If fear of 5G technology proves to be the motive for the Christmas-Day bombing in Nashville, Tennessee, no one should be surprised. The pandemic has accelerated awareness of digital technologies and given individuals, groups, and state proxies room to agitate. One result is a heightened link between violence and technology — both attacks against technology (e.g., anti-5G, anti-vaccination, anarcho-primitivism) and attacks exploiting technology (e.g., armed quadcopters, additive manufacturing, the ‘Internet of Things’). Regardless of how the Nashville bombing comes out, authorities need to strengthen their ability to meet anti-technology attacks on our vulnerable critical infrastructure, especially by looking close to home.
Knowing the motive behind the powerful detonation that damaged nearby buildings will help illuminate whether the act was a dramatic suicide or an act of domestic terrorism. But some things are already clear: DNA found at the scene matched that of a local computer expert, 63-year-old Anthony Q. Warner and we know that he acted freely. Warner gave away his property and power-washed the vehicle in the weeks before he took his own life. He did not want mass casualties — Warner drove his bomb-laden RV through the target zone, broadcasting evacuation warnings. Aside from the bomber, no one was seriously hurt, though 41 businesses were damaged. Government officials were puzzled. “It looks to me like terrorism against infrastructure was involved,” U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper speculated, and Nashville’s mayor, John Cooper, described it as a “one-off.”
Circumstantial evidence suggests that Warner was protesting 5G technology — reportedly an FBI line of inquiry. The campervan was parked in front of an AT&T transmission building and the explosion knocked down a network hub. The company website called the blast “devastating,” reporting secondary fires, loss of power, damaged equipment, and hazardous work in a disaster zone. Internet and cellphone service across parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama was badly affected. AT&T scrambled to reroute service or deploy portable cell sites, with 65 percent of service restored two days later.
In the polarized American domestic context, U.S. experts have focused on right-wing radicals like white supremacists (the Ku Klux Klan and the Base), anti-federal government groups (the Boogaloo movement), misogynistic attackers (the incels), and “anti-Antifa” protesters (the Proud Boys), as well as left-wing groups such as anarchists and anti-fascist organizations (Antifa). But anti-technology violence also has deep roots and may have broader impact, since it often targets critical infrastructure and could affect millions.
Experts saw this coming. In May 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued alerts about potential attacks on cellphone infrastructure due to conspiracy theories about 5G technology spreading COVID-19 — misinformation promoted by gullible individuals, celebrities, and nefarious actors like QAnon. U.S. alerts followed dozens of arson and vandalism attacks abroad, including on U.K., Belgian, Canadian, and Dutch cell towers. And in the wake of the Nashville bombing, federal, state, and local law enforcement feared copycat attacks on other U.S. communications infrastructure.
State actors have also been involved in promoting these conspiracy theories. Last year, Russia’s RT America, a cable, satellite and online streaming network headquartered in Washington, D.C., began warning of a “5G Apocalypse,” falsely connecting 5G signals to brain cancer, infertility, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease. Warner reportedly believed 5G caused his father’s dementia and other deaths in the region. Anti-5G stories have been picked up by hundreds of other websites and on social media platforms. In the midst of a pandemic, with millions of people losing their lives and livelihoods, fears tend to multiply.
Intelligence agencies have been worried about foreign cyberattacks on U.S. critical infrastructure for decades. But state actors capable of pulling off serious cyberattacks would be engaging in an act of war if they went through with such acts. Why attack critical infrastructure directly, if Americans will do it themselves?
Anti-technology violence long predates 5G. In the late 20th century, backlash against computer technology was intertwined with environmentalism and anti-globalization protests. Between 1996 and 2002, groups such as the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front engaged in some 600 criminal acts of arson, sabotage, and vandalism on research laboratories, multinational corporations, and the logging industry. Like the Nashville attack, the purpose was to harm property, not people.
The most notorious anti-technology American terrorist was Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber.” Kaczynski was a Harvard-educated mathematics prodigy who carried out mail bombings against professors, the heads of airlines, and computer executives between 1978 and 1996. He killed three and injured 23 before being arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison in 1998.
Kaczynski’s 1995 manifesto, published by the Washington Post and the New York Times, is a technophobic screed. It reads in part:
The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. … The continued development of technology will…subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world… . We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system…to overthrow not governments but the economic and technological basis of the present society.
A similarly technophobic 2018 paper written by retired Washington State University professor, Martin Pall, zeroes in on 5G technology. While it does not advocate violence, the 90-page document explains Pall’s theories, promoted on Twitter and Instagram by celebrities and influencers such as Woody Harrelson and John Cusack. Pall maintains:
[W]hen we have substantial risk of multiple existential threats to every single technologically advanced country on earth, failure to act vigorously means there is a very high probability of complete destruction of these societies. And the chaos which would inevitably ensue, in a world that still has nuclear weapons, may well lead to extinction. In the face of these types or risk, the only reasonable course is to move with great vigor to stop new exposures and lower current exposures.
Digital technology is playing an outsized role in people’s lives during the pandemic, leaving many behind. Misinformation, economic insecurity, and rapid change are triggering anti-technology anger, especially against the high tech and telecommunications industries, fragile backbones of a digital economy. If Anthony Warner was indeed protesting 5G networks, it shines a light on the long-standing need for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement to meld global and local efforts to get ahead of cyber-driven threats to critical infrastructure.
Audrey Kurth Cronin is professor of international security at American University and founding director of the Center for Security, Innovation and New Technologies. Her latest book, Power to the People: How Open Technology Innovation Is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists (Oxford University Press, 2020) won the 2020 Airey Neave Prize for “the most significant, original, relevant, and practically valuable contribution to the understanding of terrorism.” Twitter: @akcronin. Website: audreykurthcronin.com.
Image: Metro Nashville Police Department