Pair Is Charged With Plotting to ‘Destroy Baltimore’ by Attacking Electrical Grid
WASHINGTON — Federal law enforcement officials have arrested two people accused of conspiring to “completely destroy Baltimore” in what they described on Monday as a racist plot to demolish the power grid in a predominantly Black city.
Sarah Clendaniel, 27, of Catonsville, Md., and Brandon Russell, 34, of Orlando, Fla., planned to inflict “maximum harm” by targeting five facilities operated by Baltimore Gas and Electric, which serves 1.2 million customers in central Maryland, according to a complaint filed in federal court.
While prosecutors suggested the arrests did not appear linked to recent attacks on the electrical grid in North Carolina, Washington State and Oregon, Mr. Russell is a founding member of a neo-Nazi group called the Atomwaffen Division that discussed targeting electrical and nuclear facilities in Florida in 2017. He was released last August from federal prison after a conviction for bomb making.
“Russell provided instructions and location information,” Thomas J. Sobocinski, the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s field office in Baltimore, said at a news conference. “He described attacking the power transformers as the greatest thing somebody can do.”
Ms. Clendaniel, who was responsible for carrying out the attacks, boasted that she wanted to “completely lay this city to waste,” Mr. Sobocinski said, adding that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies disrupted the plot before it could be carried out.
The charges came as researchers and homeland security officials have warned that the energy grid and electrical substations in particular have become popular targets for far-right extremists.
In December, the complaint said, Mr. Russell used encrypted messaging apps to detail his long-term plans to damage the electrical grid, telling a confidential F.B.I. informant that he had recruited Ms. Clendaniel — who had served three years for robbing a convenience store with a butcher’s knife — as a possible accomplice.
Ms. Clendaniel said that striking all five, in rapid succession, with a “good four or five shots,” would “completely destroy this whole city” by setting off a cascade of power failures and prompting destructive civil disturbances, according to the complaint.
Her communications veer from grandiose predictions about the plot to jarring details of her personal and physical travails.
Prosecutors obtained a photograph believed to be of Ms. Clendaniel in a death’s-head mask that covered her mouth and nose as she held a rifle and wore a holstered pistol.
But last month, Ms. Clendaniel confided to the informant that a terminal kidney ailment meant she did not expect to live more than a few months and that she wanted to “accomplish something worthwhile” before she died.
To her, that meant destroying Baltimore, prosecutors said.
Ms. Clendaniel told associates she had identified several potential locations near the Delaware state line, including one substation that was “literally like a life artery.” But she also said she had trouble finding a suitable weapon, had just obtained a driver’s license and was nervous about driving to sites in Norrisville, Reisterstown and Perry Hall.
Mr. Russell, who began an email correspondence with Ms. Clendaniel when both were behind bars, advised her to carry out an attack “when there is greatest strain on the grid,” like “when everyone is using electricity to either heat or cool their homes,” prosecutors said.
He also provided Ms. Clendaniel with publicly available information about B.G.E.’s facilities, according to the complaint.
B.G.E. and its parent company, Exelon, said in a statement that their facilities were not targeted as a result of “any particular vulnerability” and that there were no known current threats against them.
There is “no indication” the Maryland plot was related to other attacks or plans, Mr. Sobocinski said on Monday, although the criminal complaint said Mr. Russell had cited a YouTube video that purported to explain “what really happened” with the shooting at the North Carolina substations.
Brian Harrell, who oversaw infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security, said there had been a noticeable rise in discussion among domestic violent extremists over carrying out such attacks.
“When digging into the ‘dark web,’ social media portals and chat rooms, we quickly see that targeting and destroying energy infrastructure is a tactic many extremist groups fantasize about,” he said.
From 2016 to 2022, white supremacist plots targeting energy systems “dramatically increased in frequency,” according to a study released in September by the program on extremism at George Washington University.
Over that period, 13 people associated with white supremacist movements were charged in federal courts with planning attacks on the energy sector, the study said, and 11 of those defendants were charged after 2020.
In February 2022, three men pleaded guilty to federal charges connected to a planned attack on substations after they had “conversations about how the possibility of the power being out for many months could cause war, even a race war, and induce the next Great Depression,” the Justice Department said.
That same month, a Department of Homeland Security bulletin warned that domestic violent extremists had recently aspired to disrupt electrical and communications systems as “a means to create chaos and advance ideological goals.”
Atomwaffen has been linked to a series of violent episodes. In 2020, federal prosecutors charged five members of the group with engaging in a campaign to intimidate and harass journalists and others, including a member of President Donald J. Trump’s cabinet, a university and a church.
In 2018, one of Mr. Russell’s roommates in Florida murdered two others, who were also associated with the group.
Mr. Russell was not in the apartment at the time. But the police, responding to the crime, discovered bomb-making materials in his possession, which led to his federal prosecution, conviction and a five-year prison sentence.