Neo-Nazi leader and girlfriend accused of targeting Maryland power stations

Photo for The Washington Post by Eric Lee
A transmission line near in Montgomery County in Maryland.

BALTIMORE – A neo-Nazi leader recently released from prison is accused of plotting an attack on the Maryland power grid with a woman he met while incarcerated.

The charges against Brandon Russell, 27, and Sarah Clendaniel, 34, come amid a spate of sabotage targeting power stations across the country. Gunfire at two North Carolina substations in December left 45,000 people without power for several days. Most of the cases remain unsolved, but authorities and experts say they follow increased interest among white supremacists in targeting electric infrastructure.

“If we can pull off what I’m hoping . . . this would be legendary,” Clendaniel said on Jan. 29, according to the court record. She was speaking to a federal informant, who was having similar discussions with Russell.

The two appeared in court Monday in Baltimore and Florida federal courts on a charge of conspiring to destroy an energy facility, which carries up to 20 years in prison.

According to prosecutors, their plan was to attack with gunfire five substations that serve the Baltimore area. In conversations about the plot, according to court documents, Clendaniel “described how there was a ‘ring’ around Baltimore and if they hit a number of them all in the same day, they ‘would completely destroy this whole city.'”

At a news conference Monday morning, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Erek L. Barron thanked federal, state and local law enforcement partners for stopping the plot.

“Together, we are using every legal means necessary to keep Marylanders safe and to disrupt hate-fueled violence,” Barron said. “When we are united, hate cannot win.”

Special Agent in Charge Thomas J. Sobocinski of the FBI field office in Baltimore said Clendaniel and Russell conspired to inflict “maximum harm” to the power grid.

“The accused were not just talking, but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals,” Sobocinski said.

The FBI views their extremist views as “racially or ethnically motivated,” Sobocinski said.

According to prosecutors, they used open source information on the national infrastructure grid to pick five electrical substations around Baltimore that would, if attacked on the same day, create a “cascading failure” in the system.

“Their actions threatened the electricity and heat of our homes, hospitals and businesses,” Sobocinski said.

In response to a question on whether this plot was connected to other attacks across the country, Sobocinski said the FBI has “no indication” that this plot was part of “anything larger.” Clendaniel and Russell were taken into custody without incident late last week, one in Florida and the other in Maryland, Sobocinski said.

Clendaniel and Russell met while incarcerated at separate prisons, according to the court documents – Russell in federal custody for possessing bombmaking materials and Clendaniel in a Maryland facility for robbing convenience stores with a machete.

“Going to prison was worth it because I might not have met you otherwise,” Russell said in one text.

Both are on probation. In brief appearances Monday, represented by public defenders, neither contested detention. Clendaniel’s attorney declined to comment; attorneys for Russell could not be reached.

Clendaniel’s mother, Lanette Clendaniel, said in an interview on Monday that her daughter got involved with neo-Nazi beliefs in prison and carried them after her release.

“Her beliefs stem from the prison system,” Lanette Clendaniel said. “She didn’t really get into that crap until she was in prison.”

Sarah Clendaniel has struggled with drug abuse and has criminal convictions, going back to at least 2006 when she was 18 and sentenced to three years in prison for robbery, according to court records. Later, in 2016, she was sentenced to nine years in prison after being accused of robbing convenience stores three times while armed with a machete, according to court records and state officials. She has three children, who are living with grandparents.

When asked if it was possible that her daughter could have plotted to attack power substations, as the government alleges, Lanette Clandaniel said: “She’s just always been anti-establishment.”

Russell, a former Florida National Guard member, is the founder of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, which attempted to use violent attacks to spark a race war in the United States. Experts say the group, while small, is dangerous because of its influence on the broader far-right movement to eschew politics and spill blood.

An Atomwaffen member killed a gay, Jewish college student in 2019; another adherent is accused of killing his girlfriend’s parents for opposing his Nazi views. Atomwaffen followers have also threatened and harassed journalists, African American churches and Jewish organizations.

A former Atomwaffen member named Devon Arthurs, who lived with Russell in Tampa, killed two of their roommates in 2017 and subsequently told authorities they had been planning attacks on U.S. nuclear plants and power lines.

Police discovered bombmaking materials and explosives inside the shared apartment where the murders occurred; Russell subsequently pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered destructive device and improper storage of explosive materials.

His replacement as leader of Atomwaffen was subsequently imprisoned for “swatting,” or calling in fake crises to provoke lethal law enforcement raids.

Russell began talking to the informant while still in prison, according to the court record; he was released in August 2021. The discussions of infrastructure attacks allegedly began last summer.

Prosecutors say Russell recommended targeting transformers because they are “custom made and could take almost a year to replace.” He also said the attack would be most effective after a winter storm, “when most people are using max electricity.”

Sarah Clendaniel told the informant she expected to die of kidney disease within months and just wanted “to accomplish something worthwhile” first. She left a statement, according to the complaint, that references Hitler, the Unabomber and a Norwegian mass killer and says, “I would sacrifice **everything** for my people.” She said Russell, unlike her, “has a lot to lose.”

Clendaniel suffered from kidney damage and had told family members she only had a few months to live, according to her mother.

In discussing an attack on power stations, Clendaniel “added that they needed to ‘destroy those cores, not just leak the oil . . .’ and that a ‘good four or five shots through the center of them . . . should make that happen.’ She added: ‘It would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste if we could do that successfully,'” according to court documents.

In a statement, Baltimore Gas and Electric said they have increased security and surveillance at power stations in cooperation with law enforcement.

“This work is even more important now as threats have increased in recent years,” the company said.

Clendaniel’s desire to carry out an attack quickly was hampered by her lack of access to a rifle, according to the criminal complaint. Her semiautomatic weapon had been seized in a dispute with a neighbor, and she was hoping to get a new one from the informant. In the meantime, prosecutors say, she was planning to scope out the potential attack sites.

The charges come after similar attacks on the power grid in North Carolina and Oregon that remain unsolved; the Department of Homeland Security recently warned that the United States is in a “heightened threat environment” and that critical infrastructure is among the “targets of potential violence.”

Brian Harrell, who oversaw infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security in the previous administration, said there has been “a significant uptick” in online discussion of grid attacks by homegrown extremists and that it should be treated as “domestic terrorism, pure and simple.”

A report issued in September by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University found that white supremacists have been “laser-focused on conducting attacks on the energy sector during the last six years as a pretext for the anticipated collapse of American government and society.”

The researchers cited Russell as an early example.