Abstract: The past two years have witnessed a wave of terrorist attacks perpetrated by right-wing extremists, most notably in Christchurch, New Zealand; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Poway, California; Halle, Germany; and in August 2019, El Paso, Texas. An in-depth study of the El Paso attack, the perpetrator’s modus operandi, and the changing response of U.S. law enforcement to the scourge of extreme right-wing terrorism situates events in Texas within their broader context—as part of a chain reaction fomented within the violent sub-cultural online milieus of right-wing extremism. This digital eco-system is fueling a cumulative momentum, which serves to lower ‘thresholds’ to violence for those engaged in this space, both in the United States and elsewhere, as one attack encourages and inspires another, creating a growing ‘canon’ of ‘saints’ and ‘martyrs’ for others to emulate.

On August 3, 2019, Patrick Wood Crusius, a 21-year-old from Allen, an affluent suburb 20 miles north of Dallas, Texas, allegedly drove some 650 miles to El Paso, a journey of more than 10 hours. He then allegedly walked into a Walmart Supercenter near the Cielo Vista Mall on the city’s eastern side and opened fire on shoppers using a WASR-10 rifle, murdering 20 people including a 25-year-old mother of three whom he killed as she held her two-month-old baby. Two more shoppers subsequently succumbed to their wounds in hospital, bringing the death toll to 22; another 26 people were wounded.1 The terrorist attack in El Paso was the seventh-deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. It was also the third-deadliest shooting in Texan history, the worst since a gunman murdered 26 people during a rampage at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs near San Antonio in November 2017.2

Prior to the atrocity, Crusius allegedly posted online that he recognized that his death was “likely inevitable” and that if he was not killed by police, he would be gunned down by one of the “invaders.” Aware that the crime he was about to perpetrate merited the death penalty if he was captured alive (and envisaging a future in which he could not bear to live knowing that “my family despises me” for what he had done), Crusius stated: “This is why I’m not going to surrender even if I run out of ammo. If I am captured, it will be because I was subdued somehow.”3 His online bravado evaporated in the wake of the killings, however. Crusius surrendered without firing a shot. Having driven to a nearby traffic intersection, he stopped and waited for police. Exiting the vehicle with his hands raised above his head, Crusius told the arresting officers: “I’m the shooter.”4

Transported to El Paso police headquarters, Crusius waived his Miranda rights and agreed to speak about the incident. He informed the interrogating police detective of his racist motivation, that he had deliberately targeted “Mexicans.”5 El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen subsequently confirmed to the media that during his interrogation, Crusius “basically didn’t hold anything back.”6 Crusius said that he had targeted El Paso’s Hispanic community rather than one closer to his own home because, he reasoned, “if he committed the attack near his home in a suburb of Dallas, his family and acquaintances would have known that he did it,” local media reported, quoting sources close to the investigation.7 The FBI confirmed that Crusius had no local contacts in El Paso.8

When Crusius appeared in court for his arraignment hearing on October 11, 2019, he entered a “not guilty” plea to capital murder charges,9 thus the following assertions must be considered allegations—based on press reports, manifestos, and court documents—which, at the time of writing (December 2019), remain to be proven in court. El Paso’s county district attorney’s office announced that it is seeking the death penalty for Crusius who is currently jailed without bond awaiting trial.10 The U.S. district attorney for Texas’ Western District, Joseph Bash, also stated that the massacre was being treated as “domestic terrorism” and that his office will be pursuing federal hate crime and firearms charges.11

Crusius, who had worked bagging groceries at a supermarket, stated in his application for a public defender that he had no income, assets, or expenses and had been living with his grandparents until about six weeks before the shooting.12 On his LinkedIn page, since-removed, he wrote under “skills,” “Nothing really.” Crusius had graduated from Plano Senior High School in 2017 before enrolling himself at Collin College, a community college in nearby McKinney, where he studied from fall 2017 through to spring 2019.13 A former neighbor told The Los Angeles Times that he was “very much a loner, very standoffish” and was someone who “didn’t interact a whole lot with anyone.” Former classmates alluded to the fact that he was frequently “picked on” at school.14

A Familiar Modus Operandi
The El Paso massacre followed an increasingly familiar pattern in which a manifesto posted online was followed moments later by horrific violence. At 10:15 AM, 25 minutes before the killing in El Paso began, an anonymous user posted two documents to 8chan’s /pol/ board—the third time the image board, which eschews censorship of its content so long as it does not contravene United States law, had been used to announce the onset of a terrorist attack.15 a The first document, entitled “P._Crusius – Notification Letter,” was quickly deleted, its contents unknown.16 It was replaced by a second attachment entitled “The Inconvenient Truth,” which served as the killer’s alleged manifesto. The accompanying post, titled “It’s Time,” read:

FML [F**k My Life] nervous as hell. This is the actual manifesto F**k this is going to be so sh*t but I can’t wait any longer. Do your part and spread this brothers! Of course, only spread it if the attack is successful. I know that the media is going to try to frame my [sic] incorrectly, but y’all will know the truth! I’m probably going to die today. Keep up the good fight.17

