The Buffalo Shooter, Stochastic Terrorism, and How to Counter It
By Todd Morley
On March 15th, 2022, 18-year-old Payton Gendron walked into a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, NY and opened fire on innocent civilians. A calculated and premeditated attack, typical of the shootings that have become tragically routine across the United States. Unlike most, this particular attack was livestreamed on the streaming platform Twitch to a small audience of Gendron’s friends. This is not the first instance of a shooting broadcast for entertainment, but this recent example belies a disturbing trend. Gendron uploaded hundreds of pages of material to the 8chan and 4chan online message boards prior to the attack, including a self-described manifesto outlining the rationale for his attack. These documents show that Gendron drew a significant amount of inspiration from the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand – his manifesto explicitly states that seeing the impact of that attack was what convinced him to begin planning his own. He adorned his firearms with similar style: internet in-jokes and the names of previous neoreactionary shooters like Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik. His manifesto, a 180-page screed of neo-fascist and racial determinist hate laced with memes and infographics makes repeated reference to conspiracy theories that inspired the Christchurch shooter: White Genocide, Jewish conspiracies, and the pressures of climate change encouraging an eco-fascist overthrow of the current global order. Whether either shooter sincerely held these beliefs is beside the point. These conspiratorial and apocalyptic narratives are clearly effective in motivating disaffected young white men to entertain the idea of racially motivated mass violence. More than another mass-shooting, the Buffalo attack was an example of a growing trend of stochastic terrorist violence.
What is Stochastic Terrorism?
The modern stochastic model of terrorism is commonly traced to mathematician and risk analyst Gordon Woo. Simply put, Woo asserted that there was a quantifiable relationship between seemingly random acts of terrorism and the perpetuation of hateful rhetoric in public discourse, accompanied by catastrophising and fear generation in media sources. It is commonly understood of terrorism that it seeks publicity as a means of disseminating a particular political message to indirect targets. A stochastic model would say that this relationship with media is actually an observable feedback loop: terrorism generates media coverage and public debate regarding the ideological motivations of the shooter, which in turn inspires further terrorism. The greater quantity of media coverage, and thus widening political discussion to include fringe views, has a causational effect on the frequency of these seemingly random terror attacks. In a stochastic model, the political effect desired from an attack is creating a more conducive atmosphere for further, and more frequent, “lone wolf” attacks.
This model of terrorism does fit far-right extremist shooters like Gendron, but the terminology of “random” is somewhat misleading. While the means and methods of far-right terrorism carry little broader strategic logic, targets are deliberately chosen for maximum political effect. The Christchurch shooter was deliberate in his attack on mosques in a liberal democracy renowned for its tolerance. The El Paso shooter similarly chose his location deliberately to maximise the number of Hispanic victims. The specifics of each incident might be considered “random” on a macro scale, but each were motivated by a wider ideological ecosystem supported by internet communities, fringe politicians, and portions of the mainstream media.
In the case of the Buffalo shooting, quantitative evidence is hardly necessary to draw a connection to previous attacks. In his manifesto, the shooter explicitly states that the Christchurch attack was his inspiration. The El Paso shooter was similarly inspired by Christchurch, and both shooter’s names were written on Gendron’s weapons. None of these shooters had prior contact or affiliations; the only shared trait between them was their radical ideology. If this is the case, how can counter-terror practitioners best combat this worrying trend?
How Can We Prevent It?
If we are to prevent attacks like this from occurring, traditional methods have proven insufficient. Policing is ill-equipped to deal with this style of threat, given the limited warning these attacks give off and the infeasibility of the large-scale surveillance necessary to monitor every individual encountering these online communities. Rather than attempting to counter individual attackers, focusing on countering the wider ideology surrounding these attacks should be prioritised. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is the term for counter-terror programs aimed at preventative community engagement as opposed to reactive and otherwise punitive measures. These programs have yielded positive results in countries like Germany and Norway in combatting white-nationalist groups, focusing on counselling, community deradicalization, and educational programs designed to counter harmful conspiracies. Stochastic terror does pose a unique challenge to traditional CVE approaches given how private the radicalisation process can be. Gendron claims he was radicalised by the 4chan online message board in 2020 during Covid lockdowns, spiralling into a hateful ideology in the privacy of his own bedroom without the need to contact a wider organisation. While a first impulse may be an attempt to ban 4chan and it’s more radical counterpart 8chan, these efforts have proven fruitless in the past. ISP bans are relatively easy to circumvent, and the media attention received by such bans are more likely to draw disaffected young people to these spaces as an act of transgression.
The model of stochastic terrorism does provide a potential answer, though a difficult one. The likelihood of these attacks is heightened by the public normalisation of dangerous white-nationalist rhetoric. The motivating myth of Gendron’s attack, The Great Replacement, is not solely the purview of fringe conspiracists. This narrative is regularly pushed by public figures such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and reinforced by numerous far-right political figures across the developed world. Given the difficulties of identifying stochastic attackers prior to their attacks, combatting the ideological ecosystem that ferments their violent ideas is crucial. Further funding and focus on CVE efforts can be effective in this regard. Early intervention and de-radicalisation programs disseminated to educational institutions and in internet spaces have had a demonstrable impact on at-risk communities in the past, and can have a long-term harm minimisation impact that security-focused counterterrorism policies lack.
 Gendron, Payton. Buffalo Manifesto. 2022, p.8.
 Woo, Gordon. “Quantitative Terrorism Risk Assessment”. The Journal of Risk Finance (2002), p.9.
 Ibid., p.9-13.
 Amman, Molly, and J. Reid Meloy. “Stochastic Terrorism: A Linguistic and Psychological Analysis”. Perspectives on Terrorism 15, no.5 (2021), p.3-4.
 Tarrant, Brenton. The Great Replacement. 2019, p.11.
 Crusius, Patrick. The Inconvenient Truth. 2019.
 Hardy, Keiran. "Countering Right-Wing Extremism: Lessons From Germany And Norway". Journal Of Policing, Intelligence And Counter Terrorism 14, no. 3 (2019): 262-279.
 Gendron, Buffalo Manifesto, p.13.
 Gertz, Matt. "White Nationalists Thank Tucker Carlson For Mainstreaming Their “Great Replacement” Conspiracy Theory Following Buffalo Massacre". Media Matters For America, 2022. https://www.mediamatters.org/white-nationalism/white-nationalists-thank-tucker-carlson-mainstreaming-their-great-replacement.
 Savoia, Elena, Megan McBride, Jessica Stern, Max Su, Nigel Harriman, Ajmal Aziz, and Richard Legault. "Assessing The Impact Of The Boston CVE Pilot Program: A Developmental Evaluation Approach". Homeland Security Affairs (2020).