According to federal officials, a Maryland lady and a Florida neo-Nazi planned to assault several electrical substations in the Baltimore region.
According to a criminal complaint from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, Sarah Beth Clendaniel and Brandon Clint Russell were detained and charged with a conspiracy to fire out substations using “sniper assaults,” which would have rendered the electrical grid inoperable.
The complaint said Clendaniel threatened to “destroy this whole city” and had plans to attack five substations positioned in a “ring” surrounding Baltimore. The lawsuit said that Russell was a member of a violent extremist group with cells spread across several states and had previously intended to target crucial infrastructure in Florida.
In a press release, Maryland U.S. Attorney Erek Barron stated that “this planned attack jeopardized lives and would have left thousands of Marylanders in the cold and dark.” “We are unified and committed to preventing violence, particularly attacks motivated by hatred, by using all available legal methods.”
The revelation is released as worries about a rise in specifically targeted attacks on American substations linked to domestic extremism intensify.
What to know about assaults on substations
According to federal data, nationwide vandalism and suspicious activity at electrical facilities increased in 2017. By the end of the year, five different states’ worth of power plants and more than a dozen substations had reported attacks or prospective attacks. A few of them involved weapons.
Tens of thousands were left without electricity in North Carolina in December due to intentional attacks on substations, which occurred under subzero conditions. The FBI is looking into this.
On Christmas Day, more than 21,000 people were without energy due to vandalism at facilities in Washington. One of the two males who were detained informed police that he intended to disconnect the electricity to commit a burglary.
Domestic extremists have been creating “credible, precise plans” since at least 2020, according to the Department of Homeland Security, and they will continue to “promote physical attacks against electrical infrastructure.”
Three Nazis who planned to use rifles to assault the grid and each target a substation in a different part of the country entered guilty pleas in February of last year.
What transpired in the conspiracy in Baltimore?
According to the lawsuit, Russell and Clendaniel started communicating when they were both detained in 2018.
According to the lawsuit, Russell has been preparing to assault substations since at least June to further his “racially or ethnically driven violent extremist convictions.” He published links to infrastructure blueprints online and explained how attacks could result in a “cascading failure.” According to officials, he was recently detained in Florida while on supervised release for unrelated offenses.
The complaint claimed that Clendaniel “collaborated” with Russell. She allegedly told a witness that the attack “would probably permanently utterly lay this city to waste” as she made plans to obtain a weapon and chose five substations to attack.
According to the complaint, which includes a picture of Clendaniel sporting tactical clothing bearing a swastika and clutching a rifle, a federal agent learned about the conspiracy through speaking with Clendaniel and Russell over encrypted chats and audio calls.
The Exelon Corporation and Baltimore Gas and Electric, Maryland’s leading gas and electric provider, were the targets of the plot. In a statement, the corporation said that the plot was foiled and that nothing was harmed.
The business stated that it has invested in projects to secure the grid as well as in monitoring and surveillance technology to prevent both physical attacks and cyberattacks, noting that “threats have escalated in recent years.”
In Baltimore and Orlando, respectively, Clendaniel and Russell were scheduled to appear in federal court on Monday. They each may get a maximum term of 20 years in federal prison if found guilty.
According to federal data, accidents at electrical facilities are rising
The U.S. Department of Energy receives reports from electric utilities about all significant electrical disturbances and odd events that occur at their facilities, including local substations.
Since 2011, a subset of categories for vandalism and suspicious behaviors that are unrelated to a human operational fault have been added to those reports. These behaviors include copper theft, break-ins, cyber hacking, and sporadic gunshots directed at transformers.
These incidences increased by about 200% from the previous year, from 99 to 172 last year. Vandalism, actual physical assaults, and sabotage fall under this category. Actual physical attacks were reported in 15 incidents last year, up from 5 in 2021 when they were reported as vandalism.
Unusual incidents and human-related disturbances in American electrical facilities
The agency reported 57 cases of suspicious behavior and 80 vandalism offenses, an increase from 52 the previous year. With 40 such events, including 29 instances of vandalism, California led the country. The following was Texas (23 instances), then Washington (19).
The electricity grid is vulnerable to vandalism and other attacks, according to industry experts, in part because of how dispersed it is across the country.
Why is it so difficult to defend the electricity grid?
According to Granger Morgan, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who served as the chair of three National Academies of Sciences reports, industry experts, government representatives, and others have been warning in one report after another since at least 1990 that the power grid was in danger.
The findings advocated cooperation between state and federal agencies to strengthen the system’s resistance to intrusions and natural disasters like hurricanes and storms.
“The system is vulnerable by nature. It covers the entire countryside “which, according to Morgan, makes the lines and substations convenient targets. Over 7,300 power plants, 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, and 55,000 transmission substations are all part of the grid.
One issue, according to Morgan, is that there isn’t a single organization whose duties cover the entire system. And as the system develops to include renewable energy sources like solar and wind, the hazards are only rising, he claimed.