The Buffalo gunman followed a familiar path of radicalization

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Investigators work at the scene of a supermarket shooting in Buffalo, NY on Monday, May 16, 2022. As law enforcement officials have become adept since the 9/11 attacks at disrupting well-organized conspiracies , they face a much tougher challenge in intercepting self-radicalized young men who absorb racist screeds on social media and plot violence themselves. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

PA

The 18-year-old gunman accused of a deadly racist rampage at a Buffalo supermarket seems to fit an all-too-familiar profile: a wronged white man steeped in online hate conspiracies and inspired by other extremist massacres.

Payton Gendron of Conklin, New York, appears to have been spurred into action some two years into his radical indoctrination, showing how quickly and easily murderous assaults can be spawned on the internet. No tactical training or organizational help required.

While law enforcement officials have become adept since the 9/11 attacks at disrupting well-organized conspiracies, they face a much tougher challenge in intercepting self-radicalized young men who absorb racist screeds on social networks and plot violence on their own.

“That’s why everyone is so worried. You go in there and you pick your ideology — and then if you have a gun, you don’t need a big plan,” said Christopher Costa, former senior director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council. of the Trump administration. “What has changed is the internet.”

Gendron is accused of fatally shooting 10 black people and could face federal hate crime charges in the coming days. He reportedly left behind a 180-page rant in which he said the rampage was intended to terrorize non-whites into leaving the country. He reproduces the ideas left by other white killers whose massacres he had studied at length online.

The evidence so far underscores the evolving threat facing law enforcement.

In the early years after the September 11 attacks, US officials were concerned about the possibility of organized terrorist cells mobilizing supporters to launch new assaults on the homeland. Later, they worried about the possibility of self-radicalized Islamic jihadists acting alone.

Now white supremacists have become a priority. Last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray described the domestic terrorist threat as “metastasizing”. the following year in which a gunman targeting Hispanics inside a Texas Walmart killed 22 people.

An unclassified report from the US intelligence community last year warned that violent extremists motivated by political grievances and racial hatred pose a “high” threat to the country.

Acknowledging the problem, the White House said in March that its latest budget provided the FBI with a $33 million increase for domestic terrorism investigations. In 2019, the FBI brought together in a specialized fusion cell agents specializing in hate crime investigations with those focused on acts of domestic terrorism – a nod to the overlapping nature of threats.

Federal authorities have in recent years prosecuted members of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, including Atomwaffen Division and The Base. These organizations have embraced a fringe philosophy known as “accelerationism,” which promotes mass violence to fuel societal collapse, start a race war, or overthrow the US government.

These defendants’ journey to digital indoctrination seems in some ways to mirror Gendron’s. The racist screed attributed to him advanced ideas from the “great replacement” theory – a baseless conspiracy that says there is a plot to diminish white influence – and recounts his own experiences navigating in the dark corners of the internet.

A generation ago, indoctrination in extremist groups involved people meeting face to face, talking and exchanging books, and therefore harmful ideologies were not likely to spread as quickly as they can. today, said Shannon Foley Martinez, a reformed extremist who mentors people trying to leave supremacist groups.

“When I go out and talk to middle and high school and university kids and ask them who has seen racist or anti-Semitic comments or content online, 100% of the hands go up,” said Martinez, who cut ties with the extremists for 28 years. from.

There has long been a debate within the criminal justice system about the ability to rehabilitate racially or ethnically motivated extremists, or to create so-called “escape routes” for them before they commit violence. Once indicted, several defendants sought to renounce their ideologies, pointing to mitigating factors in their own lives that they felt had distorted their judgment and led to a poisoned set of beliefs.

After the Justice Department indicted four Seattle-based Atomwaffen members in 2020 in a campaign to intimidate journalists and others with threatening posters in their homes, defense attorneys sought to highlight the similarities between their clients’ backgrounds and the path of radicalization: they were bullied, friendless, ostracized; Desire for community, they found each other on the internet.

Cameron Shea was addicted to opiates and living in his car when he founded Atomwaffen.

“Ï was lost, sad and (at the risk of sounding dramatic) angry with the world,” he wrote in a letter to the judge who sentenced him to three years in prison. was easier than tackling the underlying sadness and sense of displacement.

Taylor Ashley Parker-Dipeppe, who was 21 at the time of sentencing, is a transgender man who was shunned by his peers and frequently bullied at his New Jersey high school, his attorney, Peter Mazzone, said. After a failed attempt to “connect with the LBGTQ crowd,” Parker-Dipeppe turned to an Atomwaffen cell in Florida led by a 16-year-old boy and became a “total follower,” his attorney said.

“But he also felt he ‘passed’ as a man, was accepted by a ‘manly’ club and was part of a group that would fight for him if necessary, as long as no one found out he was in fact transgender. “, he added. Mazzone wrote.

The Atomwaffen defendants pleaded guilty or were convicted by jury. All four were sentenced to prison terms or time served behind bars.

While these men bonded over the internet, Gendron’s online wanderings may have been a more solitary endeavor. However, the statement he apparently posted online indicates that he was inspired by other racist outbursts, such as that of a white man who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019.

In the document, Gendron said he was experiencing “extreme boredom” as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, and in May 2020 he began browsing 4chan, an anarchic messaging forum that is popular for anonymous – and often violent or misleading – messages. Gendron said he first browsed the site’s firearms discussion forum.

Soon he had come across neo-Nazi websites posted on the site, then a copy of the live video of the New Zealand mosque shooting.

“This document demonstrates a very clear trajectory from online radicalization to homegrown terrorism and extremism,” said Sophie Bjork-James, a processing assistant at Vanderbilt University who studies the white nationalist movement and hate crimes.

Gendron shared screenshots of memes and conservative news headlines that helped him formulate his extreme beliefs in the document.

“Taking the bullhorn away from these people is extremely important and right now that bullhorn is on social media,” Bjork-James said.

Facebook only stopped live streaming the New Zealand shooting 17 minutes after it aired, leaving copies of the video circulating indefinitely on seedier sites like 4Chan. Gendron’s live video has also spread on social media sites and could be used to indoctrinate more users.

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Tucker and Seitz reported from Washington. Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland.

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