The two neo-Nazis charged with federal crimes for plotting to attack Baltimore’s energy grid support a decades-old doctrine to push the country into armed racial conflict.
Sarah Beth Clendaniel, 34, and Brandon Clint Russell, 27, subscribe to a neo-Nazi ideology called accelerationism — which aims to cause society’s collapse through violent acts, such as what federal investigators say was their plan to shoot up five Baltimore-area power substations and cause widespread outages.
The thwarted plot would have been another in a string of recent attacks against critical energy infrastructure nationwide. Tens of thousands of people nationwide have lost power due to substation attacks across the country over the past three months.
In December, over 40,000 residents in Moore County, North Carolina were left without electricity after an armed attack on energy substations. It took the local energy company days to fully restore power, resulting in millions in damages and prompting a federal investigation. Power facilities have also been attacked in Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington.
Although it’s unclear if acclerationists are involved in the other assaults, white supremacist plots against energy infrastructure have been on the rise since 2020. These schemes were first popularized by neo-Nazis in the 1980s.
And while federal energy officials are raising alarms about the threat and reviewing security standards for the nation’s power networks, experts say that plots like Clendaniel and Russell’s often are misguided and unlikely to achieve the desired effect.
New Take on an Old Plan
For the past year, the Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly issued warnings on the increased threat of terror attacks against critical infrastructure, including against the energy sector. Most recently, in June 2022, a bulletin from DHS warned that these threats primarily stem “from lone offenders and small groups motivated by a range of ideological beliefs and/or personal grievances” — and accelerationists are just that.
The accelerationist movement is rooted in 20th century neo-Nazi texts: ”The Turner Diaries” and James Mason’s SIEGE newsletter. Both materials call for violent revolutions by disrupting critical infrastructure (energy, transportation, sewage systems) in order to promote a white ethnostate.
Best known for influencing the Oklahoma City Bomber, ”The Turner Diaries” is a 1978 novel used among accelerationist and neo-Nazi organizations as a handbook for attacking infrastructure, including energy grids. “The Turner Diaries” went on to inspire Mason, who then started SIEGE, a newsletter dedicated to saving the United States through Nazism, in the 1980s.
Russell, one of the conspirators charged in the Maryland plot, founded an accelerationist group called Atomwaffen Division — the German word for nuclear weapons — in the last decade. Citing Mason as a key inspiration for Atomwaffen, Russell and other members have since teamed up with the author to create a website called Siege Culture.
According to Bennett Clifford, a senior researcher for the George Washington University Program on Extremism, the rise of accelerationist ideology over the last decade — particularly online — is directly linked to the increase in energy attacks.
Clifford co-authored a report that chronicled individuals charged in federal court for violent extremist attacks from 2016 to 2022. In his research, he found that white supremacist plots against energy systems increased significantly in the last three years: Of the 13 individuals charged with planning attacks on energy infrastructure, 12 were white supremacists and 11 have been charged since 2020.
Clifford called one site, the now-defunct web forum Iron March, “an online radicalization pressure chamber.” Iron March helped birth numerous neo-Nazi groups, including Russell’s Atomwaffen. Since Iron March’s closure, these groups have moved onto other platforms, including messaging service Telegram and alt-right internet sites like Bitchute.
Anti-Defamation League investigative researcher Calum Farley tracks a number of accelerationist Telegram channels and said he often sees users share digital copies of ”The Turner Diaries” and other accelerationist propaganda encouraging power grid attacks.
“They’re saying basically that the power grid electricity is what allows for people to remain docile — whether it’s through mass media, or news cycles, or the government,” Farley said. “If you’re able to undo that, then you’re going to be able to spark that revolution that they believe is coming.”
Hannah Gais, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said though these groups purposefully target energy infrastructure to disrupt daily life, there isn’t evidence that loss of power would push society to a point of no return.
“Generally, when most people lose power, it’s scary and not good,” Gais said. “But, fundamentally, these guys are a part of an ideology that really emphasizes destruction [and] fetishizes this chaos.”
Accelerationists will often latch onto energy attacks in the news, claiming like-minded extremists were behind the attack — even if there is no evidence of a connection. Clendaniel also engaged in similar behavior online.
