US raises alarm on white nationalist attacks on power grid

Federal charges were filed this week against a Maryland woman and a neo-Nazi leader in Florida who are accused of planning a targeted attack on five power substations near the city of Baltimore.

The Department of Homeland Security’s lead official says he is “very concerned” that recently attempted attacks on the nation’s power grid could inspire copycat attacks by white nationalist groups.

Kenneth Wainstein, undersecretary of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, says the DHS is keeping its eye on the potentially racist motives behind a series of energy grid-related crimes. He said this theme of attack has been increasingly discussed among far-right extremist groups online, CBS News reported.

FWorkers work on equipment at the West End Substation, at 6910 NC Hwy 211 in West End, N.C., Dec. 5, 2022, where a serious attack on critical infrastructure has caused a power outage to many people around Southern Pines, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker, File)

“The vision, in short, is that they want to take down the energy grid because if they take down the energy grid, they believe that society will then collapse,” Wainstein told the outlet. “And out of the collapse, [they believe], will arise a white nationalist government to replace the current government. And we’ve seen this narrative online among these white nationalist groups.”

Federal charges were filed this week against a Maryland woman and a neo-Nazi leader in Florida who are accused of planning a targeted attack on five power substations near the city of Baltimore, according to the outlet.

Sarah Beth Clendaniel, 34, and Florida-based neo-Nazi group founder Brandon Russell, 27, had goals to “lay waste” to the majority-Black city by compromising its power sources during winter as “people are using max electricity,” according to court documents. 

Recent high-profile attacks on the U.S. power grid include a gunfire attack on North Carolina-based power substations in December, leaving tens of thousands without power. Two men were additionally arrested in Washington last December for a substation attack that caused outages for thousands.

Per CBS News, almost two dozen other power grid-related crimes remain under investigation by the FBI, which Wainstein says has been working with the DHS to track the extremist groups and monitor the concern of copycat crimes.

“Copycats are always a problem, no matter what kind of incident it is. If it garners attention in the press, if it’s something that is celebrated online by like minded individuals…you have to be concerned about copycat attacks,” Wainstein told the outlet.

The Program on Extremism at George Washington University in September released a study which found that power grid attacks linked to white supremacist motives have “dramatically increased in frequency,” as reported by CBS News.

The report found that 13 suspects with white nationalist ties have been federally charged with attempted attacks on power infrastructure from 2016 to 2022. 11 of the 13 suspects were indicted since 2020, per the outlet. 

Wainstein, formerly a homeland security adviser during the Bush administration, said that domestic terrorism threats now supersede concerns surrounding international terrorism. 

“The primary terrorism threat, the most lethal and persistent terrorism threat that we’re facing now, is not from the al Qaedas and the al-Shababs and the ISISes, though they remain a serious threat. But it’s from the lone actors and the small groups who are ideologically driven here within the United States and motivated out of ideology to foment, conspire to and engage in violence,” he told the outlet. “That’s what we’re seeing now.”

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