There are no reports that any 8chan users alerted the authorities. The ritualized act of posting a manifesto prior to undertaking this form of extreme-right violence serves as a powerful act of propaganda designed to deliver an explanatory narrative, an ideological justification, a tactical lesson, and a call to arms for others to follow.b Given the self-referential nature of extreme-right violence in the digital age, those who leave manifestos have become “more influential and highly regarded than those who leave only a vacuum,” J. M. Berger has argued.18 Sociologist Ralph Larkin argued in relation to the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, which left 13 victims dead and 24 injured, that such an event provided a “cultural script” for subsequent would-be high school killers, for whom the death toll at Columbine was a record to be exceeded; for others, it was an incitement to further violence, an event to be emulated in their own killing sprees, or indeed a tradition to be ‘honored’ in their own attacks.19

A similar “cultural script” appears increasingly evident within the digital demimonde of the violent extreme right.c Arguably, this phenomenon began in 2011 with Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who, although once considered something of an outlier with regard to extreme right violence, has become an aspirational figure for some within the milieu. While Breivik received praise in some quarters,20 few militants sought to emulate his actions, at least not until the Christchurch attacks, a catalytic event in part because the atrocity was livestreamed, a deliberate device its perpetrator intended to galvanize others to action.21 Indeed, as alleged Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant had been inspired by Breivik, so Tarrant inspired both John Earnest, the Poway synagogue attacker, and Patrick Crusius, both of whom in their turn hoped to inspire others through both their manifestos and deeds.22

To help conceptualize the momentum this latest wave of violence has attained, Mark Granovetter’s “threshold model of collective behavior,”23 which has recently been used to interpret the prevalence of high school massacres,24 is useful. Put simply, Granovetter’s model enjoins analysts to consider these violent acts not simply as resulting from individual decision-making, each considered in isolation from one another, but as part of a broader social process in which violence is enacted in reaction to, and in combination with, other actors. While would-be terrorists might be reluctant to move from extreme thought to violent action, as more and more people participate, the thresholds (both social and moral) for partaking in violence begin to lower. And as they do, increasing numbers of people are able to contemplate and indeed have situated their own actions within a continuum of violent activity that has preceded their own, giving the phenomenon a depth of meaning that the word ‘copycat’ fails to convey. More research is required to understand why this occurs in some cases but not in others, however.

Insofar as extreme-right terrorism is concerned, the digital milieu has played a key role in lowering such thresholds; each act of killing and the way in which it is glorified and gamified through countless memes on forums like 8chan, provides impetus for further violence. Indeed, as Frederick Brennan—the founder of 8chan who has since parted company with the image board he had created—remarked, it is the very structure of 8chan that radicalizes users:

The other anonymous users are guiding what’s socially acceptable, and the more and more you post on there you’re being affected by what’s acceptable and that changes you. Maybe you start posting Nazi memes as a joke … but you start to absorb those beliefs as your own, eventually.25

Arguably, such forums, which provide users with a supportive digital ecosystem, also play a role in shifting behaviors. They comprise a milieu in which the ‘saints’ and ‘martyrs’ responsible for previous atrocities are venerated by other anonymous users. Regardless of whether such posts are made in jest or in all seriousness, there are seemingly no shortage of users willing to gleefully exhort other users to join this pantheon of ‘heroes’ by perpetrating yet greater acts of violence in return for the nebulous reward of celebrity and respect that this environment offers.26 “The new guy deserves some praise,” wrote one 8chan user following the El Paso attack in a post that echoed both the performative and gamified elements of this subculture, “he reached almost a third of the high score.”27

The personal status derived from placing on the ‘leader board’ within this online milieu appears to have fostered an element of competition among certain users; each successive act of violence fueling a cumulative carnival of cruelty in which heinous acts of violence are repeatedly glorified, their perpetrators lionized, and their victims further dehumanized, with a view to galvanizing would-be killers to commit further acts of terrorism. Graphic testimony to this dynamic was provided one week after the El Paso attack when alleged Norwegian terrorist Philip Manshaus who, prior to killing his stepsister and attempting to attack a mosque in Bærum, a town roughly nine miles from Oslo, had claimed online to have been “chosen” by “Saint Tarrant” to “bump the race war thread irl [in real life]” and “if you’re reading this you have been elected by me.”28 Further highlighting the self-referential continuum of extreme-right terrorism, Manshaus also posted a meme depicting Brenton Tarrant, John Earnest, and Patrick Crusius as ‘heroes.’29

The End of 8chan?
Predictably, parts of 8chan were enthused by the killings. One study of the forum’s posts conducted in the aftermath of the crime recorded a spike in racist language toward Mexicans, “showing a sign that terrorist deeds energized toxic language usage on the board.”30 This racist ecstasy was short-lived, however. The El Paso attacks sounded the death knell for the forum. This being the third time in 2019 that 8chan had been used to trumpet a terrorist attack, there was intense pressure for action against it including from its own founder, Frederick Brennan, who publicly regretted his creation following the attacks.31 8chan was knocked offline shortly afterwards when the network provider Cloudfare finally terminated the site’s provision of facilities to the image board on the grounds that it “has repeatedly proven itself a cesspool of hate.”32 d

Unlike its founder, 8chan’s proprietor, James Watkins, sought to deflect from the site’s responsibility, claiming that Crusius’ manifesto had actually first been posted on Instagram before someone else reposted it to 8chan,33 an assertion that Facebook (the social media behemoth that owns Instagram) denied. Crusius’ Instagram account had been inactive for over a year, Facebook stated.34 Watkins was subsequently subpoenaed to appear before a congressional hearing where he attempted to explain “how careful and responsible 8chan is.”35 Following a period offline, 8chan was resurrected as 8kun, which went live on November 2, 2019, though four days later its domain registrar removed the site for breaching the company’s service agreement.36 It is currently back online, though it is not immediately discoverable using standard search engines. Though the demise of 8chan removed an important performative platform for would-be extreme-right terrorists, denying them a broader audience, many users have already migrated to end-to-end encrypted platforms such as Telegram.37

