A National Guard veteran and his girlfriend were arrested Friday for allegedly plotting to destroy an electrical substation in Maryland, according to federal prosecutors.
Brandon Clint Russell, a former Guardsman and self-identified Nazi recently released from prison after a 2018 conviction for possessing explosives, and Sarah Clendaniel are accused of conspiring to carry out attacks to further "racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism," according to the complaint.
The arrests come on the heels of power grid attacks that peppered East Coast stations in recent months and while experts warn of increased domestic terror plots, including ones that involve service members and veterans with ties to extremist ideologies.
"This planned attack threatened lives and would have left thousands of Marylanders in the cold and dark," Erek Barron, a Maryland U.S. attorney, said in a press release.
From at least the summer of 2022, Russell conspired to carry out attacks on critical infrastructure, according to prosecutors.
This was not Russell's first run-in with the law related to his extremist views. In 2015, he announced the formation of the Atomwaffen Division, a notorious neo-Nazi group. Three years later, he was sentenced to five years in prison on charges related to explosives possession.
"Brandon Russell played a central role in the formation of Atomwaffen Division, one of the most dangerous and violent neo-fascist movements in recent years," Jon Lewis, a researcher with the George Washington Program on Extremism, said in an email to Military.com.
Investigators said they used open sourcing and a "confidential human source" to uncover the plot.
Russell, who investigators said used the moniker "Homunculus" in encrypted messages with the confidential source, said "putting holes in transformers though is the greatest thing somebody can do."
He allegedly informed the source of how to cause maximum damage to an electrical grid and encouraged them to read white supremacist literature.
The goal was to hit transformers "when most people are using max electricity," Russell said, according to the criminal complaint. "Follow on [attacks] could lead to cascading failure costing billions of dollars."
The complaint said that Russell then asked the confidential source to collaborate with "someone else I know in Maryland," referring to Clendaniel and her alleged efforts to also attack the grid.
Clendaniel went by the online names of "Kali1889" and "Nythra88." Extremists who subscribe to neo-Nazi ideologies often use the number 88 to signal their viewpoints, an allusion to "Heil Hitler," where the first two letters in the phrase are also the eighth letter in the alphabet, though it's unclear whether that was Clendaniel's intent.
The complaint said that Clendaniel, along with Russell, wanted to destroy five targets in one day around the Baltimore area.
"It would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste if we could do that successfully," she said, according to the complaint, referring to one as "literally like a life artery."
She and Russell went on to detail plans of their attack, posting links to open-source maps of critical infrastructure and referencing videos about a substation shooting that occurred in North Carolina, one of three known attacks in the state last winter.
Clendaniel informed the source that "she had a terminal illness related to her kidneys and was unlikely to live more than a few months, confirmed she is a felon, and stated she had previously, but unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a rifle," according to the complaint.
She allegedly asked the source to purchase a rifle for her, though prosecutors said she already had a pistol. Court records purport to show her holding a rifle and holstered pistol.
The Washington Post was first to report the arrests. The complaint provided by the Maryland Justice Department did not include contacts for either defendant's legal representatives, and the documents are not yet listed publicly.
Russell's connections to violent extremism were uncovered in 2017 when one of his roommates murdered two other roommates, according to court documents provided to Military.com by the Justice Department.
Responding law enforcement and a follow-up investigation found neo-Nazi paraphernalia; a photo of Timothy McVeigh, the Army veteran who killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing; and explosives belonging to Russell.
Russell was interviewed by investigators where he admitted to being a Nazi and starting Atomwaffen Division in Florida, a racial and anti-government extremist group known to target persons of color, minorities and critical infrastructure, according to the criminal complaint.
He later pleaded guilty to possession of explosive material and was sentenced to 60 months in prison. In 2018, he began communicating with Clendaniel, who was also in prison and whose criminal history includes felony armed robbery in 2006, according to prosecutors.
Both were on parole at the time of their most recent arrests.
"Russell's recent plot is merely one of more than a dozen since 2016 in which white supremacist actors were charged with attempting to attack critical infrastructure systems in the United States," Lewis, the extremism researcher, said. "The power grid has been a fascination among accelerationist, neo-fascist actors due to their singular desire on collapsing the system."
The planned attacks are aimed at inciting violence and civil unrest with the hopes of causing a collapse of society, which they intend to rebuild into a white ethno-state, Lewis said.
A spokesperson for the National Guard Bureau confirmed that Russell was in the National Guard from April 2016 to July 2018, joining a year after he announced the formation of one of the most notorious neo-Nazi groups in the country.
Military.com reported that he enlisted in 2016 and wrote on a now-defunct neo-Nazi site that he was "100% open about everything with the friends I made at training. ... They know all about it. They love me too 'cause I'm a funny guy."
Russell and Clendaniel were expected to appear for their initial hearings in federal court Monday and, if found guilty, face a maximum of 20 years in prison.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.