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A nation must think before it acts.
In mid-May 2022, eighteen-year-old Payton Gendron approached a grocery store in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Buffalo, NY. He opened fire with a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle, killing ten people. The attack was one of the deadliest racist massacres in recent American history.
The attack made headlines worldwide, the latest in a series of racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist attacks. As in the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, Gendron live-streamed his armed assault and left behind a manifesto outlining a range of conspiratorial views and documenting extreme racial animus.
Beyond the tragedy itself, the attack was noteworthy for another reason—it was the quintessential example of how terrorist ideologies have become more diverse in recent decades, attacks have become more decentralized, terrorism itself has been democratized by new technologies, disinformation has been used to fuel hate, and terrorists have acquired the means to make attacks much deadlier. These trends in terrorism (diversity, decentralization, democratization, disinformation, and deadly) are shaping the future of violent extremism.
For counterterrorism analysts, government officials, and policymakers, it is crucial to understand how terrorism is changing to know how to prioritize threats and allocate resources. Given China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, counterterrorism is no longer the principal national security focus of Western governments. As a result, those charged with preventing terrorist attacks need be smarter about how terrorists and terrorist groups are evolving. Moreover, it is essential to understand the grievances motivating political violence and terrorism in order to craft a comprehensive response.
First, the attack in Buffalo reflected the diverse ideologies that are motivating terrorism and violent extremism. Whereas the past two decades have mostly been about dedicating resources to combat Salafi-jihadism and groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the current terrorism landscape is far more varied. In Buffalo, Gendron’s motivation was a deep hatred of African-Americans, but even within the broader category of far-right extremism, there exists an intersectionality among prejudices that also include Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or threats against the LGBTQ+ community.
The ideologies motivating terrorists is the most significant change in counterterrorism. What was mostly a monochromatic threat from Salafi-jihadist groups and those individuals they sought to inspire, has now become a kaleidoscope with new threats from white supremacists and neo-Nazis, shadowy anarchist elements, neo-Luddites, and the extreme fringe of violent incels (i.e., politicized involuntary celibates fueled by a hatred of women). Once-formidable ethno-nationalist terrorist groups, including the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Basque group ETA, have all decommissioned their arms and faded into history—the same is true of radical left-wing militants like the Baader Meinhoff group in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. In South Asia, secessionist groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have also been pacified.
Second, the shooting was decentralized. The attacker was a so-called lone wolf, who acted on his own without any external assistance or instigation. Lone wolves are difficult for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to detect, although the term “lone wolf” itself is something of a misnomer. Even in cases where a single attacker may be responsible, the individual almost always emerges from a broader ecosystem where they have radicalized, often after being exposed to extremist propaganda online.
Decentralization describes the concept of “leaderless resistance” pioneered by violent far-right extremists, but also the phenomenon wherein the leadership and upper echelon of large, bureaucratized terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are winnowed through relentless counterterrorism campaigns. In both cases, the result has been a shift to an affiliate or franchise model, where regional branches pursue a blend of local and global objectives.
Third, the attack was an example of the democratization of terrorism. In other words, the barriers to entry to engage in terrorism have been significantly lowered over the past decade. Today, an individual with an internet connection, a smartphone, and access to weapons, including do-it-yourself weapons like “ghost guns” and 3-D printed explosives, can now wreak havoc in society. In the case of Gendron, he used a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle, taking advantage of America’s gun culture and ease of access to lethal weaponry.
The means of terrorism, perhaps once restricted to a hard core of guerrilla fighters, is now widely available to billions of people around the globe. Innovations in encrypted communications and access to sophisticated weaponry have facilitated the rise of what the United States military has called “super-empowered individuals,” who have access to powerful, low-cost commercial technology and are highly connected, able to reach far beyond their geographic location.
Fourth, Gendron was fueled in many ways by disinformation. A review of the Buffalo attacker’s social media history shows an obsession with the so-called “Great Replacement Theory,” a conspiracy that posits that a shadowy cabal of elites is deliberately replacing native-born white people with immigrants in an act of what they label “white genocide.” Gendron spent considerable time on 4chan, where he consumed significant amounts of disinformation about the supposed contribution of Black people to the crime rate, IQ differences, and posts directly related to Holocaust denialism.
