What is Atomwaffen? The small neo-Nazi group uses violence to try and bring about societal collapse
The founder of a neo-Nazi extremist group was arrested on conspiracy charges this week.
Prosecutors say Brandon Russell planned to attack Baltimore's power grid.
Russell is a founding member of Atomwaffen, which uses violence to try and bring about societal collapse.
The FBI on Monday arrested two people in connection with a conspiracy to take out Baltimore's power grid, with officials saying they were caught blabbing to an informant online.
Federal officials charged Sarah Beth Clendaniel, 34, and Brandon Clint Russell, 27, in the plot, accusing the two individuals of planning a "legendary" attack in which they would shoot five Maryland electricity substations in an effort to "completely destroy the whole city."
An attorney for Clendaniel did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An attorney for Russell could not immediately be reached.
Russell is named by the FBI complaint as the founder of Atomwaffen Division, a terroristic neo-Nazi group known for its far-right ideals and obsession with violence.
The small organization is back in the news this week after a period of relative quiet in recent years thanks to a spate of arrests among individuals linked to the group and reports that the US chapter of the organization was disbanding as a result.
One of the more overtly destructive extremist groups, members of Atomwaffen, commonly abbreviated to AWD, are known as accelerationists, or extremists who believe that engaging in violence and sowing chaos will bring about the downfall of democracy, according to Lindsay Schubiner, program director at Western States Center.
"It's an incredibly dangerous group," Schubiner told Insider.
The group dates back to 2015 when Russell announced Atomwaffen's formation in an online post on Iron March, a popular fascist forum that went offline in 2017, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The organization takes its name from the German word meaning atomic weapons, and members idolize noted neo-Nazis James Mason, Joseph Tommasi, and William Pierce, and cult leader Charles Manson.
The group is highly decentralized, with distinct cells operating in separate regions, according to the SPLC. Even at the height of the organization's relevance, extremism researchers estimated there were only 30 to 80 active members, according to The New York Times.
Atomwaffen is predicated upon deeply antisemitic and racist beliefs. The neo-Nazi group is a subset of the broader white nationalist movement, Schubiner said, with aims of manufacturing anarchy and chaos so extreme that society, democracy, and civilization collapse as a result. Accelerationists then plan to rebuild their desired white ethnostate in the aftermath of the downfall.
Attacks on power grids are part of the white supremacist movement's 'literal playbook'
Attacking critical infrastructure, including power grids, is one such way members of Atomwaffen and other accelerationists attempt to create mass discord. Law enforcement officials and extremism researchers told Insider this month that far-right actors are increasingly focused on targeting the country's power grids as part of the accelerationist doctrine and their efforts to bring about a race war.
"The critical-infrastructure element has become one of the core components of neo-fascist accelerationist movements in the US. It's become one of the targets du jour," Jon Lewis, a researcher at the Program on Extremism who studies accelerationism, told Insider reporters.
That Russell, the founder of one of the most extreme accelerationist groups in the US, was charged in relation to the plot to wipe out Baltimore's power grid last year is not at all surprising, according to Schubiner.
"This is literally part of the playbook, part of the accelerant playbook," Schubiner said of attacks on critical infrastructure. "It's a very intentional strategy to destabilize communities and democracy itself."
Atomwaffen also encourages extremist acts of violence that go beyond targeting the nation's electricity infrastructure. The organization and its self-proclaimed members had been linked to at least five killings in the US, and are known to have threatened journalists and Black churches.
"This group is so extreme that they cause a ton of controversy within the radical right, Keegan Hankes, an intelligence analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Times in 2018.
A spate of member arrests around 2018 and 2019 — including prior charges against Russell — led to a decrease in the group's activity and reach, Schubiner said.
"But certainly as we've seen," she added, "some of the people in the group have not stopped engaging in violence."
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