Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His forthcoming paperback is “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” View more opinion on CNN.
The story is all too familiar: A man allegedly armed with grievance and a gun kills fellow citizens who are strangers to him, singling them out only because of their race or creed.
It’s a very American tale of domestic terrorism which appears to have struck once again on Saturday, this time in the city of Buffalo, New York. And it is playing out with increasing frequency in the United States.
In June 2015, a white nationalist killed nine people attending a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter was hoping to foment a race war.
In October 2018, during a shooting at a synagogue near Pittsburgh, an anti-Semite killed 11 people. The perpetrator blamed Jews for a migrant caravan that was then moving through Mexico.
The following year, a 21-year-old White man allegedly killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, after posting a manifesto about a purported “Hispanic invasion.”
Just as school shooters learn from other school shootings, terrorists learn from – and are inspired by – other terrorists. A manifesto allegedly published online by the Buffalo attacker named and celebrated several other racist terrorists.
And like the White supremacists accused in multiple recent mass shootings, the alleged attacker in Buffalo was obsessed with the idea that Whites are being “replaced” by other ethnic groups.
This Great Replacement theory animates many White nationalists, like those who attended a racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, where they chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”
In the long shadow of the 9/11 attacks, Americans tended to think of terrorism as emanating from jihadists, but today, far-right terrorists are the leading cause of lethal terrorist attacks in the United States. If we include the 10 people killed in the Buffalo attack, right-wing extremists have killed a total 122 people in the United States since the 9/11 attacks, while 107 people have been killed by jihadist terrorists, according to data compiled by New America, a research institution.
This trend has been accelerating over the past several years. The assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, Michael McGarrity, in 2019 testified before a US congressional committee that “(i)ndividuals adhering to racially motivated violent extremism ideology have been responsible for the most lethal incidents among domestic terrorists in recent years.”
And FBI director Christopher Wray testified last year that in “the past 16, 18 months or so, we’ve more than doubled our domestic terrorism caseload, from about a thousand to around 2,700 investigations.”
The FBI has considerably increased its focus on investigating cases of domestic terrorism, but what else can be done?
First, let’s do something simple: Let’s stop naming the terrorists. When an alleged terrorist is arraigned, naming him may be unavoidable, but stories like the one you are reading can function perfectly well without mentioning the names of any of terrorists. These misguided individuals are typically zeros trying to be heroes, so let’s not give them any of the “glory” that they often are hoping to achieve by naming them in the media.
Second, social media continues to be a key source of radicalization for many terrorists, and it’s clear that social media companies are not capable of policing themselves to the extent that is necessary.
There was, of course, plenty of White nationalist violence before the internet ever existed, but now the speed of radicalization for would-be militants is much faster because those who radicalize on the internet can more easily find like-minded believers – as well as a reams of propaganda that can fuel their radicalization.
Social media companies say they are doing their best to self-regulate and to remove content that encourages violence, but in Congress there is a growing sense that they are not doing nearly enough. Some lawmakers have even proposed creating a federal watchdog for social media.
Such a body, if properly resourced and staffed with expert commissioners from both parties, could help the government navigate the complicated technological and First Amendment issues that arise when policing content that could inspire violence.
Third, how do you identify radicalized individuals before they carry out acts of violence? This is not easy, but the growing discipline of “threat management” attempts to address the issue.
Threat management doesn’t focus on any particular ideology such as Islamism or White nationalism, but rather on the actions of suspects who often follow a predictable “pathway to violence.” That pathway begins from nursing a grievance, such as believing in the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, and can eventually end up with a militant taking violent action.
This is a sound approach, since holding radical ideas in the United States is not a crime.
Fourth, officials need a better understanding of the concept of “leakage,” which was identified a couple of decades ago as a predictor of future school shooting: A student planning to do something violent would often intentionally or unintentionally reveal something about the impending act.
Similarly, a US government study of dozens of terrorism cases found “leakage” by the perpetrator to individuals referred to by the FBI as “bystanders,” more than 80% of the time. Bystanders included peers, family members, authority figures such as teachers or clerics, and strangers. Peers had the most useful information about attack planning, but were the least likely to come forward with relevant information to law enforcement.
This finding has important implications for investigating potential acts of terrorism since law enforcement should focus on those who are most likely to have relevant information. Indeed, the Buffalo suspect made a “generalized threat” a year ago that was investigated by state police.
Fifth, last year, the Biden administration released the first-ever US domestic terrorism strategy which contained useful policy prescriptions. This strategy was long overdue given the fact that the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and was carried out by far-right extremists happened back in 1995.
In that strategy, the administration promised to circulate a booklet detailing “mobilization indicators” to law enforcement officials around the country highlighting potential signs and signals of domestic terrorism. This kind of information can be quite useful to local law enforcement, since terrorists often tread a predicable path toward violence.
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The Biden administration said it would also disseminate intelligence about “domestic terrorism iconography, symbology, and phraseology” – information that can be hard to come by, since it is often so tightly held by extremists.
Finally, limiting access to assault rifles that are designed to kill multiple victims would, of course, also cut the number of mass shooting deaths in the United States.
But given the current state of American politics, a limit on the sale of semi-automatic weapons is unlikely, even though it might have helped prevent the sale of such deadly firearms to perpetrators like the alleged shooter in the racist assault in Buffalo.
This story has been updated to reflect the latest news.