The Global Roots of the Buffalo Shooting

White supremacists today are engaged in a global discussion, with violence part of the dialogue.

By , a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
A black and white police SUV is parked on a street with the Tops grocery store shown in the background.
A black and white police SUV is parked on a street with the Tops grocery store shown in the background.
A Buffalo Police Department vehicle is shown at the scene of a mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, New York, on May 14. John Normile/Getty Images

The horrific terrorist attack on Saturday in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10 people and injured three more is only the latest set of atrocities that white supremacists have inflicted on Black, Brown, Jewish, and other minority communities; of the 13 people killed or injured in Saturday’s shooting, 11 were Black.

The alleged shooter livestreamed his attack on Twitch and posted an online manifesto in which he expressed a variety of white supremacist beliefs, including the “Great Replacement” theory—a supposed conspiracy that globalist elites (aka Jews) promote immigration, intermarriage, homosexuality, and other supposed schemes to water down the white race and make white people a minority in countries they long dominated.

The attack, which area law enforcement officials described as a “straight up racially motivated hate crime,” echoed the 2015 shooting at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people; the 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 people; the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting targeting Latinos that killed 23 people; and the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 51 people died.

The horrific terrorist attack on Saturday in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10 people and injured three more is only the latest set of atrocities that white supremacists have inflicted on Black, Brown, Jewish, and other minority communities; of the 13 people killed or injured in Saturday’s shooting, 11 were Black.

The alleged shooter livestreamed his attack on Twitch and posted an online manifesto in which he expressed a variety of white supremacist beliefs, including the “Great Replacement” theory—a supposed conspiracy that globalist elites (aka Jews) promote immigration, intermarriage, homosexuality, and other supposed schemes to water down the white race and make white people a minority in countries they long dominated.

The attack, which area law enforcement officials described as a “straight up racially motivated hate crime,” echoed the 2015 shooting at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people; the 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 people; the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting targeting Latinos that killed 23 people; and the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 51 people died.

In each of these incidents, the perpetrators cited some version of the “Great Replacement” theory, though the racial and religious identities of the victims varied.

Such a broad conspiracy theory helps unify the movement to some degree and allows extremists to adapt the ideology to fit their specific flavor of hatred. But it also shows how divided white supremacists are in practice: Some prioritize Jews, others the Black community, and still others Muslim migrants, among many targets.

Indeed, in recent decades, the white supremacist movement has become interwoven with anti-government extremism, QAnon-type conspiracy beliefs, and other fringe ideas, including the misogynistic “incel” ideology and even a faction that embraces Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Extremism expert Heidi Beirich described the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto as a “hodgepodge of every crazy white supremacist idea.” He even referenced Kaczynski.

White supremacists today are engaged in a global discussion, with violence part of the dialogue. An attack by Anders Behring Breivik, a white supremacist who railed against Marxists and immigrants and killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, helped inspire the New Zealand attacker. He, in turn, inspired the El Paso shooter and others, such as a German terrorist who livestreamed his shooting on Twitch when he killed two people in an attack on a Jewish synagogue in Halle, Germany, in 2019. Indeed, the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto specifically referenced the New Zealand attacker. And on it goes.

In fact, although white supremacists in the United States and elsewhere have long claimed the white race is under attack, the Great Replacement theory itself originated in France with philosopher Renaud Camus (though Camus himself rejects violence).

Even more menacing, there is now a global set of tactics and techniques. These shootings often follow a pattern: An individual, usually not tied to a formal group but identifying with the broader white supremacist community, portrays himself as a commando. (The alleged Buffalo shooter wore tactical gear and body armor and went in with guns blazing to attack supposed enemies of the white race.)

He (and it’s almost always a he) typically posts a manifesto and may stream the attack live or otherwise add a virtual component to deadly real-world actions. The shooter is usually on the fringe, but the broader political environment shaped his targeting. Each stitch in this pattern shows the strength of the white supremacist movement, but each strength also has a downside that shows the movement’s vulnerabilities and limits.

The alleged Buffalo shooter’s mix of posting a manifesto, livestreaming an attack, and going in guns blazing until police forced him to surrender is almost an exact copy of the Norway and New Zealand attacks. His video showed a racist slur written on the barrel of one of his weapons; the New Zealand shooter also adorned his weapons with white supremacist symbols.

