A neo-Nazi leader was charged by federal authorities for a plot to attack the Maryland power grid with a woman he met while in prison. Brandon Russell, 27, and Sarah Clendaniel, 34, both are charged with conspiring to destroy an energy facility, prosecutors said Monday. Russell and Clendaniel planned to shoot up five substations that serve the Baltimore area, authorities said. Russell conspired to carry out attacks against critical infrastructure, especially substations, from at least June 2022 to the present “in furtherance of Russell’s racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist beliefs,” prosecutors said, reports the Wall Street Journal. According to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday, Russell is a founding member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, whose members have been linked by law enforcement and federal prosecutors to murders and bombing plots. “This planned attack threatened lives and would have left thousands of Marylanders in the cold and dark,” said Maryland U.S. Attorney Erek Barron. “We are united and committed to using every legal means necessary to disrupt violence, including hate-fueled attacks.”
The arrests come at a time of heightened security around power stations after two separate acts of vandalism in late 2022 left thousands of people in North Carolina and Washington state without electricity. Power grids in the U.S. have long been vulnerable to vandalism. In 2013, a sniper attack in California took out 17 transformers that funneled power to Silicon Valley. Russell posted links to open-source maps of infrastructure, which included the locations of electrical substations. He described how a small number of attacks on substations could cause a “cascading failure.” He and Clendaniel also discussed maximizing the impact of the planned attack by hitting multiple substations at one time. According to the criminal complaint, Clendaniel tried to secure a weapon and had pinpointed five Maryland substations she wanted to target. If the stations were targeted on the same day, it “would completely destroy this whole city,” and a “good four or five shots through the center of them…should make that happen,” Clendaniel allegedly said.