The arrest and conviction of a Texas militiaman who planned to bomb an Amazon data center to “kill about 70% of the Internet” is more than just another case that makes us grateful that the FBI takes these matters seriously. It also offers a window into the mindset of far-right terrorists—how they think, what motivates them, and what their plans for attacking and undermining American society look like.
The man, 28-year-old Seth Aaron Pendley of Wichita Falls, told an informant prior to his arrest in April that his purpose in blowing up a Virginia data center went beyond simply wreaking terrorist havoc: He wanted to inspire a government overreaction that would “let the world know that they are in a dictatorship” and awaken the public. It’s a strategy adopted increasingly often by domestic terrorists—and enabled by right-wing media figures like Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson.
According to court documents, Pendley came to the attention of authorities after bragging on the MyMilitia.com forum that he had gone to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, to participate in the “Stop the Steal” pro-Trump protest that day. He took a gun with him; however, he left it in his parked car and claimed that, while he supported the invasion of the Capitol that day by insurrectionists, he did not enter the building himself.
But then Pendley began talking to other militiamen on the encrypted Signal app about his plan to attack Amazon Web Services (AWS) data centers using explosives. “The AWS data centers are almost all centrally located,” he wrote to one man. “They are fucking massive. I haven’t got all the details worked out but that’s where I have risky questions that I didn’t want to ask till now.”
His interlocutor, in fact, was an FBI informant, who eventually told Pendley that he could obtain C4 explosives to use in his plot. Pendley told him that “if I had cancer or something I would just drive a bomb into these servers,” and that he hoped a coordinated attack would “kill off about 70% of the Internet.”
Pendley met up in person in Fort Worth with the informant, who was accompanied by a man Pendley believed would be the source for the explosives, but who in fact was an undercover FBI agent. He described his strategy to the men:
The main objective is to fuck up the Amazon servers. There’s 24 buildings that all this data runs through in America. Three of them are right next to each other, and those 24 run 70% of the Internet. And the government, especially the higher ups—CIA, FBI, special shit—they have like an 8-billion-dollar-a-year contract with Amazon to run through those servers. So we fuck those servers, and it’s gonna piss all the oligarchy off.
The key to the strategy, he told the agents, was to induce the government into an overreaction that would awaken the public:
It just depends on how they react. This is like a hit ‘em. Hopefully they react the way I would like them to react. Hopefully, they let the world know in a weird way by acting too fast that they are in a fucking dictatorship, and then hope like hell that some of the people that are on the fence jump off the fence.
On April 8, Pendley met up with the undercover agent in Fort Worth, anticipating being handed the explosives. The agent handed him a set of C4 bombs—which had been rendered inoperable—and showed him how to set them off. Pendley put them in the trunk of his car and was promptly arrested by a team of FBI agents. At his home, they found an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle with the barrel sawed off illegally—the gun that Pendley claimed he took to Washington on Jan. 6—along with wigs and masks and pistol painted to look like a toy gun.
Pendley pleaded guilty in June to one count of malicious attempt to destroy a building with an explosive. Last Friday, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“As this case shows, radicals are lurking on the internet, looking for ways to lash out — and far too often, they move their plans off of the web and into the real world,” Acting U.S. Attorney Prerak Shah said in a statement.
“Seth Aaron Pendley’s sentence is an affirmation of the work the North Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force performs around the clock to disrupt threats while keeping our community safe from harm,” said FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew J. DeSarno. “The public’s vigilance in reporting suspicious or threatening behavior is key to law enforcement’s ability to take quick action to prevent injuries and the destruction of property.”
Certainly, his arrest and prosecution reflect a welcome change from the priorities of federal law enforcement over the previous decade, when the domestic counterterrorism focus was directed primarily at Islamist radicals and the overhyped threat of “eco-terrorism”—despite a clear real-world record of mounting terrorist violence by right-wing extremists. During those years—and particularly during the Trump administration—the presence of terrorist motives became almost invisible to law enforcement when it was committed by white Americans.
This syndrome came into play in the October 2017 massacre in Las Vegas committed by a middle-aged white gunman named Stephen Paddock. Both Las Vegas police investigators and the FBI found that it couldn’t determine any motive for the attack on an open-air concert crowd that left 58 people dead and over 800 wounded, even though the overwhelming weight of evidence makes clear that Paddock was in fact a right-wing extremist who had acted out of paranoid beliefs about the federal government and gun control.
Paddock, like Pendley, hoped his act would inspire a government overreaction that would alter public awareness. “Somebody has to wake up the American public and get them to arm themselves,” he reportedly told a man days before the shooting. “Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”
This kind of meta-strategy is known among academics who study terrorism as “jujitsu politics,” an insurgent strategy to mobilize new support by eliciting government overreaction to insurgent attacks. As one expert puts it: “The logic of terrorist violence implies that targeting choices reflect key goals of extremist organizations: delegitimizing the government and attracting new recruits for the group’s anti-state campaign. … By provoking democratic leaders into excessive uses of force, terrorist groups decrease regime legitimacy and improve the extremist organization’s image with supporters and potential allies.”
Pendley’s arrest and prosecution is another clear indication that the Biden administration is quietly taking the right kinds of measures required to confront the rising tide of far-right violence, beginning with effectively investigating and imprisoning the violent criminals who populate much of the extremist right. And it seems to be doing so without playing directly into the hands of would-be masterminds like him by handling the case quietly, working to avoid the appearance of an overreaction.
Biden’s approach to the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, in general, has been astute in this regard: avoiding both “war on terror” rhetoric and its accompanying heavy-handed reform strategy. The administration’s announced strategy, while problematic in several key regards, nonetheless remains sane and focused on enforcing the laws already on the books.
However, extremist terrorists like Pendley and Paddock are not always dependent on an actual government overreaction occurring, since they can count on an array of conspiracy theorists and right-wing propagandists to create the perception of an overreaction even when none exists. That was the function that Infowars’ Alex Jones served after the Las Vegas massacre, spreading “false flag” conspiracy theories portraying the “globalist” government acting on a plot to confiscate Americans’ guns—which was exactly the perception that Paddock wanted to create.
Now, in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, Tucker Carlson is serving the same sort of function at Fox News, to audiences of many more millions than Jones: Engaging in gaslighting denialism about the intentions of the mob that besieged the Capitol, then piling hyperbolic lie upon lie about the Biden administration’s supposed overreaction to the event and the threat of white-nationalist terrorism.
Actual white-nationalist terrorists like Seth Pendley are counting on it.
Published with permission of Daily Kos