FBI Arrests Pair Charged with Plotting to Attack Baltimore’s Electrical Grid
The FBI arrested a duo charged with plotting to destroy the electrical grid of Baltimore, Maryland, by attacking several substations using high-powered rifles.
FBI agents brought Sarah Beth Clendaniel, 34, and Brandon Clint Russell, 27, into custody last week, charging them with conspiracy to destroy an energy facility.
The Bureau had been gathering evidence in the case since at least June 2022, much of it stemming from Russell communicating with an informant working for the FBI. Evidence cited in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) allegations include discussions of using Mylar balloons to short out a power transformer. Russell had allegedly identified electrical substations at possible targets in publicly available electrical system grid maps.
Ultimately, the DOJ says the defendants settled on a plan to attack five or six substations on the same day by shooting at them, and to do so at a time of either very high or very low temperatures when the resulting power failure would be most harmful. Russell and Clendaniel allegedly believed the attacks would cause a “cascading failure” and “would probably permanently lay this city to waste.”
The FBI described the pair as “domestic violent extremists,” and explained how the planned crime was racially motivated because the defendants saw Baltimore as a predominantly Black city. Baltimore’s population is 62 percent Black, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Washington Post reported that Clendaniel and Russell met while they were both incarcerated at separate prisons.
“Russell [was] in federal custody for possessing bombmaking materials, and Clendaniel [was] in a Maryland facility for robbing convenience stores with a machete,” according to the Post. Both had been released and were on probation at the time of their arrests last week.
Russell is a former Florida National Guard member and the founder of Atomwaffen Division, a small neo-Nazi group “dangerous because of its influence on the broader far-right movement to eschew politics and spill blood.”
The Post also interviewed Clendaniel’s mother, who said her daughter had come under the influence of neo-Nazis while incarcerated. “She’s just always been anti-establishment,” Clendaniel’s mother said.
In a statement, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company praised law enforcement for their work to stop the plot.
“We hold the safety of our employees and the safety and security of our customers and communities as top priorities,” the company said. “In the last decade, we have increased our level of investment on grid hardening capital projects, and monitoring and surveillance technologies to work to prevent both physical and cyber-attacks. We remain focused on improving the resiliency of the grid by stocking critical back-up equipment while designing a smarter grid that isolates damage and routes power around it.”
While utility infrastructure in the United States has been the target of several recent attacks, there is no known direct link between this plot and previous attacks, such as attacks on substations in North Carolina in 2022 or attacks in Washington state earlier this year.
However, the idea of disabling power facilities as part of a racially motivated attack is not new. A year ago, three white supremacists hoped to foment unrest by recruiting a small army of saboteurs who would cause widespread outages across the country. The trio anticipated that the confusion would lead to a race war and economic collapse, and present the opportunity for white nationalists to take control of the United States.
Russell and Clendaniel both appeared in their respective courts on Monday, but their next court dates have yet to be scheduled. If convicted, they both face a maximum sentence of 20 years in U.S. federal prison.