The Manifesto
The manifesto posted by the El Paso terrorist was a short, four-page document entitled “The Inconvenient Truth.” Highlighting the aforementioned self-referential nature of extreme right-wing terrorism, the manifesto’s opening sentence announced support for the “Christchurch shooter” and stated that the attack was “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Crusius framed his violence as defensive: “They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”38 He denied his motives were “personal” while hinting at the catalytic impact of the Christchurch terrorist atrocity: “Actually the Hispanic community was not my target before I read [Tarrant’s manifesto] The Great Replacement,”39 his phraseology suggesting that he was already considering committing an act of violence against some other “target” prior to reading Tarrant’s manifesto, though this gave him a frame for action.

Crusius’ own missive was saturated with a pessimistic prognosis that the United States “is rotting from the inside out” and that a peaceful means of arresting the decline “seems to be nearly impossible.” Crusius believed that the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, combined with the nation’s changing demography, meant that the “ever increasing Hispanic population” would flock to the Democrats: “America will soon become a one party-state. The Democrat party will own America and they know it.”40 His attack was perceived as the opening salvo in a campaign that ultimately would forestall this perceived racial dystopia by encouraging these “economic migrants” who were taking American jobs to return “home.” Railing against corporate America, Crusius also bemoaned the economic consequences of deindustrialization and automation for the white working class, though he also regarded the latter as a blessing since “it will eliminate the need for new migrants to fill unskilled jobs.”41

Perhaps the most novel aspect of the manifesto was the centrality of its racist, anti-human ecology, which was also evident in Brenton Tarrant’s declaration that he was an “eco-fascist.”42 e “The Inconvenient Truth”—its title seemingly alluding to Al Gore’s environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which sounded the alarm about global warming—regaled readers with its author’s neo-Malthusian solution to overpopulation based on terrorism, racial separatism, and an inchoate desire to “send them back” in order to prevent “race-mixing,” which would, in turn, promote “social unity” and environmental regeneration. Despite acknowledging that his fellow (white) Americans were largely responsible for the majority of the issues that so appalled him, including “the takeover of the United States by unchecked corporations,” Crusius targeted “low hanging fruit” for ease of access and because his racist views ensured that even though “non-immigrant targets would have a greater impact, I can’t bring myself to kill my fellow Americans.”43

Thereafter, Crusius briefly outlined the tactical preparations for his attack, particularly his choice of weapon—an AK-47 (WASR-10), which, he conceded, was not as good as an AR-15-style rifle.44 He had, according to his own account, purchased the gun online from Romania, together with 1,000 rounds of ammunition bought from Russia, stated a Texas Department of Public Safety report obtained by The Texas Tribune.45 “I didn’t spend much time at all preparing for this attack. Maybe a month, probably less,” Crusius boasted in his manifesto, which differed from the years of meticulous planning that went into Breivik’s atrocities46 or even the months that Tarrant spent planning his attacks, according to his manifesto.47 Crusius’ attack was—if his own manifesto is to be believed—the child of necessity. “I have [to] do this before I lose my nerve,” he stated. “I figured that an under-prepared attack and a meh [so-so] manifesto is better than no attack and no manifesto.”48

In retrospect, within the time frame that Crusius claims he was preparing his attack, there appears to have been an opportunity to interdict it. Lawyers for the family confirmed to CNN that his mother, concerned about her son owning an “AK”-type firearm given his age, his immaturity, and his inexperience in handling such a weapon, had called the City of Allen Police Department on June 27, 2019—roughly five weeks before the massacre. She had spoken to a public safety officer who, according to the family’s attorney, told her that based on her description of the situation, her son was legally entitled to purchase such a weapon. According to the family’s attorneys, the phone call was “informational” rather than being motivated by any concern about her son posing a threat to himself or others, a fact she confirmed to the public safety officer during the course of the call. His mother did not provide her name or her son’s name, and police sought no further information from her before the call concluded, CNN reported.49

Crusius subsequently used this legally owned firearm in a state with open and concealed carry laws, confessing to police during his interrogation that he “was surprised when no one challenged him or shot him.”50 Even though the first police officers arrived on the scene within six minutes of the first 911 call,51 law enforcement are perhaps up against the limit of what, if anything, they can do to prevent such atrocities once the shooting has begun beyond neutralizing the perpetrator. Indeed, a central problem is access to semi-automatic weaponry. Though Crusius used an AK-47-style gun, more generally the proliferation of lightweight polymer firearms combined with high-capacity, extended magazines, which have been used in several such attacks, has enhanced the capacity for carnage of even the most technically deficient would-be shooter. As Louis Klarevas has highlighted in relation to gun violence in the United States more broadly, this phenomenon of mass shootings has been accelerated by a toxic triumvirate of unstable perpetrators, vulnerable targets, and lethal weaponry—“the trinity of violence.”52

