The neo-Nazi couple had what they thought was a perfect plan: take out five power substations in the Baltimore area, take down the grid in eastern Maryland, and wreak havoc in the process. “It would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste if we could do that successfully,” the woman fantasized—to what turned out to be an FBI informant.
Their arrest this weekend on federal conspiracy charges was another powerful indicator that neofascist accelerationists are increasingly targeting the nation’s electrical infrastructure as part of a wider attack on American democracy. The planned Maryland attack follows in the footsteps of actual and planned attacks on power substations in North Carolina, Florida, and the Pacific Northwest.
As with most domestic terrorists, the Maryland couple—27-year-old Brandon Russell and his 34-yeaer-old girlfriend, Sarah Clendaniel—hoped the attacks would undermine the public’s confidence in the ability of the American political system to keep them secure. Clendaniel, court documents say, “described how there was a ‘ring’ around Baltimore and if they hit a number of them all in the same day, they ‘would completely destroy this whole city.’”
Russell already had a background in planning domestic-terrorism attacks on infrastructure. One of the cofounding members of the neo-Nazi action group Atomwaffen Division, Russell was part of a Florida-based group that was planning to attack nuclear power plants and power lines in 2017. Those plans were interrupted when one of the men—all roommates at the time—murdered two of the group while Russell was away.
Russell was found to be in possession of bomb-making supplies and equipment, and was convicted on bomb-making charges in 2018. He was released in 2021. He and Clendaniel met while both were in prison; she had been previously convicted of using a machete to rob gas stations. They corresponded from separate facilities, then hooked up shortly after they were released.
Sometime in 2022, Russell took up corresponding online with a man he thought was a fellow fascist but was actually an FBI informant. According to investigators, Russell picked up where he had left off in 2017, discussing how to attack the power grid at length, even recommending an attack when the grid is under strain, such as when “everyone is using electricity to either heat or cool their homes.” The goal was to trigger a “cascading failure costing billions of dollars,” Russell said.
Eventually Russell decided to connect him with Clendaniel, who was apparently all in on the plan. “Someone else I know in Maryland… is gonna be doing the same thing as you,” he told the informant, and said she was “serious and can be trusted.” He hoped that including her would “GREATLY amplify its effects.”
“If we can pull off what I’m hoping … this would be legendary,” Clendaniel said in one of their subsequent chats.
Among the five substations they targeted were facilities in Norrisville, Reisterstown, and Perry Hall. Clendaniels described the substations as comprising a “ring” around Baltimore, so taking them out simultaneously, they believed, would cut power to the entire city.
Clendaniel also wrote what appears to be a manifesto, included in the court documents. “If this is being posted online, I can only hope that some of my plans were at least partially successful,” she wrote. “I would sacrifice everything for my people to just have a chance for our cause to succeed.”
Clendaniel and Russell intended to inflict “maximum harm” both to electrical infrastructure as well as the city of Baltimore as a whole, Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Sobocinski of the FBI field office in Baltimore told reporters.
“The accused were not just talking, but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals,” Sobocinski said. “Their actions threatened the electricity and heat of our homes, hospitals and businesses.”
The spate of attacks across the United States reflects how broadly among white supremacists the belief that attacking electrical infrastructure could spark a “race war”—an idea first elucidated in The Turner Diaries—has spread among online neofascists over the past year. Moreover, there’s abundant evidence they’re acting on those beliefs.
A recent review of Department of Energy data by Katherine Long, Jack Newsham, Nick Robins-Early, and Madison Hall at The Insider found a dramatic spike of 72% in electric-facility attacks in 2022 from the previous year:
According to Department of Energy statistics, human attacks were responsible for 171 "electric disturbance incidents" around the country in 2022, compared with 99 in 2021. (Insider's review of the data counted incidents that the Department of Energy labeled as the result of vandalism, sabotage, actual physical attack, cyber event and suspicious activity.)
Exelon and BGE, the companies whose substations were targeted by Russell and Clendaniel, said they are working closely with the FBI and state and local law enforcement as the case continues. “We have a long-standing partnership with law enforcement and state and federal regulators of the grid to secure critical infrastructure,” the companies said. “This work is even more important now as threats have increased in recent years.”
It’s not clear, however, that law enforcement is prepared to deal with the challenges such attacks represent. "There is a dearth of knowledge within local and regional law enforcement to understand the early warning signs of more advanced terroristic threats," Matt Kriner of the Accelerationist Research Consortium told Insider.
"The critical infrastructure element has become one of the core components of neo-fascist accelerationist movements in the U.S. It's become one of the targets du jour," Jon Lewis, a researcher at the Program on Extremism who studies accelerationism, told Insider.
Not all the attacks have terrorist motives, as in the December case involving four Pierce County, Washington, substations, where the perpetrators were caught and investigators found they actually intended to use the outages as cover for local burglaries. However, even then, accelerationists in social media channels and elsewhere celebrate. At other times, when no suspects have been identified, they will claim credit for attacks.
"They don't really care who is doing the violence, who's doing the critical infrastructure attacks,” Lewis said. "They just want to be the spark that starts on fire."
We're chatting with one of our favorite fellow election analysts on this week's episode of The Downballot, Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball. Kyle helped call races last year for CBS and gives us a rare window inside a TV network's election night decision desk, which literally has a big button to call control of the House—that no one got to press. Kyle also dives into his new race ratings for the 2024 Senate map, including why he thinks Joe Manchin's unlikely tight-rope act might finally come to an end.
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