Disinformation is now ubiquitous, with foreign countries crafting disinformation campaigns that feed domestic terrorism elsewhere. Russia and China regularly amplify divisive narratives on social media in an effort to sow further dissent within the United States. Many of these narratives are related to racial issues and promote posts related to civil war and domestic uprisings. Conspiracies abound online, and the advent of so-called “deep fakes” and artificial intelligence have only served to further complicate the information environment. Disinformation also lives forever on the internet, enshrined in terrorist manifestos, and passed around by followers and supporters of violent extremist ideologies.
Fifth, the Buffalo attack was deadly. In the United States, between 1994 and 2013, there were only three years in which more than eight individuals were killed in terrorist attacks during the entire year. This was due to the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), 9/11 (2001), and the Fort Hood attack (2009). The Buffalo attack resulted in ten dead, reflective of the increasing trend in lethality—between 2014 and 2021, the average number of fatalities per year was thirty-one, demonstrating the increasing lethality of terrorism. Gendron illegally modified his rifle so that high-capacity magazines could be loaded into it, increasing the lethality of his attack.
Terrorists and terrorist groups to seek large body counts, with mass casualty events fueling the propaganda value of an attack or series of attacks. The advent of technologies like drones, 3-D printing, and autonomous weapons has exacerbated the threat of large-scale attacks, while terrorists’ pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons, remains a nightmare scenario. Terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins once wrote, “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” The quote reflected the zeitgeist in terrorism studies at the time, especially with the skyjackings perpetrated by Palestinian terror groups in the 1970s, that the overarching purpose of terrorism was psychological and as a mode of communication to express a grievance to a large audience. After the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, Jenkins revised his axiom, now commenting, “Many of today’s terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead.”
Witnessing the devastation and destruction wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic likely increased terrorists’ interest in acquiring the materials and know-how to conduct a bioterror attack. Such an attack could be conducted surreptitiously by a small group with catastrophic effects. There would be considerable challenges in managing the aftermath, which could include the contagion of humans or animals or contamination of food and water sources or medicines. There will also be major challenges posed by physical-to-digital conversion technologies—including gene sequencing technology and the ability to send genome sequences by e-mail. Being able to send these sequences by e-mail means that terrorists in far-reaching corners of the globe could potentially cooperate to harness the disruptive power of technologies like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). In some circumstances, CRISPR could be used to create viruses, crop-destroying plagues, or “killer mosquitoes” that spread disease. This is another area where barriers to entry are being lowered, offering more opportunities for nefarious individuals and small groups to do harm.
Following two decades of prosecuting the Global War on Terrorism, many Western countries are now pivoting toward great power competition as the pendulum swings away from a focus on violent non-state actors back toward state-based threats. Accordingly, what were once vast troves of money and resources allocated to counterterrorism have diminished, and states and governments will be largely unprepared to deal with what comes next. France recently withdrew its troops from Mali. Germany has also suspended its mission to the country, even as the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group has moved to fill the power vacuum. The United States and many of its Western allies are attempting to move beyond counterterrorism as an organizing principle, preparing to meet the challenges posed by near-peer competitors. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could further accelerate this trend.
But counterterrorism and great-power competition are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in many cases, a convergence between the two will further complicate the response and may also lead to an increase in state-sponsored terrorism, a throwback to the proxy conflicts waged during the Cold War. An increase in state-sponsored terrorism could spur a spike in terrorist groups motivated by ethnonationalism or separatism. Counterterrorism strategies must adapt to the range of traditional and emerging threats from a multiplicity of international and domestic adversaries.
Some attacks, like the one in Buffalo, NY, will comprise all of the aforementioned trends. Others will represent one or two of the trends. When these trends converge, counterterrorism practitioners will face significant challenges. Thinking through the implications of a more diverse, decentralized, democratized, and deadly terrorist threat environment fueled by disinformation could help respond to a short-list of future possible scenarios. Moreover, it could also frame policy responses for how law enforcement, governments, and policymakers can begin preparing for the continued evolution of terrorism, violent extremism, and political violence.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Correction: The article has been updated to reflect that the Baader Meinhoff group in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy were left-wing terrorist groups, not ethno-nationalists.