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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Far-Right Extremist Allegedly Plotted to Blow Up Amazon Data Centers

In the days after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill, one man struck an alarming note on the MyMilitia.com message board. “I’m not a dumbass suicide bomber,” he posted under the handle Dionysus. But he would “happily die a young man knowing that I didn’t allow the evils in this world to continue unjustly treating my fellow Americans so disrespectfully.” Over the following months, prosecutors say, that man, whose real name was Seth Pendley, focused his anger at Amazon, concocting a plot to destroy an Amazon Web Services data center in northern Virginia with C-4 plastic explosives. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation took Pendley, 28, into custody on Thursday; court documents say that he admitted to orchestrating the plan at the time of his arrest. The case offers another unsettling revelation into how the increasingly heated rhetoric from the far-right has translated into real-world threats. How did Dionysus want his “little experiment” to end, another MyMilitia.com member asked? “Death.” 

Pendley’s posts came at a time when Amazon was under intense scrutiny from the far right. The company announced on January 9 that it would cut ties with Parler, the “free-speech” social network that had become a haven for harassment and extremism and hosted many participants in the January 6 attack. “Sounds like war,” wrote one Parler member in a post spotted by Buzzfeed News editor John Paczkowski. “It would be a pity if someone with explosives training were to pay a visit to some AWS data centers – the locations of which are public knowledge.” 

Two days later, Insider reported that an AWS executive sent a memo to employees urging vigilance in the wake of the Parler ban. “If you see something, say something—no situation or concern is too small or insignificant,” wrote Chris Vonderhaar, AWS VP of infrastructure.

In public and private posts online, court documents say, Pendley claimed to have been at the Capitol on January 6, but not to have entered the building. He expressed disappointment that his fellow protesters weren’t more aggressive. “I feel like we all went into this with the intentions of getting very little done,” Dionysus wrote on MyMilitia.com. “How much did you expect to do when we all willingly go in unarmed.” 

The MyMilitia.com posts were concerning enough that someone tipped off the FBI; investigators subsequently obtained access to Pendley’s Facebook messages through a search warrant and began physical surveillance of his house in Wichita Falls, Texas. “We are indebted to the concerned citizen who came forward to report the defendant’s alarming online rhetoric,” acting US attorney Prerak Shah said in a statement. “In flagging his posts to the FBI, this individual may have saved the lives of a number of tech workers.”

In late January, Pendley allegedly began communicating with an associate over the encrypted messaging app Signal about his plans to attack AWS. “If I had cancer or something I would just drive a bomb into those servers lol,” Pendley wrote on February 19, according to the criminal complaint. He ultimately hoped to “kill off about 70 percent of the internet.” (AWS has over 30 percent of global cloud market share.) What Pendley didn't realize is that person he was texting was an FBI informant. 

The plot continued from there, according to court documents. On February 22, Pendley said he had ordered a topographical map of Virginia, where several AWS data centers are located. The following month, FBI agents observed that Pendley painted his silver Pontiac black, allegedly as part of a strategy to conceal his identity during the attack. 

On March 31, Pendley met in person with the associate and an undercover FBI agent posing as an explosives provider. There, Pendley allegedly outlined his plan to bomb AWS data centers in Northern Virginia that he believed provided services for the CIA, FBI, and other federal government agencies. Prosecutors say he had planned to fabricate special boxes that would direct the force of the blasts. 

Court documents describe planning operations that continued into this week. On Monday, Pendley allegedly sent his associate hand-drawn maps of the facility he had targeted in Ashburn, Virginia. On Tuesday, he sent a photograph of a “small model” of the boxes he had described in their previous meeting. And on Thursday, he met with the undercover agent, who provided Pendley with what he said were C-4 plastic explosives and a detonation cord, and demonstrated how to use them. Pendley put the devices in his car, and then he was immediately arrested. When searching Pendley’s house, law enforcement found wigs and masks, flash cards detailing the attack, and a machete with a name carved on the blade: Dionysus.

“We would like to thank the FBI for their work in this investigation,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “We take the safety and security of our staff and customer data incredibly seriously, and constantly review various vectors for any potential threats. We will continue to retain this vigilance about our employees and customers.”

While the alleged plot comes at a time of increased vitriol against Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and other tech giants, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a significant shift in domestic extremism. “There are a few outliers, but the biggest types of targets end up being government, law enforcement, and the military,” says Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “While there certainly have been complaints against big tech companies, it’s not a major theme of most of the extremist groups.” 

Even as an outlier, Pendley’s alleged attempt is sobering, especially because he apparently saw an attack on Amazon as a provocation of the government itself. In that March 31 meeting, prosecutors say, “Pendley described how he believes the government will over-react to the attack, and how people will be awakened to how unjust the government is.” 

Pendley has been charged with a malicious attempt to destroy a building with an explosive; he faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. 

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