Propaganda of the Deed: Contextualizing the Buffalo Attack
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
On May 14, the 18-year-old man circled the parking lot of a Tops grocery store in a Buffalo, NY neighborhood. At approximately 2:30, he switched on the GoPro camera attached to his helmet and began live streaming video on the Twitch gaming platform.
After exclaiming “Just gotta go for it man,” and then adding “This is the end, right here, I’m going in,” he parked his car in front of the store entrance, got out of the car and opened fire on people in the parking lot before entering the store itself to continue his bloody rampage.
The attacker then surrenders to the police, and a copy of a hate-filled manifesto is circulated on the internet calling on others to follow the attacker’s example.
In the end, he murdered 10 victims and left three others seriously wounded before being apprehended by the police.
The Buffalo shooting is the latest in a series of white-supremacist attacks that followed roughly the same blueprint: a lone assailant radicalized and operationalized on the internet conducts an armed assault against a soft target and that is aimed against an ethnic group he claims is attempting to “replace the white race.”
The shooter clearly intended this attack to be propaganda of the deed and induce terror that ripples far beyond the impact of the attack itself.
Past similar attacks include an attack against a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October 2018, a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, a synagogue in Poway, California in April 2019, a Wal Mart in El Paso, Texas in August 2019, and a synagogue in Halle Germany in October 2019.
In the Christchurch, Poway, Halle, and now Buffalo attacks, the assailants attempted to live stream their attacks in an effort to inspire like-minded individuals to conduct similar attacks.
Only 22 people saw the attack live on Twitch before it was taken down—reportedly within two minutes. But unfortunately, it was recorded and then propagated across several internet platforms including both obscure sites such as Streamable, and mainstream platforms such as Facebook.
It has since been viewed by millions of people and remains available at the time of this writing despite continued efforts to take it down across several platforms.
His lengthy and heavily plagiarized manifesto, as well as his online diary, have also been widely disseminated.
In this sense, his attack was a success, as he was able to broadcast his hateful message far beyond his normal connections, in hopes of radicalizing and operationalizing like-minded individuals.
He succeeded in becoming a household name.
The Buffalo attack was another incident conducted under the principle of “leaderless resistance,” in which an attacker who is part of a broad ideological movement conducts a self-initiated attack.
Some people refer to these as “lone wolf” attacks, but this term carries too much power and mystique.
These self-initiated attackers are almost always inept losers, and so if we are going to call them anything, “stray mutt” is a far more appropriate label. Unfortunately, even stray mutts can cause a tragedy like Buffalo.
However, lone attackers are often very limited in their terrorist tradecraft and so they are not able to conduct spectacular terrorist attacks against hard targets.
Instead, they tend to attack soft, vulnerable targets such as houses of worship and grocery stores, using simple attack plans and readily available weapons.
We need to recognize that while the right-wing extremist threat is persistent, and can be deadly, it is much smaller than many people perceive it to be.
According to a study by the New America Foundation, since the 9/11 attacks, right-wing extremists have killed more people in the United States than jihadists, but the number of people killed in terrorist attacks remains quite small.
Even accounting for the murders in Buffalo, there have only been 122 deaths in right-wing terrorist attacks and 107 in jihadist attacks since September 2001. This is an extremely small percentage of the 18,000 or 19,000 murders that occur each year in the U.S.
When we view this attack in a national context it allows us to conclude that while the threat such attacks pose is constant and deadly—it remains quite limited.
This is not in any way meant to diminish the tragedy of events like Buffalo, only to emphasize that right-wing extremists are cause for concern, but not panic.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Most domestic terrorist attacks are preventable due to a combination of the attacker’s ineptitude and their tendency to leak their intentions to others.
This permits the interdiction and prevention of many attacks.
Lamentably, in this case, the shooter was able to launch his attack despite numerous advance warnings and indicators.
The shooter was referred to the New York State Police last June after he expressed interest in conducting a school shooting. The State Police then referred him to the mental health system for evaluation.
While the shooter mocked this process in the online diary he published, it demonstrated that he was very much a known entity and not an enigma who appeared from nowhere to conduct an attack.
He also discussed his plans to conduct an attack months in advance in posts he created on the Discord social media platform. This “leakage” provided yet another missed opportunity to prevent the attack.
Furthermore, it is reported that after the shooter identified the Tops market in Buffalo as a potential target via internet research on demographics (he was searching for a heavily African American area), he conducted physical surveillance on the store at three different times of the day on March 9.
During one of these visits, he was reportedly confronted by the store’s security guard. (It is not clear if this was the same guard who was killed during the attack.)
The fact he was so inept while conducting physical surveillance that he attracted the attention of the security guard, reinforces the point we frequently make: preoperational surveillance is a significant vulnerability in the terrorist attack cycle.
It remains unclear why the shooter was not entered into the system to prevent him from being able to buy a gun after his interaction with the New York State Police, or if the store security officer reported the March 9 incident to police.
The shooter also reportedly opened a chatroom on the Discord gaming platform approximately 30 minutes before the attack and invited the participants to review the chat logs that outlined his attack plan.
Of those using the chat app who may have read his objectives, none reported the pending attack to the authorities.
We expect that additional indications of the shooter’s “leakage” of his plans and intent will emerge as the investigation progresses.
However, this attack highlights the importance of detecting hostile surveillance, and how properly investigating such reports is a powerful tool to help prevent attacks.
Break the Cycle
There is a significant problem with violence in the United States, but terrorism is only one small facet of the problem, and right-wing extremism is only one part of that facet.
Due to the publicity power of such attacks, they tend to attract more attention—and generate more fear—than other murders.
The Buffalo shooter wrote in his diary that he specifically chose to use an AR-15 style rifle in his attack because “The media loves to hate on the AR-15, which may increase media coverage and public outlash.”
This is another indicator that he clearly intended this attack to be propaganda of the deed to induce terror that ripples far beyond the impact of the attack itself.
However, these individual extremists also tend to be vulnerable to detection as they plan their attacks, due either to poor surveillance tradecraft or leakage.
In the Buffalo attack, we saw both.
We expect that additional indications of the shooter’s intent and “leakage” of his plans will emerge as the investigation progresses.
Terrorist attacks conducted by right-wing extremists are a serious problem. They are also a persistent and deadly threat.
But they are a limited problem and a threat that can be mitigated or even prevented if more attention is paid to indications that individuals are progressing along the pathway to violence, and if serious efforts are made to detect and interdict people as they progress through their terrorist attack cycle.