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

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

Brandon Russell, 27, and Sarah Clendaniel, 34, are expected to make their first appearance 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.

“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.

According to prosecutors, their plan was to attack with gunfire five substations that serve the Baltimore area. 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.”

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 said 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 about whether this plot was connected to other attacks across the country, Sobocinski said the FBI has “no indication” that this plot was “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. It was not immediately clear whether they had attorneys representing them in this matter. Attempts to reach family for Clendaniel and Russell were not immediately successful.

Russell, a former Florida National Guard member, is the founder of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen, 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 killed 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 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.”

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.”


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.’”

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.

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.

Brian Harrell, who oversaw infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security in the previous administration, said these threats are increasing and need to be treated as “domestic terrorism, pure and simple.”

“Targeting electric infrastructure is only done for two reasons, stealing and selling copper, and purposely destroying assets to put people in the dark,” he said. “The latter puts lives at risk.”


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Hannah Allam, Razzan Nakhlawi and Dan Morse contributed to this report.