They wanted to take down the power grid. Now they’re facing federal charges.
It’s time for law enforcement to view right-wing domestic terror as a sustained movement, not just a series of one-off incidents
Earlier this week, the FBI arrested two people, Brandon Russell and Sarah Clendaniel, for conspiring to damage an energy facility, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1366(a). It’s a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison, no matter how much damage is caused, if there is an intent to cause a serious interruption at the facility. We’ve become familiar with the idea of this type of crime, with reporting over the past year or so about efforts by right-wing domestic terrorists to target the power grid.
It might seem a little bit pie-in-the-sky for two people who allegedly met in prison to pull something like this off. The temptation is to write it off as two deluded people who could have never achieved their goals. After all, a conspiracy charge is about an agreement to violate the law, not to succeed in doing it.
But minimizing Russell and Clendaniel’s plans would be a mistake. In fact, it’s precisely the type of mistake that let the FBI and federal law enforcement miss the significance of advance intelligence on January 6, which makes it reassuring to see them taking this situation seriously.
For one thing, this was serious. The defendants were charged in a complaint and arrested, which suggests a sense of urgency and concern about permitting them to remain at large until the next grand jury could indict them. That process also means we have an FBI agent’s affidavit, which was attached to the complaint. We can glean a great deal about the facts of the case from the affidavit.
The affidavit starts with some background: Brandon Russell was previously interviewed by the FBI because one of his roommates killed two others when Russell wasn’t there. Russell acknowledged he subscribed to Nazi ideology, had started a pro-Nazi group called Atomwaffen, and had high-explosive hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD). The roommate who committed the murders told law enforcement that the other three, with Russell as their leader, “had been planning to attack U.S. infrastructure, to include power lines along 3 ‘Alligator Alley’ (a nickname for the part of Interstate 75 that crosses South Florida) as well as a Florida nuclear power plant.”
Here’s how the affidavit describes the group Russell started: “The Atomwaffen Division (‘AWD’) is known to law enforcement to be a US based racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist (‘RMVE’) group with cells in multiple states. The group’s targets have included racial minorities, the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, the United States Government, journalists, and critical infrastructure. AWD reportedly has international ties.”
The specifics of the plan Russell and Clendaniel are charged with are truly chilling. The affidavit details numerous communications between the defendants and FBI sources or informants leading up to a conversation on January 29, 2023, where Clendaniel told a source, in a conversation that is recorded, that she planned to target five specific power substations in Maryland that “ring” around Baltimore so that hitting them all the same day “would completely destroy this whole city.” She concluded that “it would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste if we could do that successfully” and that it would lead to a “cascading failure,” where the failure of one element in the power grid causes its load to shift to others, leading to the failure of an entire system in the worst case. There is additional evidence of Russell discussing the same targets and of Russell and Clendaniel discussing them together.
The FBI obtained Clendaniel’s records from Google, which included this photograph of her, in a lower face mask of a type often associated with far-right movements and seen on some members of the January 6 mob at the Capitol. Among the documents they recovered was one that read like the type of message terrorists often leave behind: “If this is being posted online, I can only hope that some of my plans were at least partially successful.” The document references the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; Anders Breivik, who was convicted in 2012 in Norway for committing terrorist attacks; and Hitler. It includes the statement, “I would sacrifice **everything** for my people to just have a chance for our cause to succeed.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks terrorist groups, defines terrorism as “a pre-planned act or attempted act of significant violence by one or more non-state actors in order to further an ideological, social or religious cause, or to harm perceived opponents of such causes. Significant violent acts can include bombings or use of other weapons of mass destruction, assassinations and targeted killings, shooting sprees, arsons and firebombings, kidnappings and hostage situations and, in some cases, armed robberies.” That covers both foreign and domestic terror. The distinction, in their view, is that domestic terror “consists of acts or attempted acts of terrorism in which the perpetrators are citizens or permanent residents of the country in which the act takes place.”
There is a long history of domestic terror in this country, much of it centered around white supremacist groups like the KKK that committed acts of violence to preserve what they saw as their way of life. That history includes people like Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who wanted to topple the government and set off the Oklahoma City bomb that killed 168 people, including 19 children, injuring several hundred more. It includes Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist with anti-government leanings, who gunned down three police officers in Pittsburgh. It includes Eric Robert Rudolph, responsible for three bombings in Atlanta, including one at Olympic Park and others at LGBTQ clubs, as well as one at a Birmingham, Alabama, abortion clinic that killed an off-duty policy officer. The shooting deaths of nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. The deadly protest in Charlottesville. And it includes hundreds of others, both familiar names and acts, and lesser-known ones. But the point is, domestic terror is a pervasive problem in modern-day America, and instead of treating each crime as a one-off incident, it’s time to address it systemically, in the same way law enforcement attacked foreign terror after 9/11.
