’re winning this war, in a huge way. The security state since 9/11 has been their greatest victory, and we’ve done it to ourselves.

  12. “False flag” doesn’t seem all that likely. The argument against it is that this attack was not widely publicized.
    This particular target makes some sense as a choice for someone who wants to make serious trouble. High voltage lines are certainly easier to get to (in our region, they are usually in the open, accessible via dirt roads that usually have no gates at all). But they are probably easier to repair. I suspect the power companies have a stock of insulators readily at hand, and even a toppled tower could be fixed with a day of crane time and some welding. On the other hand, as the WSJ article points out, lead times on these large transformers are measured in months at least, and chances are they don’t have a lot of them sitting in spares depots.

    • My understanding is there are a few spares and the utility companies are good about sharing spares with “competitors”. But some of the transformers are so large that we are talking serious transportation issues to get them on site. But still the perps can’t really count on the power being out for more than a month. It might be more, but don’t count on it. A month would be tough in a lot of places but it probably wouldn’t be catastrophic with generators brought in for essential things like food storage, hospitals, communications, and home heating.

      At the proper time of the year it probably is impossible to get a crane on site for a month or two for some of the remote tower sites. Snowmobile in and out just before another snow storm with a delay of a day or three on the explosives and it would seem to be relatively low risk.

      But, again, what is the objective?

  13. Anyone could have done it. It’s retarded when the .gov and the media act like it must’ve been a cross between Bruce Lee, Albert Einstein, and the Predator. You don’t have to be James Bond to use a shovel and a rifle. If there was inside knowledge involved, which i doubt, then I’d be looking for an employee with a beef.

  14. If, as the left has been >>very strenuously<< arguing for decades, the very future of the planet itself depends on taking down our industrial civilization, then no action toward that end is too extreme. Eh, ubu? Isn't that what they've been working on for all these years– getting people hyped up into an anti industrial rage? And so it should never come as any surprise when some lone Useful Idiot tries to take matters into his own hands out of frustration and anger. "Professional" my ass. If history is any indicator, it's just one or two dedicated Algore supporters with a little more gumption than most of the rank and file zombies.

    • I think electricity is pretty eco-friendly. After all, lots of green cars run on electricity. As much as I’m concerned about the environment, I don’t follow the issues that much — beyond wanting to keep water and air clean.

  15. I still think the FBI knows exactly who did this and that is why they are claiming “it’s not terrorism and we’re still sifting through information.” It took place at 2 a.m. There are a zillion surveillance cameras around anymore. They obviously had to get to that location somehow. They certainly didn’t walk there. And the police know exactly what time they left. How hard is it to pull the surveillance footage from all the surrounding streets and look for cars/trucks/motorcycles on the road at 2 a.m.? The streets are not very busy at that time. The FBI knows more than they are saying. The only reason for not crashing this party is because they don’t have enough to get a conviction.

    • ubu, the FBI puts out that “Its not terrorism” crap all the time. That does not indicate that the FBI actually knows a damn thing.

    • Hell, the perpetrator could be an illegal immigrant from Syria who posted a YouTube video of himself doing it while wearing a Osama bin Laden t-shirt and screaming “Death to Allah!”, and the FBI would release the same line, if it were deemed politically expedient to do so.

  16. I subscribe to the “got close to getting caught and chickened out” theory. They had this as phase one, and either nearly got caught retreating from phase 1, or entering phase 2, and had to book to keep from getting pinched.

    My guess is that this was phase 1 to a total 3 phase plan. We know what phase 1 was, have no idea what phase 2 was, and I think it’s safe to assume that phase 3 was “profit.”

    Holy shit! It was the underwear gnomes!

  17. ubu,
    you are one of those who have fallen for the myth that the FBI knows everything. Not true. It turns out they only know “everything”, when the whole conspiracy has been orchestrated by them. And, that will continue to be their M.O., until the managers involved gets their asses tossed into prison. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for it)

    • It doesn’t take massive amounts of intelligence to know that the streets are mostly empty at that time of day and that cameras are everywhere.

