Neo-Nazi woman accused of targeting Baltimore-area power plants

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

Sarah Beth Clendaniel and Brandon Clint Russell have been arrested and charged with conspiracy to disable the power grid by shooting substations via “sniper attacks”, according to a criminal complaint from the U.S. District Attorney’s Office. Maryland.

Clendaniel reportedly said he wanted to “completely destroy this entire city” and planned to target five substations located in a “circle” around Baltimore, according to the complaint. Russel is part of a violent extremist group that has cells in several states, and it previously planned to attack critical infrastructure in Florida, according to the complaint.

“This planned attack threatened lives and would have left thousands of Marylanders cold and dark,” Maryland U.S. Attorney Erek Barron said in a news release. “We are united and determined to use all legal means necessary to disrupt the violence, including hate-motivated attacks.”

The news comes as concerns grow over an increase in targeted attacks on US substations linked to domestic extremism.

What to know about substation attacks

  • Federal data shows vandalism and suspicious activity at electrical facilities skyrocketed across the country in the past year. By the end of the year, attacks or potential attacks were reported on more than a dozen substations and a power plant in five states. Several involved firearms.
  • In December, targeted attacks on substations in North Carolina left tens of thousands of people without power in freezing temperatures. The FBI is investigating.
  • Vandalism at facilities in Washington left more than 21,000 people without power on Christmas Day. Two men were arrested and one told police he was planning to cut the power to commit a burglary.
  • Last year, the Department of Homeland Security said domestic extremists had made “credible and specific plans” since at least 2020 and would continue to “encourage physical attacks on electrical infrastructure.”
  • Last February, three neo-Nazis pleaded guilty to federal crimes related to a scheme to attack the network with guns, each targeting a substation in a different region of the United States.

What happened in the Baltimore conspiracy?

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

Since at least June, Russell had been planning to attack substations in connection with “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist beliefs,” according to the complaint. He posted links online to infrastructure maps and described how attacks could cause a “cascading failure”. He was recently arrested in Florida while on probation on separate charges, officials said.

Clendaniel “collaborated” with Russell, according to the complaint. She planned to procure a weapon and identified five substations to target, saying the attack “would probably completely destroy this town permanently.”

A federal agent learned of the conspiracy by communicating with Clendaniel and Russell through encrypted conversations 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 Exelon Corporation and its subsidiary Baltimore Gas and Electric, Maryland’s largest gas and electric utility. The company said in a statement that the plot was not carried out and nothing was damaged.

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

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

Federal data shows an increase in incidents at electrical installations

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

Since 2011, these reports have included a subset of categories of vandalism and suspicious activity, unrelated to human operational error, including copper theft, break-ins, hacking, and random gunfire targeting transformers.

Last year, such incidents rose to 172 from just 99 a year earlier, and were up almost 200% from 2018. The category includes vandalism, actual physical attacks and sabotage. Incidents labeled as actual physical attacks rather than vandalism have risen from 5 in 2021 to 15 last year.

The department reported 80 incidents of vandalism — down from 52 the previous year — and 57 incidents of suspicious activity. California leads 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 vulnerable to vandalism and other attacks, in part because it is so prevalent across the country.

Dig deeper on substation attacks

USA Today

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