Woman plotted with neo-Nazi leader to attack power grid, officials say
BALTIMORE (AP) — A Maryland woman spent months conspiring with a Florida-based neo-Nazi leader to plan an attack on Baltimore’s power grid, hoping to further his racist mission, state officials said Monday. law enforcement.
The plan was thwarted when the two suspects were arrested last week, adding to a growing list of similar cases as authorities warn the US power grid could be a vulnerable target for domestic terrorists.
Sarah Beth Clendaniel, 34, was working with Brandon Russell, who founded a small Florida-based neo-Nazi group, to plan a series of ‘sniper attacks’ on Maryland power substations, a criminal complaint alleges unsealed on Monday. The document also included a photo of a woman identified by authorities as Clendaniel wearing tactical gear that bore a swastika and holding a rifle.
It was not immediately clear Monday whether either suspect had an attorney to speak on their behalf. There was no evidence that the plot was carried out or any record of damage to local substations.
US Attorney Erek Barron praised investigators for stopping the hate-fueled violence.
“When we are united, hate cannot win,” he said at a press conference announcing the charges.
Authorities declined to elaborate on how the planned attack was meant to be racially motivated, but suggested the defendants wanted to draw attention to their cause. Russell had discussed targeting the grid in cold weather “when most people are using the electricity to the max”, authorities claimed.
According to the complaint, Clendaniel planned to target five substations located in a ring around Baltimore, a predominantly black city surrounded by heavily white suburban areas.
“It would probably completely ruin this town permanently if we could do it successfully,” Clendaniel told a confidential informant she met through Russell, according to the complaint. She was most recently living out of town in surrounding Baltimore County, officials said.
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Clendaniel told the informant that she had end-stage kidney disease. With only months to live, she wanted to “achieve something worthwhile” before she died, according to the complaint. Many of their conversations were about how she could get a weapon to carry out the attacks.
Investigators also found a document in his Google archives which they compared to a manifesto. “I would sacrifice (asterisk) (asterisk) everything (asterisk) (asterisk) for my people to have just one chance that our cause would succeed,” he said, including references to Hitler and other terrorists, according to the complaint.
“Identifying and disrupting terrorist plots, both foreign and domestic, is one of the FBI’s top priorities,” Agent Thomas Sobocinski said at Monday’s press conference. “To extremists who seek to disrupt society and sow chaos in our communities, we will not tolerate this.”
Russell, who founded an obscure neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen Division, has a long history of ties to racist extremist ideologies and past plans to disrupt America’s infrastructure systems, according to the complaint. Leaders of the Atomwaffen Division recently renamed themselves the National Socialist Order. The group’s mission is the collapse of civilization, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Federal authorities said Russell, 27, landed on their radar after a 2017 shooting killed two of his housemates. Local law enforcement found Russell at the scene, dressed in a military uniform and crying at the news. A third roommate, who was later arrested, told investigators he carried out the killings to thwart an Atomwaffen terror attack, which planned to target US infrastructure. He said Russell knew nothing of the murders, having just returned home from duty with the Florida National Guard.
Russell eventually pleaded guilty to explosives charges after authorities found bomb-making materials in the garage. He served five years in federal prison and was on probation at the time of his recent arrest, officials said.
The lawyer who represented him in the case did not immediately respond to a message on Monday.
Recent attacks and threats against the US power grid have heightened concerns about the protection of critical infrastructure.
In Washington state, two men were arrested last month for vandalizing substations in attacks that left thousands without power around Christmas. A suspect told authorities he hoped the power outage would allow them to break into a business and steal money.
A shooting attack in December on substations in central North Carolina also caused power outages affecting tens of thousands of customers. Law enforcement officials said the shooting was targeted, although no arrests were made. Lawmakers have proposed legislation to toughen penalties for willfully damaging utility equipment.
An account linked to Russell recently sent the confidential informant a video about the North Carolina attack, discussing the targeted substations and their geographic areas, according to the complaint.
Baltimore Gas and Electric, which controls the local power grid, thanked law enforcement on Monday and said there was no damage to substations, service was not interrupted and that ‘there were currently no known threats to the facilities.
“We have a long-standing partnership with law enforcement and state and federal network regulators to secure critical infrastructure,” the company said in a press release. “This work is all the more important now that threats have increased in recent years.”
Maryland Governor Wes Moore also hailed investigative efforts that successfully “prevented a potentially catastrophic attack on multiple Maryland electrical substations.”
Russell and Clendaniel corresponded years ago while incarcerated in separate correctional facilities, authorities said. Officials declined to elaborate on the nature of their relationship or how they met, but the complaint says they discussed having children together. Text messages linked to Russell included a statement that “going to jail was worth it because I might not have met you otherwise”.
Their relationship dated back to at least 2018. Last May, according to the complaint, Clendaniel shipped an online order — a 34-piece “Professional Pocket Hand Tool” — to Russell’s Orlando address.
Clendaniel has a long criminal history in Maryland, including a 2006 robbery conviction in Cecil County, a mostly rural area about an hour northeast of Baltimore. She pleaded guilty to the charge after authorities accused her of brandishing a butcher knife and demanding money from a convenience store clerk.
Then 18, Clendaniel was pregnant at the time of her sentencing. Her attorney cited mental health issues and said she was receiving methadone treatment, according to The Cecil Whig. She pleaded guilty in 2016 to another robbery case.
Associated Press writers Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring and Brian Witte in Annapolis contributed to this report.