      • Look at the station on Google Earth. It’s off El Camino Real just southeast of San Jose. It’s not near very much that would have security cameras, and in fact they could get away on foot or by vehicle fairly easily without coming near a business that would have a security camera.

        Interestingly, practically across the street from that substation is the Santa Clara County Shooting Range. Stuck out like a sore thumb to me because of the unique look of shooting ranges on overhead imagery.

        • And above the public range where I used to shoot a lot, is the Cop Range where you can hear them practice with full-auto stuff that us Not Only Ones can’t have esp. in California. Sometimes they’re come down and shoot onto our 200-yard range and leave a huge mess of brass… So maybe some Cops heard the shooting’ at an inappropriate time of day – that wasn’t their own inappropriate time – and went down to investigate?

  18. I’ve been thinking about this one. It was four people. Two people to do the shooting, and two people to cut the fiber and then man OP/LPs. One on the little hill SE of the plant, and one at the shed NW of the plant. (Look at the site in google earth, it’s obvious.) From there, they can see any response with enough time to make a VERY SHORT walkie call to the crew, who retreats into the concealment in all the scrub nearby.

    There was video of the attack. Because all the cameras were directed inside, they never got a good shot of the shooters. They did see that they were using lights for signalling (probably to show that the the fiber had been sabotaged and the OPs were in position without having to give up any electronic transmission.) There were 5 or six shots fired per transformer, which means that it’s reasonable that they fired on high shot as a vent and lots at the bottom as a drain. They did it with cheap, common guns — it was 7.62×39, so either AKs or SKS, and probably SKS, so that they could simply be chucked into the lake beside the plant during the exfil.

    Cut the fiber. Now, not only are the phones down, so no 911 call, but also the SCADA-type controls are now out too, so the grid doesn’t see any warnings until the things actually trip out. Run out to the OP/LP, and get into some high-quality concealment. With two spots, you can see the route in from the residential area, the front gate of the plant (where the cops are likely to and in fact DID respond to), the highway, the lake area beside the plant, and all the mountain roads down to the plant. Shoot until you are done, or the OPs warn of incoming authorities. Since they stopped shooting literally 1 minute before the cops arrived, it’s likely they were interrupted. Exfil out to the woods, and hike along, or just find a nice prepared hide and wait for morning.

    In the meantime, no one at PG&E knows what the problem is. Breakers are tripping, but they have no idea why. It’s still another hour and half before a tech arrives on scene to see all the bullet holes. What does the cop think? He got a call that someone was shooting. When he gets there, no one answers the door and he doesn’t hear anything. He’s not going to start a manhunt and call out Blue Thunder to do a thermal sweep of the hills. He’s going to write a 100 word report and continue his patrol.

    Meanwhile, the station was down for TWO MONTHS, when it was the ONLY PROBLEM. If they did once a week, it would only be a few weeks before the effects are catastrophic. If they were able to keep it up for months, then it would be years before they could repair all the damage.

    I think it was a warning. As soon as we get serious, We The People can bring the whole system down. This was a successful attack, which is all it needed to be to serve the purpose.

  19. Pingback: SayUncle » Substation attack

  20. Payback for PG&E’s deaths in San Bruno? Do not underestimate the local hatred for the ages-long sheer contemptuous rip-off artistry and outrageous elitism of PG&E – it is deep and well established. Maybe someone from the “Atherton & Hillsborough Militia” did it because PG&E blow-torched an entire neighborhood in San Bruno and FOR HOURS claimed it wasn’t their gas-line (nobody else runs 30-inch gas-lines anywhere in CA) before shutting it off? Eight dead, 499 injured, a magnitude 1.1 earthquake – with 35 houses flat-out leveled and many more damaged.
    Take that PG&E bastards.

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