Pair charged with plotting racially fueled attack on Baltimore power grid

·3 min read
Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

Federal authorities announced Monday that they've foiled an attempt by racially-motivated extremists to use assault weapons to bring down Baltimore's electrical grid.

Sarah Beth Clendaniel of North East, Md. and Brandon Russell of Orlando, Fla., were arrested late last week on federal charges that they planned to attack electrical substations in order to try to cause chaos in Maryland's largest city.

"Marylanders can rest assured that a threat to disrupt their daily lives by attacking the local power grid has been stopped," Special Agent in Charge Tom Sobocinski of the FBI's Baltimore field office said at a press conference Monday morning.

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

Russell has previously been described by federal officials as a founder of a Neo-Nazi group known as the Atomwaffen. In 2018, he was sentenced to five years in prison on explosives charges. Russell was released in August 2021, federal Bureau of Prisons records show.

According to a criminal complaint charging the pair with conspiracy to destroy an energy facility, Clendaniel told an FBI confidential informant about plans to attack five substations in an effort to cause widespread blackouts. That "would completely destroy this whole city," Clendaniel allegedly said.

Extremists, cybercriminals and vandals have intensified attacks on the power grid in recent years, with such incidents reaching a decade-long peak last year. High-profile incidents late last year left thousands in North Carolina and Washington state without power. Suspects in those cases remain at large.

However, Sobocinski said the FBI isn't aware of any links between the pair and other plans to attack electrical infrastructure. "We have no indication that this was anything larger than what we have," the FBI official said.

Prosecutors released a photo of Clendaniel holding an assault rifle, but the complaint says she'd lost access to such a weapon recently in a dispute with a neighbor.

The complaint says the pair believed that attacks on a handful of substations would lead to "cascading failure" in the power grid.

Sobocinski said the FBI viewed the plot as serious, although he was uncertain whether the attacks the pair planned would have actually devastated the electrical grid in Baltimore. "The FBI believes that this was a real threat," he said. "Our hope is that it would have been minimal, but we couldn't be able to tell you what that result would look like."

Federal regulators have warned for decades that targeting certain critical components of the grid could lead to widespread blackouts. Investigators have discovered several conspiracies to take down the power system in recent years, including a plot last year by three men tied to white supremacy and neo-Nazis.

Regulators are currently assessing whether to heighten grid security requirements in light of the rise in incidents.

Utility Baltimore Gas & Electric confirmed in a statement that law enforcement arrested the individuals before any damage was done to the targeted infrastructure. BG&E said it is not aware of any other threats to its infrastructure.

Despite a Justice Department press release from 2018 describing Russell as a neo-Nazi, Sobocinski and Barron seemed to go out of their way not to use that term Monday. "The FBI views them as racially- or ethnically-motivated extremists," Sobocinski said of the suspects.

Clendaniel and Russell were arrested at their respective homes without incident and are expected to appear in court later Monday, officials said.

According to the complaint, in conversations with the informant, Clendaniel also recently said she had little to lose because she suffers from a kidney illness and is unlikely to live more than a few months.

Catherine Morehouse contributed to this report.