According to federal investigators and local authorities, two men have been detained and charged in relation to an alleged plot to assault Baltimore, Maryland’s power grid.
According to court filings, the suspects, Brandon Russell of Florida and Sarah Beth Clendaniel of Maryland, are suspected of planning to shoot at electricity substations in Norrisville, Reisterstown, and Perry Hall.
Clendaniel declared the attack “absolutely achievable” on January 29, according to court papers, adding, “If we can pull off what I’m hoping… this would be legendary.”
Court filings claim that Clendaniel, of Catonsville, Maryland, was caught on tape discussing her plans with a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant. Federal authorities said they suspect Clendaniel was working with Russell, with whom she has a recorded “personal as well as online relationship.”
A criminal complaint lodged in Maryland district court last week alleges that Russell has a long history of affiliations with racist organisations and Nazi ideologies, as well as previous threats to assault American infrastructure systems. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Russell is the founder of a “terroristic neo-Nazi organisation” called Atomwaffen Division.
According to federal officials, a previous investigation into one of Russell’s former roommates, who was arrested and charged in 2017 for killing two people who lived with them, turned up neo-Nazi memorabilia, a photo of the Oklahoma City bomber, and explosives that belonged to him. Russell received a five-year prison term in 2018 for possessing dangerous bomb-making supplies in his Florida apartment.
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A picture of a lady in tactical gear with a rifle, whom officials have identified as Clendaniel, was also included in the complaint. With Russell allegedly giving Clendaniel instructions and location information and describing the alleged plot to assault power transformers in Baltimore as “the best thing someone can accomplish,” the FBI stated that it considers the suspects as “racially or ethnically motivated extremists.”
Thomas Sobocinski, special agent in charge of the FBI Baltimore field office, claimed that the suspects were not merely making threats; they were also taking action to carry them out and further their extremist objectives.
Clendaniel allegedly stated in court documents that if the planned attacks were successful, “we would completely and forever lay this city to waste.” The accused wanted to “destroy” the city of Baltimore, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, Erek Barron.
Their arrests came after several months of warnings from law enforcement about planned attacks on power substations in North Carolina and Washington state, which left tens of thousands of consumers without energy and raised questions about the reliability of the American power infrastructure.
Sobocinski pointed out that although the FBI is aware of the relatively recent assaults on power substations in other states, the alleged plot against Baltimore’s electrical grid does not seem to be related to those instances or a part of a bigger conspiracy. However, he added that “the inquiry continues,” even though there is now “no indication” that the suspected plot was a copycat crime.
“For their prompt action in avoiding a potentially catastrophic attack on several of Maryland’s electrical substations,” Governor Wes Moore praised the F.B.I. and state law enforcement on Monday.
Domestic violent extremists “have formed credible, specific plans to attack power infrastructure since 2020, identifying the electric grid as a particularly desirable target,” according to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warning CBS News acquired in January.
Former Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection at DHS Brian Harrell told CBS News that “the utility sector has a big problem on its hands.” Domestic terrorist organizations are aware that damaging this infrastructure can severely impact businesses, residents, and local governments, making power stations an appealing target.
According to Harrell, there has been a “substantial increase” in domestic violent extremists’ internet talk about sabotage and physical attacks on electrical substations. “It’s hard to stop a determined enemy that knows exactly what to shoot and how to disable vital parts.
The energy industry makes investments in resilience because of this, said Harrell. “We rapidly discover that targeting and destroying energy infrastructure is a tactic many extremist groups fantasize about when we dig into the dark web, social media portals, and chat rooms.”
There are about 55,000 substations in the US. Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff said to “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker that it just takes a small number of substations to bring down the entire system in the country. Wellinghoff stated that “less than 20” substations being destroyed may cause a national blackout.