In a complaint, the FBI identified several of her online usernames, one of which matches a Twitter account with the bio “accelerate” amid a smattering of posts showing videos of Hitler and featuring far-right conspiracy theories.
On December 6, 2022, Clendaniel tweeted, “MORE... MORE... MORE!” with a screenshot of a Reddit post about the Moore County outages. Though it is unclear if the North Carolina attack involved accelerationists, their community, including Clendaniel, claimed it nonetheless.
Misguided logic and easy targets
Accelerationists also believe that the electricity grid is “a very easy target,” Farley added. On Telegram, he’s found that accelerationists often post links to a tool called Open Infrastructure Map, which maps different infrastructure worldwide, including the locations of energy substations. Clendaniel and Russell used the tool to locate five substations they believed supplied electricity to the Baltimore area, according to charging documents.
To them, Farley said, all you need is a well-placed bullet to ignite anarchy. But this plot is far from a perfect plan for pandemonium, according to Johns Hopkins engineering Professor Yury Dvorkin.
“If you shoot a person, they’re dead,” Dvorkin said. “If you shoot a transformer, it can still be operational.”
Not only that, he continued, but removing one or even several paths of electricity to Baltimore doesn’t necessarily result in a citywide blackout. Dvorkin said that the grid is redundant and can withstand some large failures. Likewise, there are many different electrical paths servicing any city, including Baltimore, and they can vary on a block by block basis.
Blackouts don’t happen for just a single reason, according to Dvorkin, but a combination of factors that compound with existing vulnerabilities, like human error, extreme weather or maintenance failures.
Social media posts show that accelerationists can take these factors into account. Farley found accelerationists posting on Telegram about California’s historic heat wave in September 2022, calling for action.
One post read, “With all this strain on California’s power grid, if a substation or 2 went down, there would be a very high likelihood of a ‘cascading failure,’” and added, “THE TIME IS NOW BURN CALIFORNIA TO THE GROUND.”
But, even then, to Dvorkin, a successful attack under those conditions is “a probabilistic question” without a guaranteed outcome. Similar attacks under similar circumstances can still result in completely different outcomes.
The Moore County attack left tens of thousands without power. But a 2013 attack at the Metcalf substation in California had a very different result. Armed gunmen damaged 17 transformers at the substation, but the attack had little effect on the power supply and left the vast majority of users with electricity.
Still, the event made national headlines and caused grave concern among public officials. Former Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Jon Wellinghoff told The Wall Street Journal that the attack was “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.”
An “Intensely Local” Problem
Despite the questionable efficacy of these attacks, there can still be dangerous and costly consequences. Nationwide blackouts are unlikely, but depending on the severity of the damage it can sometimes take days to restore power.
After three severe storms ravaged the state, communities throughout Texas lost power for roughly a week in 2021. The outages affected how residents stayed warm, stored food, and contacted the outside world, ultimately killing at least 240 people. And yet, even with these devastating outcomes, the accelerationist prophecy of racial anarchy didn’t occur. So while these attacks would almost certainly not result in national devastation, to Clifford, they could still result in needless pain and suffering.
“This is one sort of terrorist-based phenomenon that is designed to be intensely local,” he said.
The burden of these attacks falls mostly on the shoulders of local energy companies and government agencies, he added, since they are responsible for providing security for energy facilities.
In light of the attempted attack, Baltimore Gas and Electric, which serves 1.3 million customers in the Maryland-area, said in a press release that the company will work to improve grid resiliency by stocking more backup equipment and working to design “a smarter grid” that can more easily reroute power.
Federal lawmakers have also taken notice of this spate of attacks. After Moore County, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered an investigation into security measures for the nation’s electricity grid, which includes more than 50,000 substations and over 700,000 miles of transmission lines.
In a commission meeting, energy officials discussed the logistics of adding walls, 24-hour surveillance and cameras to better deter these attacks. But these upgrades would be costly, even with the $15 billion set aside to upgrade the power grid in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Infrastructure has been a focus of the last two presidential administrations, and the energy grid isn’t the only area that needs attention. In a November 2021 press release, the Biden Administration detailed numerous problems with “our nation’s fragile and aging infrastructure” that they hoped could be remedied in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Of the key improvements listed — rebuilding roads, transitioning to clean energy and providing national internet access — securing energy facilities went unmentioned.