Neo-Nazi, woman accused of plotting 'hate-fueled attacks' on power stations, federal complaint says

Workers work on equipment at the West End Substation in West End, North Carolina, on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, where a serious attack on critical infrastructure has caused a power outage.

A neo-Nazi in Florida and a Maryland woman conspired to attack several electrical substations in the Baltimore area, federal officials said Monday.

Sarah Beth Clendaniel and Brandon Clint Russell were arrested and charged in a conspiracy to disable the power grid by shooting out substations via "sniper attacks," according to a criminal complaint from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Maryland.

Clendaniel allegedly said she wanted to "completely destroy this whole city" and was planning to target five substations situated in a "ring" around Baltimore, the complaint said. Russell is part of a violent extremist group that has cells in multiple states, and he previously planned to attack critical infrastructure in Florida, the complaint said.

"This planned attack threatened lives and would have left thousands of Marylanders in the cold and dark," Maryland U.S. Attorney Erek Barron said in a press release. "We are united and committed to using every legal means necessary to disrupt violence, including hate-fueled attacks."

The news comes as concerns grow about an increase in targeted attacks on U.S. substations tied to domestic extremism.

What to know about substation attacks

  • Federal data shows vandalism and suspicious activities at electrical facilities soared nationwide last year. At the end of the year, attacks or potential attacks were reported on more than a dozen substations and one power plant across five states. Several involved firearms.

  • In December, targeted attacks on substations in North Carolina left tens of thousands without power amid freezing temperatures. The FBI is investigating.

  • Vandalism at facilities in Washington left more than 21,000 without electricity on Christmas Day. Two men were arrested, and one told police he planned to disrupt power to commit a burglary.

  • The Department of Homeland Security last year said domestic extremists had been developing "credible, specific plans" since at least 2020 and would continue to "encourage physical attacks against electrical infrastructure."

  • Last February, three neo-Nazis pleaded guilty to federal crimes related to a scheme to attack the grid with rifles, with each targeting a substation in a different region of the U.S.

What happened in the Baltimore conspiracy?

Russell and Clendaniel began corresponding while they were both incarcerated in 2018, according to the complaint.

Since at least June, Russell was planning to attack substations in furtherance of "racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist beliefs," the complaint said. He posted links online to maps of infrastructure and he described how attacks could cause a "cascading failure." He was recently arrested in Florida while on supervised release on separate charges, officials said.

Clendaniel "collaborated" with Russell, the complaint said. She planned to get a weapon and identified five substations to target, allegedly saying the attack "would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste."

A federal agent learned of the conspiracy by communicating with Clendaniel and Russell through encrypted chats and voice calls, according to the complaint, which includes a photograph of Clendaniel wearing tactical gear containing a swastika and holding a rifle.

The plot targeted the Exelon Corporation and its subsidiary Baltimore Gas and Electric, Maryland’s largest gas and electric utility. The company said in a statement the plot was not carried out, and nothing was damaged.

The company noted "threats have increased in recent years" and said it has invested in projects to harden the grid, as well as in monitoring and surveillance technologies to prevent physical attacks and cyberattacks.

Clendaniel and Russell were expected to appear in federal court Monday, in Baltimore and Orlando, respectively. If convicted, they each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

Federal data shows increasing incidents at electrical facilities

Electric utilities report all major electrical disturbances and unusual occurrences at their facilities, including neighborhood substations, to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Since 2011, those reports include a subset of categories for vandalism and suspicious activities, not related to human operational error, including copper theft, break-ins, cyber hacking and random gunfire aimed at transformers.

Those incidents last year rose to 172 from just 99 a year earlier, and were up nearly 200% from 2018. The category includes vandalism, actual physical attacks and sabotage. Incidents labeled actual physical attacks rather than vandalism increased from 5 in 2021 to 15 last year.

The department reported 80 vandalism incidents – up from 52 the previous year – and 57 incidents of suspicious activity. California led the nation with 40 such incidents, including 29 cases of vandalism. Texas (23 incidents) was next, followed by Washington (19).

Industry experts have warned for decades that the power grid is at risk of vandalism and other attacks, in part because it’s so spread out across the nation.

Dig deeper on substation attacks

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Neo-Nazi, woman accused of targeting Baltimore-area power stations