Law enforcement warned of ‘replacement’ theory-driven violence before Buffalo shooting

In the months before a shooter killed 10 people and wounded three others at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store, U.S. law enforcement officials warned police across the country about the potential threat of violent attacks by white supremacist believers of the same racist conspiracy theory believed to have inspired the recent attack.

Yahoo News has obtained more than a dozen law enforcement bulletins and intelligence reports that reveal concerns about potential extremist violence by proponents of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory — a popular racist ideology among white supremacists that claims that white people are being systematically replaced by minorities — and by acolytes of Brenton Tarrant, the Australian white supremacist who killed 51 people and injured 40 others in the 2019 mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

In the wake of the May 14 mass shooting in Buffalo, these reports appear to shed light on the limitations authorities may face in their ability to detect and thwart acts of violence by proponents of those views — even when they know where to look.

The suspect in the Buffalo shooting, Payton Gendron, 18, was indicted on a first-degree murder charge Thursday in the attack that authorities say targeted residents in a predominantly Black neighborhood. All 10 of the slain victims were Black. The shooting is also being investigated as a federal hate crime.

Payton Gendron
Payton Gendron is facing charges in the May 14 mass shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Law enforcement officials said during a closed briefing Monday that they believe the alleged shooter was directly inspired by Tarrant and the great replacement theory, Yahoo News reported Monday. FBI Director Chris Wray, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Buffalo investigators and other senior officials from the Department of Justice, FBI and DHS discussed the alleged shooter’s motives, online activity and alleged manifesto.

The manifesto is filled with references to the great replacement theory and “substantially mirrored the New Zealand manifesto,” Eric County Sheriff John Garcia said on the call Monday.

The law enforcement documents obtained by Yahoo News, which are marked “Law Enforcement Sensitive” or “Official Use Only,” reflect increased concerns about the potential for another Christchurch-inspired attack in the U.S. Some detail online threats under investigation, others provide police and first responders with indicators to help spot would-be attackers.

A DHS bulletin from December 2021 warns law enforcement across the country that white supremacist groups were using video game adjacent platforms like Discord and Twitch to share video of the Christchurch shooting to recruit new members and incite violence.

Mourners outside the site of the mass shooting
Mourners outside the site of the mass shooting. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

“The investigation indicates the alleged killer began posting Discord threats in the summer of 2021 regarding body armor and firearms,” Stephen Belongia, the FBI special agent in charge of the Buffalo field office, said of the Buffalo suspect on the call. “In April of 2022, also on Discord, the alleged killer posted taunts to federal law enforcement.”

Like Tarrant, Gendron livestreamed his attack using a Go-Pro camera attached to his helmet, according to authorities.

Law enforcement officials believe Gendron was not a member of any particular group and acted alone, highlighting the challenge of thwarting such attacks, according to speakers on the call.

“The independent nature of lone offenders increases the difficulty of law enforcement to detect and disrupt these plots,” Kevin Vorndran, the FBI’s acting head of counterterrorism, said Monday.

Mayorkas said on the call Monday that DHS and FBI “have worked in close collaboration with one another to disseminate information to local communities across our country so that those communities, the first responders, understand the threat landscape in which we are living.”

He acknowledged that information sharing is just one element of DHS’s domestic violent extremism prevention strategy and offered resources, including grants from FEMA, to help communities identify people headed down a path of violence to prevent future attacks.

A Department of Homeland Security office in Tukwila, Wash.
A Department of Homeland Security office in Tukwila, Wash. (Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent months, DHS flagged posts that included the promotion of the great replacement theory, calls to “stop talking, start shooting” Black and Jewish communities and other posts glorifying the New Zealand shooter and urging others to carry out similar attacks, according to raw intelligence reports obtained by Yahoo News. The reports were sent to the FBI to investigate and more than 30 other federal and police agencies nationwide.

Vondran stressed that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism is the FBI’s “top domestic terrorism priority and, as this attack continues to demonstrate, [racially or ethnically motivated extremists] remain the most lethal domestic terrorism threat to the United States.”

The FBI declined to comment because the investigation is ongoing.

In a statement to Yahoo News, a DHS spokesperson said: “The Department of Homeland Security regularly shares information regarding the heightened threat environment with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial officials to ensure the safety and security of all communities across the country.”

According to the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Reference Guide, which was widely circulated inside the government late last year, the great replacement theory was first “popularized among European nationalists based on a 2005 book of the same title.”

Memorials outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after a shooter killed 11 members there
Memorials outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after a shooter killed 11 members there in October 2018. (Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It has since spread among white supremacists in the U.S., and in recent years has been cited in the manifestos and social media posts of the perpetrators of several racially motivated mass shooters, including Robert Bowers, who’s accused of killing 11 people and injuring six others at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, and Patrick Crusius, who’s charged with killing 23 people at Walmart in El Paso, Texas in 2019.

A 2021 intelligence bulletin notes that Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group, has recently begun promoting the theory, which they had distanced themselves from in the past.

As replacement theory has spread among extremists, it has also begun seeping into the mainstream, thanks in large part to prominent voices in conservative media and politics. A recent poll by the Associated Press found that about one in three adults in the U.S. believes there is an effort currently underway “to replace U.S.-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.”

After the shooting in Buffalo, President Biden denounced the racist theory during a visit to the city on Tuesday, calling it a “lie.

“What happened here is simple and straightforward terrorism. Domestic terrorism,” Biden said.

Thumbnail credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid