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DHS Warns that Conspiracy Theories Are Inciting Attacks Against Communications Infrastructure

The Department of Homeland Security has issued an intelligence alert highlight the threat to communication infrastructures posed by conspiracy theories linking 5G technology to Covid-19. The alert highlights that DHS expects the attacks to increase as the disease spreads to include attacks against telecommunication industry workers. According to DHS:

We assess conspiracy theories linking the spread of COVID-19 to the expansion of the 5G cellular network are inciting attacks against the communications infrastructure globally, and that these threats probably will increase as the disease continues to spread, including calls for violence against telecommunications workers. Violent extremists have drawn from misinformation campaigns online that claim wireless infrastructure is deleterious to human health and helps spread COVID-19, resulting in a global effort by like-minded individuals to share operational guidance and justification for conducting attacks against 5G infrastructure, some of which have already prompted arson and physical attacks against cell towers in several US states.

  • Violent extremists have encouraged attacks targeting 5G infrastructure in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming that 5G technology weakens human immune systems, resulting in the accelerated spread of the virus, according to DHS open source reporting. Calls for attacks have included tactical guidance for disabling radio towers near pandemic-stricken cities and come from a variety of violent actors, including racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) and at least one individual who posted a foreign terrorist organization-inspired image.
  • Since December 2019, unidentified actors conducted at least five arson incidents targeting cell towers in Memphis, Tennessee that resulted in more than $100,000 in damages, according to DHS field intelligence reporting.5 Additionally, 14 cell towers in western Tennessee between February and April were purposely turned off by way of disabling their electrical breakers, according to separate DHS field intelligence
    reporting. In April, arsonists set fire to a major cell tower in Portland, Oregon, damaging electrical components at the base of the structure, according to Oregon state fusion center analysis.
  • Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have all reported individuals attacking communications infrastructure due to COVID-19 fears, totaling at least 100 cell tower attacks globally since late April, according to a body of open source reporting.

Additionally, a spokesman for the Communication Workers Union in the United Kingdom reported that telecommunications workers have been threatened with physical violence in light of conspiracy theories linking 5G networks to the spread of COVID-19.

We assess that violent extremists probably will target a range of telecommunications infrastructure
based on 5G’s reliance on existing architecture and its easily accessible cellular base stations. Isolated attacks against telecommunications infrastructure typically lack the sophistication required to cause widespread service disruptions, but we judge that more coordinated attacks by multiple individuals in adjacent areas could amplify these incidents and complicate emergency response and repair efforts.

  • Industry experts estimate that half of the United States will have access to 5G by the end of 2020, according to media reporting.15 The initial phase of the 5G rollout relies heavily on 4G infrastructure that has been modified to share workloads with 5G networks, and some attackers could take a wholesale approach to targeting both networks.
  • Telecommunications base stations, including 4G and 5G towers, typically are lightly guarded with simple physical barriers, such as fences and gates. In some major cities no barriers are present as 5G
    systems are to blend in with the surrounding environment, disguised as lamp posts or trees, according to media reporting. Attacks on more rural platforms can be harder to investigate due to the lack of witnesses and a longer police response time, judging from media reporting.
  • The recent attacks against telecommunications infrastructure in Oregon and Tennessee caused damage to equipment and wiring at several base stations but did not compromise the structural integrity of the tower itself, according to DHS reporting. Although none of the arson attacks disrupted telecommunications service, one of the sites in Tennessee was offline for five days while it was being repaired.

Violent extremists have consistently targeted communications infrastructure in the United States and threats are likely to persist beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-technology grievances historically have transcended a broad range of violent extremist ideologies and inspired attacks against critical infrastructure perceived as being harmful to public safety, including communications, energy, and information technology infrastructure.

  • In June 2019 an unidentified individual targeted an electrical substation in Klamath County, Oregon, with a high-powered rifle that resulted in damage estimated to be more than $400,000, according to an FBI press release.
  • In 2007, a small group of environmental extremists were convicted of plotting attacks to bomb
    government and commercial facilities that were viewed by the group as being harmful to the environment, including cell towers, according to court documents and media reporting.
  • In August 2019, a social media user expressing views consistent with RMVEs shared tactics that could be used to sabotage the electrical grid, according to DHS open source reporting.
  • The manifesto published by Theodore Kaczynski—commonly referred to as the Unabomber who was responsible for a string of anti-technology bombings from the late 70’s until the early 90’s—is widely circulated online and has been noted as a source of inspiration among RMVEs and domestic violent extremists (DVEs) throughout the past decade.27,28,a Kaczynski has also served as a source of inspiration for an international environmental rights extremist movement known as Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje—Individuals Tending to Savagery—that is responsible for a string of indiscriminate anti-technology attacks since 2011 in Europe, Central, and South America.

OODA Members should continue to monitor this threat, especially those members operating networks or in close proximity to  telecommunication equipment.

OODA Analyst

OODA Analyst

OODA is comprised of a unique team of international experts capable of providing advanced intelligence and analysis, strategy and planning support, risk and threat management, training, decision support, crisis response, and security services to global corporations and governments.