When the Baltimore FBI announced last month that they had arrested two suspects for conspiring to attack power substations and cause a massive blackout in Charm City during freezing weather conditions, one name stood out like a neon sign to extremism researchers and law enforcement: Brandon Russell.
The 27-year-old native of the Bahamas gained international notoriety in 2017 when he was outed as the founder of the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), a highly influential millenarian neo-Nazi terrorist organization with international ties that coalesced around Russell on a now-defunct chat website called Iron March circa 2015. AWD’s presence was mostly online and unknown to law enforcement until 2017, when Russell’s fellow extremist Devon Arthurs fatally shot Andrew Himmelman and Jeremy Oneschuk, two other AWD members, during an argument in a Tampa, Florida, apartment shared by all four youthful extremists.
Following Arthurs’ arrest, a search of the apartment yielded plentiful extremist literature, several firearms, the homemade explosive hexamethylene triperoxide diamine prepared by Russell and stored in a cooler alongside several pounds of ammonium nitrate, solid rocket fuel, thorium and DIY home detonator components. Significantly, authorities also recovered journals in which Russell outlined plans for attacking a series of transformers along Interstate 75 in a section in South Florida known as “Alligator Alley.”
Russell’s arrest last month while on court-supervised release for a federal explosives conviction from 2018 raises questions about the lack of restrictions on his use of the internet or associations after serving his prison sentence and whether there was any attempt to slake his radicalism during years of custody and federal incarceration.
“That was purely an accident he was caught,” former FBI agent Mike German said of Russell’s 2017 arrest.
The plot Russell is accused of perpetrating alongside his paramour, 34-year-old ex-convict Sarah Clendaniel, is straight out of the pages of the notebooks seized by the FBI in Florida almost six years ago. The FBI kept tabs on Russell during his time in prison, monitoring his communications and phone traffic. According to court records, the bureau knew of his relationship with Clendaniel since 2018, when the Catonsville woman emailed Russell while she was serving her own prison sentence for armed robbery.
Following Russell’s release on three years of federal probation in August 2021, Russell he made contact with an FBI informant with whom the Atomwaffen founder and his girlfriend developed a scheme to hit power infrastructure, according to court documents. However, questions remain about what sort of efforts were made by federal prison and probation authorities to keep tabs on Russell or divert him from his path of extremist violence.
Furthermore, authorities are examining whether Russell or Clendaniel could be connected to other attacks on power infrastructure on the East Coast last year, including a December sniper attack on substations in North Carolina that caused blackouts for tens of thousands of people.
The sabotage efforts, which also occurred in the Pacific Northwest last fall, are patterned off a still-unsolved 2013 incident known as the “Metcalf Sniper,” in which a gunman used an assault rifle to disable power substations on the outskirts of San Jose, California. Attacks on the power grid surged 71 percent in 2022, according to recent reporting by The Wall Street Journal.
Pete Simi, a sociology professor at Chapman University who has studied the American far right for over two decades, characterized Russell as “a very hardcore case, a person who is committed to this Neo-Nazi ideology.” Years in federal prison did not lessen Russell’s commitment to the cause, and lax conditions of his court-supervised release imposed no restrictions on the young extremist’s ability to associate with his former comrades.
“He could’ve restarted the Atomwaffen Division without violating the conditions of his release,” Simi said. “If not for the confidential informant, we might be talking about a major act of terrorism.”
A plot years in the making
The circumstances leading to Brandon Russell’s initial arrest and prison term make clear that the plot he is accused of crafting to attack power substations ringing the Baltimore area is the product of an unbroken line of planning and action the Atomwaffen Division founder has pursued for over half a decade.
In conversations with Tampa Police detectives following the murders of Oneschuk and Himmelman, Arthurs claimed he’d shot both young men to prevent a terrorist attack and warned authorities that Russell was plotting “to kill civilians and target locations like power lines, nuclear reactors, and synagogues.”
In a recorded interview with Tampa Police Detective Kenneth Lightlinger, Arthurs warned that Russell, Oneschuk and Himmelman knew how to manufacture explosives and had plans to hit government offices, federal buildings and power lines near a highway. Arthurs also told Lightlinger that Russell had joined the Florida National Guard to learn how to use firearms and devise explosives.
“I’m telling you stuff that the FBI should also be hearing,” Arthurs implored Nightlinger.
Russell, then 22 years old, arrived home and saw the carnage at his apartment. After being briefly questioned by the police, he was released and even given a ride home despite the copious amounts of explosive precursors, an assault rifle, neo-Nazi literature and regalia in the home, including a framed photograph of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Russell got his hands on another AR-15-style assault rifle and a bolt-action hunting rifle, loaded homemade body armor and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition into his car, and drove off for the Florida Keys with another Atomwaffen member. They were apprehended in Monroe County. One of the arresting deputies, Deanna Torres, would later say that “we were convinced that we had just stopped a mass shooting.” An FBI bulletin indicated that Russell and his AWD comrade may have been intent on targeting the nearby Turkey Point nuclear power plant.
Even while in custody for his first criminal offense in 2018, Russell urged his Atomwaffen comrades onward in their pursuit of extremist violence, drafting instructions on how to build an explosive device in a letter he planned to send to a fellow extremist from county jail. In another 2018 letter cited by prosecutors, Russell wrote that “as soon as I get out, I will go right back to fight for my White Race and my America!”
In 2018, he was transferred to a Communications Management Unit in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, from a lower-security prison, after his telephoned threat toward AWD members suspected of disloyalty appeared online in a propaganda video. CMUs are special housing units in the Bureau of Prisons established during the George W. Bush administration with the intention of restricting and monitoring the correspondence of alleged extremists. Known widely as the “terrorist unit,” CMUs have mainly been used to house Muslim jihadis and left-wing radicals, but in recent years significant numbers of white supremacists and far-right inmates like Russell have been housed in the special pod.