Although the political will to enact more than meager (by international standards) gun control at the federal levelf remains lacking (though some individual states, for instance New York, have made efforts in this direction53), there is at least some anecdotal evidence that firearms manufacturers themselves recognize that the proliferation of military-style weaponry is facilitating the lethality of mass shootings and terrorism in the United States. Indeed, on September 19, 2019, Dennis Veilleux, president and CEO of Colt, announced that his company was taking the AR-15 out of civilian production, and that although the firm remained committed to the Second Amendment and would continue to fulfill orders for the police and military, “the market for modern sporting rifles has experienced significant excess manufacturing capacity.”54

The Aftermath of the Atrocity
Though President Trump denounced the El Paso massacre as “an act of cowardice,”55 innumerable commentators blamed him (and other conservative media hosts56) for fueling the hostile political climate in which Crusius carried out his attack, unsurprisingly perhaps since Trump has a well-documented record of describing Latino immigration as “an invasion of our country.”57 g Crusius, who listed his party affiliation as Republican, had indeed admired Trump, apparently tweeting using the handle @outsider609 (which appears not to have been updated since 2017): “#BuildTheWall is the best way that @POTUS has worked to secure our country so far!”58 In his manifesto, Crusius had anticipated that he would be viewed as simply acting out the President’s anti-immigration rhetoric and so was at pains to highlight that his own views predated Trump; any attempt to link the two, he stated, was “fake news,” ironically another of the President’s common refrains.59 Ultimately, whatever the origins of Crusius violent hostility toward Mexicans, of which more might be learned during his upcoming trial—a date for which has not yet been set60—his actions were an extreme but by no means isolated phenomenon and part of a broader historical arc of racist violence against migrants from Latin America61 and Americans of Hispanic descent. Indeed, from the California Gold Rush to the last recorded instance of a Mexican being lynched in public in 1928, vigilantes have “hanged, burned, and shot thousands of persons of Mexican descent in the United States.”62

The public and political impact of the El Paso massacre was compounded by the fact that within 24 hours, another mass shooting took place, this time in Dayton, Ohio, where a 24-year-old gunman wearing body armor and a mask killed nine people, including his sister who reportedly identified as male,63 and injured another 27 people. Police shot the gunman dead within 32 seconds of the first shot being fired, though his ability to kill nine people during this short timeframe testified to the deadly combination of assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines. Although police ruled out “seeing any indication of race being a motive” at a subsequent press conference, they did state that evidence uncovered at that point highlighted that the killer had “a history of obsession with violent ideations,” including mass shootings, and a desire to commit one.64 Reflecting an increased public awareness of the scourge of gun violence following the two mass shootings, tipoffs to the FBI alone surged by 70 percent in the weeks the followed.65 By the end of August 2019, police had arrested more than 40 people in the United States for making threats to commit a mass shooting or actually planning to do so.66

Following El Paso and Dayton demands for gun control combined with a denunciation of political inaction in the face of such violence gathered pace. Although President Trump had intimated that “serious” discussions were taking place regarding gun control in the days after El Paso,67 he soon made it clear that he intended to focus on other approaches such as violent video games, online radicalization, and mental illness as a means of preventing gun violence rather than on gun control per se.68 Indeed, Attorney General William Barr, blaming partisan gridlock, officially declared the gun control legislative effort, such as it was, dead in November 2019.69

Walmart, the largest firearms retailer in the United States, on whose premises the El Paso atrocity had occurred, did not immediately act, issuing a statement two days after the massacre confirming that its gun sale policies remained unaltered by the attack.70 Shortly afterwards, however, the company adjusted its position. In early September, Walmart announced its discontinuation of a range of items including the sale of handgun ammunition. It also publicly requested that patrons refrain from openly carrying guns into their stores, even in states where “open carry” was permitted, following several instances in which individuals had attempted “to make a statement” and “test our response,” resulting in panicked shoppers being evacuated and law enforcement called.71

Walmart’s announcement had been precipitated by several cases including that of Dmitriy Andreychenko, who on August 8, 2019, just five days after the El Paso massacre, caused panic at a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri, when he entered the building openly carrying a “tactical rifle” and 100 rounds of ammunition. Andreychenko subsequently claimed it was a “social experiment” to see if Walmart would honor his right to open carry in their stores. Held at gun point by a fellow shopper until the police arrived, Andreychenko conceded he was lucky his actions had not gotten him killed.72

Walmart itself became a lightning rod for terroristic threats after the El Paso massacre—many of them undoubtedly spawned by the “media contagion effect,” which appears to cause copycat crimes to cluster around well-publicized events.73 In the week after the attack, Walmart stores received at least eight threats, both in-store and online.74 One such threat was allegedly made by Floridian Richard Clayton, noted for harboring racist and anti-Semitic views, who posted a threat on Facebook: “3 more days of probation left then I get my AR-15 back. Don’t go to Walmart next week.”75 He was allegedly belligerent and uncooperative, racially abusing the arresting officer whom he mistook to be Hispanic. “They are what is wrong with this country … they come in and are ruining everything,” Clayton allegedly stated.76

The American flag is seen at half-mast, near the site of a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Responding to the Threat of Extreme-Right Violence in the United States
The El Paso terrorist attack was symptomatic of a broader increase in violent right-wing extremism in the United States. From September 2, 2011, to December 31, 2016, right-wing extremists were responsible for three times as many attacks as those inspired by jihadi ideology: 62 incidents with 106 fatalities compared to 23 incidents with 119 fatalities, respectively.77 In 2018, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) highlighted that right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 killings that year, more deaths than in any year since 1995 when another far-right extremist, Timothy McVeigh, detonated a truck bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. ADL data, which goes back to 1970, also highlighted that during the last decade (the 2010s), and in a domestic context, right-wing extremists were responsible for 73.3 percent of all extremist murders, compared to 23.4 percent committed by Islamist militants.78