Russell and Clendaniel’s arrests are the start of a longer story, the story of how the country will address domestic terror in a post-January 6 world. It’s still not clear that law enforcement leadership, including the FBI, have successfully made the institutional shift, top to bottom, to view white supremacist domestic terrorist groups, collectively, as a sustained movement and a serious national problem. The New York Times reported last week that congressional investigators concluded during the January 6 committee’s work that the FBI failed to anticipate what happened at the end of the Trump administration because of “a misguided belief that the threat from the far left was as great as that from the far right,” which meant that “officials at the bureau did not anticipate or adequately prepare for the attack.”
This institutional bias has been discussed extensively; the question is whether the Bureau, whose director reports to the Attorney General, is prepared to fix it. The FBI is conducting an internal review of January 6. Meanwhile, there is also an Inspector General investigation in the works. But both processes take time in a moment where the country may not have it.
Even recently, a top intelligence official in the FBI’s Washington field office continued to play down the Bureau’s intelligence failure on January 6, complaining to congressional investigators that no one told the FBI a mob was going to storm the Capitol. “Why didn’t we have one source come forward and tell me that?”
But documents obtained by the January 6 committee demonstrated that at the same time that agents were tracking domestic terrorism suspects who planned to attend Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally and opened cases of unrest in connection with the election, they wrote “emails that illustrated the bureau’s belief that there were no credible threats to Washington before Jan. 6.” The committee wrote a draft report that was not released but that the Times had the opportunity to review. It concluded that the FBI’s focus on terrorists as lone wolves committing one-off crimes “obscured its ability to see a ‘broad-right-wing movement come together’ and created a cognitive bias that hampered critical thinking.” Trump and his Attorneys General, Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr, viewed the threat of terror from the left as the real problem America faced. That mentality seems to have swamped the FBI, which missed the January 6 intelligence despite having high-level cooperators within both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
According to the Times, “both the Justice Department and the F.B.I. made investigating far-left extremists a top priority along with militias and other anti-government groups. But in more than two decades, there had been only one killing by someone the bureau had classified as an ‘anarchist violent extremist.’ ” False equivalency is dangerous—extremely so here. It permits the FBI to take its eye off the ball instead of requiring that it focus on adherents of right-wing groups and ideology who have committed terror attacks, killed, and tried to overthrow the government. It obscured the focus on the clear threat. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who oversaw the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, has the institutional knowledge and the position of authority to force a sea change in the institution he leads. While that kind of change is the law enforcement equivalent of trying to turn a battleship, it’s both essential and overdue.
During the Obama administration, I served on the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, which brought together law enforcement stakeholders from federal agencies with jurisdiction over domestic terrorism. Importantly, it involved information and trend sharing, which enabled better risk assessment across a broad threat range. Predictably, that work fell into disfavor under Trump. It’s time to restore it and to set top-down priorities that require federal law enforcement agents to work domestic terrorism, just as DOJ successfully sets priorities in other areas of enforcement. Those priorities should be clearly communicated to the public to provide clarity on the threat. The final days of the Trump administration conclusively established that its dismissive tone on white supremacist terror did not serve the country well. It’s time to fix that mistake.
I’ll be watching the prosecution of Russell and Clendaniel to see if it’s treated like yet another isolated incident or if it’s viewed in the context of a larger right-wing terror movement, much as single incidents of international terror have long been viewed. The prosecution is an opportunity for DOJ to begin to change the tone of the national narrative and its own internal priorities. Stay tuned.
We’re in this together,
I knew a couple of people who were following the White Supremacist movement and then I heard Professor Kathleen Belew at a conference on Disinformation and the Impact on Democracy held at the University of Chicago. So, I read her book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Then I started reading about the White Power movement internationally. I now subscribe to daily terrorism briefings, just to have a sense of what is going on. In the USA, the briefings can either be about Muslim or White Nationalist terrorists. Formerly, I got the Southern Poverty Law Center Newsletter, and they always tracked White Supremacist activity, so I had a sense of it then as well, which means that when the Oklahoma city bombing happened I did not immediately think it must have been Muslims. I think that Prof. Belew's book is a must read for understanding that what is going on is not isolated incidents, but systematic, and for understanding when one is seeing such things. She also has a book for journalists, which she co-edited, A Field Guide for Journalists, because the press is not reporting the incidents as part of a sustained movement, but as isolated incidents. So, both law enforcement and the press needs to understand these players in domestic terrorism. In Germany the AfD Alternative for Deutschland is really just a renaming of the Nazi party since it is illegal to have a Nazi party here. I am surprised that it has been allowed to exist. This is how they slip a White Supremacist agenda in, by being anti -immigration instead of more directly racist. That is how the Republican party is doing it in the USA too. According to Belew it is a plan. I have been following the attempts to destroy the energy grid, clearly Putin followers, and it is quite concerning. Our energy grids are quite vulnerable to attack, and I am glad that the Biden administration has stressed that the energy sector needs to be vigilant.
‘no one told the FBI a mob was going to storm the Capitol. “Why didn’t we have one source come forward and tell me that?”’
And yet it seemed like everyone on Twitter knew it was going to happen. Why the disconnect?