Both Russell and Clendaniel are charged with conspiring to destroy an energy facility, a federally designated act of terrorism that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Court records also show that Russell faces additional punishment for reoffending while on supervised court release.
Russell and Clendaniel’s social media accounts show they were in close contact with other extremists from the remnants of the Atomwaffen Division. Ryan Hatfield, a longtime member of the Colorado cell and a core component of AWD’s remnants, such as the National Socialist Order, follows both Clendaniel’s still-live Twitter handle, @kali.1889, and Russell’s suspended account, @Brandon_Bahama. On Feb. 13, Hatfield posted a brief note about Russell and Clendaniel’s arrest on a neo-Nazi propaganda site run by an Atomwaffen Division member, the American Futurist, to which Russell contributed essays during and after his incarceration. “Whatever he did, Brandon had his heart in the right place,” Hatfield wrote.
According to court documents, the FBI began monitoring Russell’s communications during his term in a Florida county jail and then in federal prison, tracking his phone calls, emails and keeping logs of his visitors.
Multiple sources confirm that Russell’s probation officer was unaware of the FBI’s targeting of their charge. Furthermore, two sources indicate that Russell’s probation officer was shown screenshots of Russell’s posts on a now-defunct Twitter account on which he spoke glowingly of his incarceration and the friends he met in prison. No action was taken.
“People always complain about prison being the worst thing that could happen to their lives. But honestly, I met some of my best friends in prison, had some great times and great laughs, and was shown a ton of love and support from those who cared about me on the outside,” Russell wrote over a sketch and photograph of himself during his time at the federal prison in CMU Terre Haute. The sketch features Russell’s head framing a Black Sun with the caption “The Most Dangerous Man in America.”
Russell also posted another prison self-portrait that featured graphic images of violence, firearms and Adolf Hitler speaking with a child, over the caption “What’s on your mind, Brandon?” Other posts show Russell wearing a shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Animal Liberation Front, espousing similar views on ecological catastrophe, and an image of a bare-armed Russell posing with an inmate in Terre Haute CMU with a tattoo of the AWD symbol and the names of his dead comrades inked on his right bicep.
Another post features an image of a smiley face encircled by a snake eating its tail, under the text, “prison isn’t really as bad and stupid as in the movies.”
Requests for comment about Russell’s actions and supervision to the United States Probation Office in Tampa, Florida, were not returned.
Sabotage multiple substations during a cold snap
Reporting by the Southern Poverty Law Center based on leaked conversations from the encrypted smartphone application Telegram make clear that Brandon Russell had re-immersed himself in the right-wing extremist milieu by summer 2022, circulating maps of the power grid, exhortations to attack nationwide rail infrastructure and videos urging acts of sabotage to group chats.
Russell also widely disseminated four virulent accelerationist propaganda tracts produced by Terrorgram, a loose-knit online collective that published several highly detailed, extensive documents aimed at provoking “lone wolf” acts of terrorism. He also was in close contact with Dallas Humber, one of Terrorgram’s main propagandists, who bragged in group chats with extremists about infrastructure attacks in North Carolina last fall. A double homicide outside an LGBTQ bar in Bratislava, Slovakia last October is the first documented case of Terrorgram-inspired violence.
Court records show that after Russell’s release, he made contact through an encrypted smartphone app with an FBI informant. Using the handle “Homunculus,” Russell sent the government source white-supremacist literature and instructions on how to disable critical infrastructure and monkeywrench the power grid — a longstanding staple of American far-right circles dating back to William Pierce’s influential 1980s novel “The Turner Diaries.”
In October, Russell wrote to the informant that “putting holes in transformers though is the greatest thing somebody can do.” Over the next few months, Russell and the confidential informant continued to discuss the idea of disabling power infrastructure in Baltimore, eventually arriving in January on a plan to sabotage multiple substations in and outside the city during a cold snap to cause “cascading failure costing billions of dollars.”
By January, Russell put the informant in touch with Clendaniel to discuss the actual planning and logistics of the attack, according to the court records. Aside from being from the region, Clendaniel told the informant she wanted to protect Russell as much as possible from any consequences of their plot. “He’s not like your average regular one of us that’s not known and that’s like a faceless unknown person. ... I try not to involve him wherever possible,” Clendaniel messaged the informant on Jan. 24.
After discussing what caliber weapon and ammunition to use, as well as the necessity to use “brass catcher” attachments to secure any loose casings from spent rounds that could be gathered as evidence, the informant agreed to buy a rifle for Clendaniel, whose prior felony conviction barred her from purchasing firearms. At the end of January, they decided on five Baltimore Gas and Electric substations to attack, in Norrisville, Reisterstown, and Perry Hall, as well as two others within city limits. Despite Clendaniel’s desire to insulate Russell from the plot, at the end of January the Atomwaffen founder sent videos of attacks on other power substations, including in North Carolina, to the informant and discussing specifics of how to strike each facility most effectively.
Within a week, FBI agents arrested Clendaniel and Russell. They remain in detention pending their next court hearing on March 10.
Ali Winston is an independent reporter covering criminal justice, privacy, and extremism. He has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, New York magazine and has reported documentaries for BBC Panorama and PBS Frontline. His work has earned several honors, including a George Polk Award for Local Reporting, an Alfred I. duPont Award, and a News & Documentary Emmy. Along with Darwin BondGraham, he is the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night: Corruption, Brutality and Coverup in Oakland (Atria, 2023).