In the United States context, efforts to tackle the issue have been complicated by First Amendment-protected speech and association rights, which prevent state agencies from interfering with domestic extremist groups on these grounds, making responses often reactive rather than proactive. “We, the FBI, don’t investigate ideology, no matter how repugnant,” FBI Director Christopher Wray stated on July 23, 2019. “When it turns to violence, we’re all over it.”79 Indeed, on this point, U.S. law enforcement agencies have very little room for maneuver compared to their European counterparts because of First Amendment protections of free speech. Furthermore, there is a “significant disparity” in the way that the United States’ legal system treats acts of “international” and “domestic” terrorism, which ignores the transnational digital dimension of right-wing extremism. As a result, mass shootings such as that carried out by Patrick Crusius “do not fall within the current federal terrorism framework,” leaving prosecutors with no alternative but to charge perpetrators under hate crimes legislation or with homicide, which distorts perceptions of the risk posed by the phenomenon.80 Enacting a domestic terrorism statute that criminalized acts of terrorism based on domestic “grievances,” it has been argued, would go some way to addressing this gap without becoming entangled in constitutional issues and would also place such offenses unambiguously on the same moral plane as “international” terrorism; would increase public awareness, building trust between communities; and would also allow for better data collection about the threat as well as mandating the direction of more resources toward it.81

When asked in an interview for the October 2019 issue of this publication whether the distinction between domestic and international terrorism had “outlived its usefulness,” Kevin McAleenan, the then Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), replied, “Well, maybe,” highlighting that his staff were grappling with both terminology and definitions, calling for a “new definition” for targeted violence on the domestic side “as well as an annual assessment of threats to the homeland.” This was something that DHS had requested the Department of Justice to look at in response to both El Paso and Dayton and “whether there are any legislative updates that need to be considered as well.”82

Paradoxically, as the threat posed by right-wing extremists moved center stage in the days after El Paso, CNN reported that the Trump administration had previously spent more than a year rebuffing DHS’ efforts to make combating domestic extremism a higher priority, as had been spelled out in the National Counterterrorism Strategy.83 Indeed, the Trump administration had already defunded several measures aiming to combat the issue.84 Predictably, as RAND’s Practical Terrorism Prevention (2019) observed, as a result there are “major gaps” in national terrorism prevention efforts, shortfalls precipitated by “limited programmatic focus and resource investment.”85

However, DHS’ Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,86 published in September 2019, has for the first time since the agency’s formation after 9/11 included “white supremacist extremism” on its list of threats, though there are undoubtedly some practical and political challenges to implementing this new strategy.87 DHS had been “galvanized” to add white supremacy as a result of the recent spate of terrorist attacks, stated McAleenan.88 Underscoring the reasons why white supremacist extremism had finally been incorporated within the Strategic Framework, McAleenan told CTC Sentinel:

We wanted to be very clear in this Strategy that we recognize emerging threats from racially motivated violent extremists, and in particular white supremacist extremists in the United States […] that’s borne out by the FBI’s caseload and current percentages, and it’s been the driving ideological factor in a number of high-casualty attacks, both in the U.S. and abroad in the last two years. So stating that with clarity, that was very important as a strategic direction to the Department of Homeland Security agencies and professionals. But also to show the American people we get it, and we’re addressing emerging threats as aggressively as we can.89

Even before El Paso, however, the FBI was highlighting the growing magnitude of the threat, which was reflected not just in high-profile massacres at synagogues in California and Pennsylvania but also in less publicized cases like that of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, who, though he was not charged with terrorism-related offenses, pleaded guilty to four counts of weapons and drugs charges, including the improper possession of 17 firearms and two silencers in October 2019. Inspired by Breivik’s manifesto, Hasson spent hours researching his tactics, prosecutors stated. “I am dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on earth,” Hasson had written on his computer, while stating that he would “have to take [a] serious look at appropriate individual targets, to bring the greatest impact.” Prosecutors alleged that he had planned a domestic terror attack, pointing to a hit list he had drafted of Democratic politicians and journalists he considered “traitors.”90

In May 2019, Michael McGarrity, the FBI’s assistant director of the counterterrorism division, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee that the Bureau had 850 open domestic terrorism cases, 40 percent of which involved racially motivated violent extremism, with the threat continuing to develop.91 While the number of domestic terrorism cases investigated by the FBI fluctuated—actually decreasing from the number six months prior—McGarrity highlighted that the rate of new cases was increasing:

What I can tell you of what we’re seeing is the velocity in which our subjects and the velocity in which we’re working our cases—both on the domestic terrorism side and the international terrorism side with homegrown violent extremists—that velocity is much quicker than it’s ever been before.92

Later that month, an FBI Intelligence Bulletin from the Bureau’s Phoenix office identified “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” as a growing menace, one likely to increase during the 2020 presidential election cycle.93

Symptomatic of this increasing concern was a statement by FBI Director Christopher Wray on July 23, 2019—nearly two weeks before El Paso—that made clear that domestic terrorism had become a key preoccupation for the Bureau, the agency having made roughly 90 domestic terrorism-related arrests since October 1, 2018, compared with about 100 international terrorist arrests. According to the FBI, the majority of domestic terrorism cases involving a racial motive were motivated by what Wray stated was “some version of what you might well call white supremacist violence, but does include other things as well.”94 Following the El Paso attack, which are being investigated by the FBI Domestic Terrorism-Hate Crimes Fusion Cell, Wray ordered agency field offices across the country to conduct a new threat assessment in part out of concern that the attack, and those like it, could inspire other individuals to “engage in similar acts of violence.”95

This is not an unwarranted fear. The FBI’s “Lone Offender Terrorism Report,” published in November 2019, highlighted that those motivated by ideologies “advocating for the superiority of the white race” accounted for 19 percent of all cases of lone-actor terrorism in the United States, the same percentage as radical Islamist violent extremism.96 Given that the internet looms large in the most recent cases of lone-actor, mass-casualty, extreme-right terrorism, it is also important to note that, in a digital age, the United States’ problem with “domestic terrorism” is not simply “domestic” insofar as the diffusion of violent ideologies and strategies occurs transnationally. Indeed, as Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently told an audience in Washington D.C.:

For almost two decades, the United States has pointed abroad at countries who are exporters of extreme Islamist ideology. We are now being seen as the exporters of white supremacist ideology; that’s a reality with which we are going to have to deal.97

Growing awareness that an international response is required to counter this phenomenon was reflected in the announcement by Acting Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Ambassador Nathan A. Sales on December 10, 2019, that while the U.S. Department of State’s Counter Terrorism Bureau remained determined to combat transnational terrorist groups like Hezbollah, “we’re also expanding our efforts to counter racially or ethnically motivated terrorism—in particular, white supremacist terrorism.”98

It remains to be seen whether the self-referential and indeed self-reinforcing momentum of extreme right-wing violence will be sustained and whether thresholds for violence will change or whether the velocity of cases will burn themselves out following this surge in violence. There are, as there always have been, voices within the “scene” that counsel against violence, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the damage that public and political condemnation do to its normalization strategies. Indeed such “internal brakes”99 on violence are often reapplied across violent sub-cultures in the aftermath of particularly egregious acts of violence that transcend a group’s own moral norms, not least because of the broader societal revulsion that it can generate against them.

However, the digital ecosystem, of which 8chan was a central component, seemingly lacks such restraining mechanisms and processes. The anonymity this amorphous community of interconnected platforms, unconnected to any particular organization, provides and the accelerated access it affords for learning, tactical evolution, and indeed opportunities to broadcast violence for an audience that deifies rather than condemns its perpetrators, presents a new sort of challenge: one that appears unfettered by the strategic and political priorities of groups that inhabit the “real” world. The longer-term consequences of this increasing propensity for mass carnage from within a portion of the extreme-right milieu, or moreover, often from individuals self-identifying with it through digital mediums, is as yet unknowable. It is perhaps too early to say whether a critical mass has been reached already given the unpredictability of the threat and its transnational nature, or whether there will be further links in this chain reaction of extreme-right terrorism during the coming months and years.     CTC

Graham Macklin is an assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo, Norway. He has published extensively on extreme-right and anti-minority politics in Britain in both the inter-war and post-war periods, including Very Deeply Dyed in the Black: Sir Oswald Mosley and the Resurrection of British Fascism after 1945 (2007); with Nigel Copsey, British National Party: Contemporary Perspectives (2011); and Failed Fuhrers: A History of the British Extreme Right (2020). He co-edits the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right book series as well as the journals Patterns of Prejudice and Fascism. Follow @macklin_gd

Research for this article was conducted while the author was a visiting fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) in the Netherlands.

Substantive Notes
[a] The previous two times 8chan had been used to broadcast murder were the Christchurch attack in New Zealand and the Poway synagogue attack in California. Kristen Gelineau, “5 months on, Christchurch attacker influences others,” Associated Press, August 6, 2019. The October 2019 attack in Halle, Germany, where the perpetrator murdered two people after failing to gain access to a synagogue to carry out a massacre, followed a similar modus operandi with the assailant posting a manifesto and livestreaming his attack, albeit on this occasion to Twitch. Highlighting the performative aspect of the attack, when the killer realized his attack was not going to plan, the Halle attacker apologized apologized to his virtual audience: “Sorry, guys.” See “Deadly Attack Exposes Lapses in German Security Apparatus,” Spiegel, October 11, 2019, and Daniel Koehler, “The Halle, Germany, Synagogue Attack and Evolution of the Far-Right Terror Threat,” CTC Sentinel 12:11 (2019).

[b] This is a factor common to other categories of lone-actor violence as well. In its study of lone actors, which was not confined to extreme right activists, the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (“Lone Offender: A Study of Lone Offender Terrorism in the United States (1972-2005),” November 2019, pp. 39-41) found that 50 perpetrators (96 percent) “produced writings or videos intended to viewed by others.” Of those 50, twenty-four (48 percent) posted videos or writings (blogs, essays, or manifestos) to social media platforms or their own websites before their attack while 22 offenders (44 percent) produced content before and after their attack while the remaining four offenders in their sample (eight percent) only wrote publicly after their attack.

[c] Jeff Sparrow makes a similar point in relation to the Christchurch terrorist attacks in Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre (London: Scribe, 2019), pp. 73-74.

[d] 8chan was briefly picked up by Epik.com, whose clients included Gab, until Voxility, an internet services company it worked with, completely banned 8chan from its network causing the site to disappear again. See Voxility, “Thank you for the note. We are addressing this now …,” Twitter, August 5, 2019.

[e] While it is unknown if Crusius was aware of it, race and conservationism have a storied history within the United States’ extreme right. See Jonathan Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (Lebanon, New Hampshire: University of Vermont Press, 2008).

[f] For a step taken at the federal level, see Brittany Crocker and Nick Penzenstadler, “Bump stocks, which allow rifles to mimic automatic weapons, are now illegal to own, buy or sell,” USA Today, March 26, 2019.

[g] The murderous anti-Semitic assault on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, which claimed 11 lives, was framed by the perpetrator as retaliation for its congregation having previously partnered with a refugee advocacy group, whom the killer believed was helping to transport “invaders” from Central America into the United States, the so-called migrant “caravan” being front and center in Trump’s politicking during the 2018 midterm elections. More generally, Adeel Hassan (“Hate-Crime Violence Hits 16-Year High, FBI Reports,” New York Times, November 12, 2019) reports that according to FBI statistics for 2018, hate crimes against Latinos are at their highest levels since 2010.

[1] Sanya Mansoor, “25-Year-Old Mom ‘Gave Her Life’ to Shield Her 2-Month-Old. These Are the El Paso Shooting Victims,” Time, October 21, 2019. The short “Indictment [9662140] State of Texas vs. Patrick Wood Crusius – Offence: Capital Murder of Multiple Persons,” September 12, 2019, lists the names of his victims, which included eight Mexican citizens, 13 Americans, and one German citizen. See also Bobby Allyn, Dani Matias, Richard Gonzales, and Bill Chappell, “Stories of El Paso Shooting Victims Show Acts of Self-Sacrifice Amid Massacre,” NPR, August 6, 2019.

[2] Jennifer Calfas and Mahita Gajanan, “What to Know About the South Texas Church Shooting,” Time, November 6, 2017.

[3] “The Inconvenient Truth,” Patrick Crusius’ alleged manifesto.

[4] “Warrant of arrest [JMAG 19-06909],” The State of Texas vs Crusius, Patrick Wood – Offense: Capital Murder.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Adam Elmahrek, Melissa Etehad, and Matthew Ormseth, “Suspect in El Paso massacre ‘didn’t hold anything back’ in police interrogation,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2019.

[7] Ed Lavandera and Jason Hanna, “El Paso shooting suspect claims distance from hometown helped him choose target,” ABC7 KVIA, August 9, 2019.

[8] “The Latest: Suspect’s grandparents say they’re ‘devastated,’” Associated Press, August 5, 2019.

[9] Aaron Montes and Molly Smith, “El Paso Walmart mass shooting suspect pleads not guilty,” El Paso Times, October 11, 2019.

[10] Jake Bleiberg and Cedar Attanasio, “Grand jury indicts man on capital murder for El Paso attack,” Associated Press, September 13, 2019.

[11] Claire Z. Cardona, “What we know about the El Paso massacre suspect and his ties to North Texas,” Dallas News, August 6, 2019.

[12] Elmahrek, Etehad, and Ormseth; Michael Biesecker, Reese Dunklin, and Michael Kunzelman, “El Paso suspect appears to have posted anti-immigrant screed,” Associated Press, August 4, 2019.

[13] Cardona.

[14] Elmahrek, Etehad, and Ormseth.

[15] Erin Ailworth, Georgia Wells, and Ian Lovett, “Lost in Life, El Paso Suspect Found a Dark World Online,” Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2019.

[16] Elmahrek, Etehad, and Ormseth.

[17] Screenshot of now deleted 8chan post, via Bellingcat, August 3, 2019.

[18] J.M. Berger, “The Dangerous Spread of Extremist Manifestos,” Atlantic, February 26, 2019.

[19] Ralph W. Larkin, “The Columbine Legacy: Rampage Shootings as Political Acts,” American Behavioral Scientist 52:9 (2009): pp. 1,309-1,326.

[20] Johannes Due Enstad, “‘Glory to Breivik!’: The Russian Far Right and the 2011 Norway Attacks,” Terrorism and Political Violence 29:5 (2017): pp. 773-792.

[21] Jacob Aasland Ravndal, “The Dark Web Enabled the Christchurch Killer,” Foreign Policy, March 16, 2019.

[22] Graham Macklin, “The Christchurch Attacks: Livestream Terror in the Viral Video Age,” CTC Sentinel 12:6 (2019).

[23] Mark Granovetter, “Threshold Models of Collective Behaviour,” American Journal of Sociology 83:6 (1978): pp. 1,420-1,443.

[24] Malcolm Gladwell, “Thresholds of Violence,” New Yorker, October 19, 2015.

[25] Nicky Woolf, “The 8chan Story – Destroyer of Worlds,” Tortoise Media, June 29, 2019.

[26] Macklin.

[27] Ailworth, Wells, and Lovett.

[28] Philip Manshaus “bump race war thread,” posted to 8chan, October 8, 2019.

[29] Jason Burke, “Norway mosque attack suspect ‘inspired by Christchurch and El Paso shootings,’” Guardian, August 11, 2019.

[30] Sal Hagen, Anthony Burton, Jack Wilson, and Marc Tuters, “Infinity’s Abyss: An overview of 8chan,” Open Intelligence Lab, August 9, 2019.

[31] “8chan founder: I regret my creation,” BBC, August 6, 2019.