The movement has always hated a wide variety of people, but in the past, it directed its energies toward specific goals. Its efforts to stop the civil rights movement intimidated Black and white activists and their supporters, delaying social change. The divided movement today, in contrast, shares general goals, such as stopping immigration and keeping minorities down, but finds it difficult for its attacks to gain momentum as believers whipsaw from one enemy to another.

The white supremacist movement also lacks much of what made global groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State so dangerous at their height. White supremacists lack a sanctuary abroad where they can train, plot, and evade counterterrorism officials. Nor do they coordinate operationally; part of what made 9/11 and the 2015 Paris attacks so deadly was the ability of global groups to train operatives, create teams, and coordinate their activities.

If the past is any guide, the alleged Buffalo shooter may not be linked to any existing terrorist or hate group; Breivik, the Christchurch shooter, and other major white supremacist killers in recent years have all largely acted alone. Usually via social media, they imbibe a range of extremist ideas and plot their own attacks.

This makes it hard to stop them: Few know of the plot in advance, and arresting and interrogating leading white supremacists reveals nothing about those inspired by their ideas. On the other hand, because they cannot learn from fellow group members, many of these individuals have little training, fail to follow basic operational security procedures, and do not coordinate their attacks, further reducing their chances of success and overall impact.

Social media is at the core of this movement. Social media is a cheap and easy way to spread propaganda, share models for action, and incite others to act. Indeed, some shooters use the vernacular of gaming, with killers seeking to rack up a high score in terms of body counts. At times, the algorithms of the companies worsen the problem. An internal Facebook study from 2016 found that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools.”

Yet social media companies, which have long neglected terrorism in general and white supremacists in particular, are doing better. Twitch removed the alleged Buffalo shooter’s video within minutes of it being posted—but, of course, with the internet being the internet, eradicating it is almost impossible, and it quickly spread. The leaked list of Facebook’s “dangerous organizations” (the groups and individuals that Facebook tries to keep off its platforms) contained many white supremacists. As white nationalist Richard Spencer lamented in 2018, “At one point, say two years ago, Silicon Valley really was our friend … what has happened in terms of the Silicon Valley attacks on us are, just, really bad.”

In response to deplatforming and other pressures, extremists can and do use alternative platforms like 4chan, where the alleged Buffalo shooter posted his manifesto. Such platforms, however, have few users: They do allow extremist petri dishes to flourish, but they do not have wide audiences for spreading ideas and can be easily monitored.

Stopping future attacks requires effective counterterrorism, which in turn depends on a strong political response. As the killings have mounted, white supremacist violence moved from a terrorism sideshow to the main stage, displacing groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In March 2021, FBI director Christopher Wray testified that racially and ethnically motivated extremists, particularly white supremacists, pose the most dangerous terrorism threat to the United States—an assessment shared by other U.S. intelligence and security officials.

White supremacists in the United States lack the political influence they once had. Gone are the days when Klan-affiliated individuals held governorships and were members of Congress, using their political positions to restrict immigration and otherwise advance a white supremacist agenda. Yet white supremacist ideas are still part of the political discourse.

Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, one of the United States’ top media figures, has embraced an anti-immigration agenda and endorsed aspects of the Great Replacement theory, with almost half of Republicans believing there is a deliberate elite plot to replace native-born Americans with immigrants. The Anti-Defamation League has tracked more than 100 candidates with extremist agendas running in 2022. Politicians such as Republican Reps. Elise Stefanik and Matt Gaetz have also used Great Replacement-type rhetoric—claiming, for example, that Democrats are deliberately encouraging illegal immigration to outnumber Republican voters. Overseas in France, Hungary, Austria, and other countries, politicians are even more vocal.

The mingling of extreme agendas and mainstream politics allows killers like the alleged Buffalo shooter to believe that they are brave enough to ignore “optics,” unlike other white people who support their agenda but are fearful of criticism. Ensuring that political and media leaders of all persuasions condemn the attacks—with no caveats—is vital for reversing this perception and ensuring that future shooters don’t see themselves as heroes.

Unfortunately, the United States is moving in the opposite direction, with many political figures likely to briefly condemn the violence and then continue their hateful rhetoric. The best the we can hope for now is that police and intelligence services prioritize the threat and disrupt as many future plots as possible—and that white supremacists’ own weaknesses will prove to be their undoing.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is Spreading Hate: The Global Rise of White Supremacist Terrorism. Twitter: @dbyman

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