William Allchorn, interim director of Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and an adjunct associate professor at Richmond University
In what has become an all-too-familiar script, in the early afternoon of Saturday, 14 May 2022, a heavily-armed young man in military gear attacked shoppers and workers at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, killing ten people and wounding three others. Most of the victims were Black—the supermarket is located in a predominantly Black neighbourhood—with the shooter specifically targeting Black individuals, and reportedly refraining from attacking white individuals. The shooting was livestreamed via the gaming platform Twitch, recorded using a helmet camera, and echoed the aesthetics of popular first-person shooter games. In the moments prior to the shooting, the perpetrator released an online manifesto—a tactic seen in several other recent extreme-Right shootings—and a diary was also released on Discord, another popular gaming-adjacent platform, that has been exploited by far-Right extremists. In it, he specifically spoke of targeting the Black minority in the US, and set out his main grievance: the Great Replacement Conspiracy Theory, with accompanying rabid antisemitism and anti-transgender sentiments.
Patterns of Predictability in the Buffalo and Other Far-Right Terrorist Attacks
Perhaps one of the most depressing realities to emerge after the attack was the predictability (and detectability) of the terrorist’s actions. Firstly, the nature of the attack and the manifesto/diary itself followed the same pattern as previous far-Right lone actor terrorist incidents in the past five years. In fact, the shooter wrote in his Discord diary that he started reading 4chan a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and that he was heavily influenced by Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people in a shooting rampage at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019. The Buffalo shooter wrote that he originally planned his attack for March 15, the three-year anniversary of Tarrant’s attack.
Secondly, and relatedly, reports show that as far back as June last year the shooter was visited by New York State Police and later referred for psychiatric evaluation after he did a high school project about murder-suicides. Indeed, several months before the attack, the suspect drove to surveil the same supermarket in Buffalo and was stopped by a security guard due to his suspicious behaviour. The shooter, when accosted, said that he was collecting “census data” and wrote in his Discord diary that it had been a “close call”. His Discord diary—a mine for terrorism researcher and practitioners—was shared 30 minutes before the attack. Indeed, such ‘leakage’ behaviour left by the assailant was also evident online—with the shooter posting questions and images of ammunition and body armour on a separate public Discord server.
A third aspect of the attack that followed a predictable pattern was the radicalization pathway of the shooter, the availability of weaponry, and the youth aspect of their profile. The shooter appears to have gone through his radicalization journey largely online and through engaging with alternative platforms where cult like followings and martyrdom of previous far-Right lone attackers is the norm. What is also evident is the young nature of the attacker (only 18) and how this has become increasingly representative (i.e. young and male) of those either interdicted at an early stage, prosecuted, or who have carried out far-Right terrorist attacks in the past five years. It is also clear from the shooter’s diary that he did not have difficulty obtaining munitions for the attack. In fact, he played with the nuances of New York gun law in order to ensure his attack was possible and sold many of his belongings in order to amass a big enough bounty to purchase the three firearms (imprinted with fascist and white supremacist slogans and insignia) to carry out the attack. Writing in a post-dated January 30, the shooter knew that if he had been involuntary admitted for mental health evaluation, he would have not be able to legally purchase a weapon and alleges that “because I stuck with the story that I was getting out of class and I just stupidly wrote that down. That is the reason I believe I am still able to purchase guns.”
The fourth aspect of that follows a now well-trodden pattern relates to the response in the aftermath of the attack and the introspective lessons that need to be learned. In the immediate aftermath, and perhaps what was so problematic, was the treatment of the attack as “a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism,” rather than an act of terrorism. According to most definitions, the pre-meditated, communicative, and political nature of the attack clearly meets the threshold of terrorism, but this has not yet been levied. The double standard that is levied against far-Right terrorists versus Islamist terrorists abounds, and the slippage of simply bracketing it as a hate crime is depressingly normal. At this moment in time, the suspect has pleaded not guilty to one count of first-degree murder. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, thought officials have suggested that other charges might be coming.
Lessons That Need to be Learned
The depressing predictability of the Buffalo attack points to a number of lessons that need to be learned by policymakers and practitioners when investigating an interdicting potential far-Right terror plots and attacks. The first is to look out for offline leakage behaviour and to double down on it with extreme severity. In order to respond to the attack, it is clear that a public health approach that detects the early warning signs of such attacks and responsibilizes key organs of the state and citizenry to intervene are needed. This might involve better training, more sensitive hair triggers or stricter laws around munition and armament acquisition. In the first respect, at Richmond, the American University in London, we have just started the first MA of its kind aiding the next generation of law-enforcement officers, journalists, and tech professionals in understanding the issues germane to far-Right extremism and terrorism, but what is also evident is that a more preventative approach is needed “left of boom”. Such an approach needs to be done at the mass level to boost critical digital literacy and to breed confidence in knowing how to respond when a friend, classmate, or relative appears to be switching in a concerning direction. Better awareness of the signs of radicalization are needed, and also a better awareness of leakage behaviour, is key to preventing another Christchurch, El Paso, Poway, Halle, Hanau, or Buffalo.
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