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Neo-Nazi leader and Maryland woman charged in plot to wipe out Baltimore's power grid

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now some news out of the Justice Department - two people, including a neo-Nazi leader, are facing federal charges for allegedly plotting to attack power substations around the city of Baltimore.

NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is covering this. And Ryan, tell us about who the defendants are and what they're being charged with.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: The defendants are Brandon Russell and Sarah Clendaniel. Both of them have a criminal history. Clendaniel served time for an armed robbery, holding up a convenience store. She appears to share white supremacist views. There's a photo of her in the court papers actually holding what looks like an assault rifle and wearing tactical gear with a swastika on it. Russell, for his part, he previously served time for possessing bomb-making materials.

But he's really the important figure here, and that's because he's the founder of this neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen Division. This is a group that the government and researchers say is violent. They say it's dangerous. The group is said to have cells in several states. And its members have targeted racial minorities, the LGBTQ community and others, as well as critical infrastructure.

SHAPIRO: And tell us about the alleged plot here.

LUCAS: Right. So Russell and Clendaniel are both charged with conspiring to destroy an energy facility. And according to court papers, the plan here was to use guns to attack five electrical substations in the Baltimore area all in one day, the idea being that hitting all of those in quick succession would have a sort of cascading effect that would cripple the city's power grid. Now, according to the court papers, Clendaniel told a confidential human source - so a government informant - that if they managed to hit all five of the substations, it would, quote, "probably permanently, completely lay this city to waste," the city here, of course, being Baltimore.

Now, the confidential informant appears to have played an important role in this investigation. Russell and Clendaniel were talking in detail about their plans with the source, and that includes talk about what weapons to use and even sharing links on Google Maps pinpointing potential targets.

SHAPIRO: There have recently been attacks on power stations in several states. Is this alleged plot somehow connected to those incidents?

LUCAS: Well, that's a good question. But we don't really have an answer at this point. And that's because some of those earlier cases haven't been solved. One of the cases you're referring to would be attacks on electrical substations in North Carolina in December. They were hit by gunfire. Thousands of homes and businesses in the state lost power. Authorities have said that those attacks appeared to be deliberate. No arrests have been made, though. So we don't know who was responsible. And of course, we also don't know what their motive was.

What we do know, though, is, more broadly, that white supremacists have talked in the past and more recently about targeting critical infrastructure, things like power facilities, things like power substations. And research suggests that that trend is increasing. George Washington University's Program on Extremism had a report out. And it found that between 2016 and 2022, 13 people with ties to the white supremacist movement were charged in federal court with plotting attacks on the energy system.

SHAPIRO: Why would neo-Nazis focus on the power grid?

LUCAS: There's a practical side. Power substations, for instance, are often easier targets to hit than, say, a government facility that's well protected, a sort of hardened facility. But researchers say that attacks on critical infrastructure are also meant to help accelerate what white supremacists want - the collapse of government and society more generally.

The authorities are aware of this threat. And the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning recently that critical infrastructure could be targeted. The difficult thing, of course, though, is preventing attacks. Now, in this case, in this investigation here today, officials are saying that that's exactly what they managed to do.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.