Neo-Nazi Plan To Destroy US Power Grid Foiled By Lost Phone
Three white supremacists — Christopher Brenner Cook, 20, of Columbus, Ohio; Jonathan Allen Frost, 24, of West Lafayette, Indiana, and Katy, Texas; and Jackson Matthew Sawall, 22, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin — pleaded guilty yesterday to federal charges of providing material support to terrorists. They each face up to 15 years in prison.
In this case, they themselves were the terrorists they provided material support to, along with several juveniles they had recruited online, as the three men intended to attack regional power substations for the purpose of causing civil unrest and perhaps "the next Great Depression," which they imagined would lead to a race war or provide an opportunity for white leaders to rise up.
The plan was to attack the substations, or power grids, with powerful rifles that would penetrate the transformers, which members of the group estimated would cost the government millions to recover. In addition, the defendants believed that time associated with replacing the substations would cause confusion and unrest for Americans in the region. There were also conversations about how the possibility of the power being out for many months could cause some serious change or straight out war, even a race war; additionally, that without power across the country, it could cause the next Great Depression, people wouldn't show up to work, the economy could crash and there would be a ripe opportunity for potential (white) leaders to rise up. One theme of the group discussions centered around the need to create disorder to bring the system down, which would cause people to doubt the system and create a true revolutionary force against the system.
And they would have gotten away with it too, were it not for the many times they had been stopped by law enforcement and the fact that one of the juveniles they recruited to help them lost their phone.
Court documents explain that Cook and Frost initially met online in a white supremacist forum, where Frost first brought up the idea of attacking power grids. They were eventually joined in this plot by Cook's real-life friend Sawall, and the three began hoarding weapons, training, and recruiting juveniles online to join them, as Cook believed they would be less likely to be undercover cops. Cook also issued "required reading" lists, including the seminal neo-Nazi text Siege and A Squire's Trial by Alexander Slavros, the online pseudonym of the founder of the Iron March white supremacist forum, which was linked to over 100 hate-crime murders before being shut down in 2019.
The three men bought multiple AK-47s and other weapons for attacking the power grid. Cook also made the trio "suicide necklaces" which he filled with fentanyl, so that they could kill themselves in case of an emergency. However, when the group met in person in Columbus, Ohio, for terrorism planning and neo-Nazi graffiti meant to encourage people to join their group, which they called "The Front," they were pulled over by police officers for a traffic stop. Sawall ingested the contents of his "suicide necklace" and survived.
SAWALL paid for the hotel room and most other expenses on the trip for the three conspirators. Upon first arriving in Columbus, SAWALL and COOK purchased spray paint and painted a swastika flag under a bridge at a park with the caption, "Join the Front." They later showed the graffiti to FROST, who took a picture of COOK and SAWALL with the image. There were also plans to hang propaganda posters as well as record or photograph the spray painting of a mosque and cutting down a telephone pole as part of propaganda for The Front. These plans were derailed after a traffic stop, during which SAWALL swallowed his suicide pill and ultimately survived.
Frost and Cook then headed over to Texas to meet another recruit, but those plans were derailed when said recruit lost his phone, which ended up in the hands of someone who said they were going to report them to the police, which led to them destroying all of their online communications. They were stopped again by police, who found their special fentanyl necklaces, electronic devices, and burner phones. After they encountered law enforcement a third time, they decided it was perhaps time to split up.
And yet, that didn't quite work. In August of 2020, the FBI raided the homes of the three men, finding a host of white supremacist materials, firearms, digital evidence, chemicals and other evidence of their plan.
In COOK'S bedroom, agents located a copy of the book "Siege," the cellular telephone used to communicate with co-conspirators, a tactical magazine and various camouflage jackets and pants. Racially Motivated Violent Extremism (RMVE) Nazi material also was found in the digital evidence seized from COOK. A recently acquired, but not yet assembled, rifle also was found in the pantry. In FROST'S home, agents discovered multiple firearms, including an AR15 pistol with no serial number, suppressors, milling tools and components. Chemicals and components found in FROST's bedroom were consistent with someone attempting to test and assemble an explosive device; in fact, FBI lab testing later confirmed that the chemicals could be used to create an explosive device. Digital evidence seized from the search revealed a large amount of RMVE Nazi related material such as videos, books and images, detailed U.S. power infrastructure information, an article regarding the sabotage of a power substation in California and a list of specific power substations, weapons modification manuals and explosives production diagrams and manuals. SAWALL's residence revealed three memo pads that contained various writings, including statements like "Revolution is our solution," A laptop contained documents describing The Front, the recruitment process, and an oath of allegiance. SAWALL's cellular telephone contained The Front propaganda posters and photographs of "Join The Front" graffiti and the Nazi flag graffiti by COOK and SAWALL in Ohio.
This really speaks to the effectiveness of online radicalization. These three men, all in their early 20s, and several others who were not even old enough to vote, were literally ready to die or spend their whole lives in prison because they thought there was a chance that by shooting at power grids across the country, they could spur a race war or help provide an opening for a "white leader" to gain power. That's a whole lot of hypothetical right there. That's desperation. That's scary.
It also really doesn't help that we have a number of elected officials and aspiring elected officials openly supporting unabashed white nationalists. It doesn't help that Donald Trump was president. These things make it seem like their white supremacist dreams of a power-outage-inspired race war could actually come true and make it all the more likely that men like these are going to attempt acts of terrorism in hopes of pushing things their way. The Overton window has moved far enough to the Right in this way that it's not actually that hard to find recruits for this kind of mission these days. That too, is scary.
These men will now be spending up to 15 years in prison, where they will likely join up with the Aryan Brotherhood and come out even worse, and perhaps more competent, on the other end of it — and it's not really clear what can be done about any of this.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse