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2 suspects arrested for conspiring to attack Baltimore power grid, officials say

2 arrested in plot to attack Baltimore power grid
2 arrested in alleged plot to attack Baltimore power grid 00:26

Authorities have arrested and charged two suspects in connection with an alleged plot to attack the power grid in Baltimore, Maryland, federal investigators and local officials announced on Monday.

The suspects, who were identified as Sarah Beth Clendaniel, of Maryland, and Brandon Russell, of Florida, are accused of conspiring to shoot at energy substations in Norrisville, Reisterstown and Perry Hall, court documents show.

"If we can pull off what I'm hoping … this would be legendary," Clendaniel said on Jan. 29, according to court records, calling the attack "definitely doable." 

Clendaniel, of Catonsville, Maryland, was allegedly recorded sharing her plans with an informant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to court documents. Officials believe Clendaniel was collaborating with Russell, with whom she has a documented "personal as well as online relationship," federal authorities said.

Russell has a long history of ties to racist groups and Nazi beliefs, as well as past plans to attack U.S. infrastructure systems, according to a criminal complaint filed in Maryland district court last week. Russell is a founder of a "terroristic neo-Nazi organization" called Atomwaffen Division, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and federal officials say that a previous investigation into one of his former roommates — who was arrested and charged 2017 for killing two others who lived with them — revealed neo-Nazi paraphernalia, a photograph of the Oklahoma City bomber as well as explosives that belonged to him. In 2018, Russell was sentenced to five years in prison for having lethal bomb-making materials in his Florida apartment.

The complaint also included a photo of a woman authorities identified as Clendaniel wearing tactical gear and holding a rifle.

FBI announces arrests in alleged plot to attack Baltimore energy grid
Thomas J. Sobocinski, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Baltimore Field Office, announces arrests and a federal criminal complaint charging Sara Beth Clendaniel of Catonsville, Maryland, and Brandon Clint Russell of Orlando with conspiracy to destroy an energy facility.  Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The FBI said it views the suspects as "racially or ethnically motivated extremists," with Russell allegedly giving instructions and location details to Clendaniel, while describing the alleged plot to attack power transformers in Baltimore as "the greatest thing somebody can do."

"The accused were not just talking, but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals," said Thomas Sobocinski, special agent in charge of the FBI Baltimore field office. 

According to court documents, Clendaniel allegedly said that carrying out the attacks as planned would "permanently completely lay this city to waste if we could do that successfully." Erek Barron, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, said in a statement that the suspects sought to "completely destroy" the city of Baltimore.

Their arrests come several months after a number of law enforcement agencies warned of deliberate attacks targeting power substations in North Carolina, as well as Washington state, which knocked out electricity for tens of thousands of customers and raised concerns about the stability of the U.S. power grid.

Sobocinski noted that while the FBI is aware of the relatively recent attacks on power substations in other states, the alleged plot targeting Baltimore's electrical grid does not appear to be connected to those incidents, or part of a larger conspiracy. However, while he said there is currently "no indication" that the alleged plot was a copycat crime, "the investigation continues."

Gov. Wes Moore commended the F.B.I. and state law enforcement, Monday "for their swift action in preventing a potentially catastrophic attack on several of Maryland's electrical substations." 

In January, a bulletin from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) obtained by CBS News  warned that domestic violent extremists "have developed credible, specific plans to attack electricity infrastructure since at least 2020, identifying the electric grid as a particularly attractive target."

"The utility sector has a real problem on its hands," Brian Harrell, former Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection at DHS, told CBS News. Power stations are an attractive target and domestic terror groups know that destroying this infrastructure can have a crippling effect on industry, citizens, and local governments." 

Harrell says there's been a "significant uptick" in online chatter by domestic violent extremists centered on sabotage and physical attacks of power substations. "A determined adversary with insider knowledge as to what to shoot, and how to cripple key components, is difficult to stop. This is why the energy sector invests in resilience," Harrell added. "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."

The U.S. has roughly 55,000 substations.

"There's a very few number of substations you need to take out in the entire United States to knock out the entire grid," Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told "60 Minutes" correspondent Bill Whitaker. Wellinghoff went on to say that knocking out "less than 20" substations could potentially result in a nationwide blackout.

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