[32] Matthew Prince, “Terminating Service for 8chan,” Cloudfare Blog, August 5, 2019.

[33] Watkins Xeres, “Sorry for the inconvenience, common sense will prevail,” YouTube, August 6, 2019.

[34] Oscar Gonzalez and Queenie Wong, “Instagram denies 8chan owner’s claim about El Paso shooting manifesto,” CNET, August 9, 2019.

[35] James Watkins, “Congressional Primer on 8chan, Committee on Homeland Security 8chan Inquiry,” September 4, 2019.

[36] Sean Kean and Oscar Gonzalez, “8chan’s rebranded 8kun site goes offline days after launch,” CNET, November 25, 2019.

[37] April Glaser, “Where 8channers Went After 8chan,” Slate, November 11, 2019.

[38] “The Inconvenient Truth.”

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Macklin.

[43] “The Inconvenient Truth.”

[44] Ibid.

[45] Jolie McCullough, “El Paso shooting suspect said he ordered his AK-47 and ammo from overseas,” Texas Tribune, August 28, 2019.

[46] Aage Borchegrevink, A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2013), pp. 170-174.

[47] “The Great Replacement,” Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto.

[48] “The Inconvenient Truth.”

[49] Scott Glover and Majlie de Puy Kamp, “Exclusive: El Paso suspect’s mother called police concerned about gun,” CNN, August 9, 2019.

[50] Emerson Clarridge, “Man charged in El Paso killings was ‘surprised no one challenged him,’ report says,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 28, 2019.

[51] “Texas Walmart shooting: El Paso attack ‘domestic terrorism,’” BBC, August 5, 2019.

[52] Louis Klarevas, Rampage Nation: Securing America from Mass Shootings (New York: Prometheus, 2016), p. 12.

[53] Annie McDonough, “How do New York’s gun laws measure up?” City & State New York, August 14, 2019.

[54] “Colt News – Company Response to Questions about Colt Participation in Consumer Markets,” Colt.com, September 19, 2019.

[55] Vandana Rambaran, “Trump, 2020 Dems condemn El Paso mass shooting: ‘Act of cowardice,’” Fox News, August 3, 2019.

[56] Jeremy W. Peters, Michael M. Grynbaum, Keith Collins, Rich Harris, and Rumsey Taylor, “How the El Paso Killer Echoed the Incendiary Words of Conservative Media Stars,” New York Times, August 11, 2019.

[57] See Philip Rucker, “‘How do you stop these people?’: Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric looms over El Paso massacre,” Washington Post, August 4, 2019, for one of countless examples.

[58] Biesecker, Dunklin, and Kunzelman.

[59] “The Inconvenient Truth.”

[60] Mills Hayes and Jala Washington, “Patrick Crusius lawyers say they aren’t ready for trial,” KFox14, November 7, 2019.

[61] Harel Shapira, “The Minutemen: Patrolling and performativity along the U.S./Mexico border,” in Tore Bjørgo and Miroslav Mare eds., Vigilantism against Migrants and Minorities (Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge, 2019), pp. 151-163 and David Neiwert, And Hell Followed with Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (New York: Nation Books, 2013).

[62] On this history, see William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[63] Katelyn Burns, “Friends Say that Sibling Murdered by Dayton Shooter Was a Transgender Man,” Splinter, August 7, 2019.

[64] For the information in this paragraph, see Alejandro de la Garza and Michael Zennie, “Dayton Shooting Lasted Just 32 Seconds and Left 9 Dead. Here’s the Latest on the Tragedy,” Time, August 9, 2019.

[65] Brendan O’Brien, “Mass shooting tips to FBI surge 70% after El Paso, Dayton massacres,” Reuters, August 26, 2019.

[66] Steve Almasy, Dave Alsup, and Madeline Holcombe, “Dozens of people have been arrested over threats to commit mass attacks since El Paso and Dayton shootings,” CNN, August 22, 2019.

[67] “US shootings: Trump says ‘serious’ talks on gun control under way,” BBC, August 9, 2019.

[68] Sabrina Siddiqui, “Trump blames ‘glorification of violence’ but not guns after mass shootings,” Guardian, August 5, 2019.

[69] David Shortell, “Barr blames impeachment inquiry for derailing gun legislation efforts,” CNN, November 14, 2019.

[70] “Walmart says no change in company firearms sales policy since El Paso shooting,” Reuters, August 5, 2019.

[71] Doug McMillon, “McMillon to Associates: Our Next Steps in Response to the Tragedies in El Paso and Southaven,” Walmart Corporate, September 3, 2019.

[72] “Man accused in terroristic threat inside a Springfield Walmart pleads guilty to amended charge,” KY3, November 1, 2019.

[73] Alex Pew, Lauren Goldbeck, Caroline Halsted, and Diana Zuckerman, “Does Media Coverage Inspire Copy Cat Mass Shootings?” National Center for Health Research.

[74] Hollie Silverman and Steve Almasy, “At least eight Walmart stores were the subject of threats over the past week,” CNN, August 11, 2019.

[75] “CJIS Report,” Winter Park Police Department, August 9, 2019.

[76] Ibid.

[77] United States Government Accountability Office, Countering Violent Extremism: Actions Needed to Define Strategy and Assess Progress of Federal Efforts (Washington: United States Government Accountability Office, 2017), pp. 28-34.

[78] “Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2018,” ADL Center on Extremism, January 2019.

[79] Frank Figliuzzi, “White nationalist domestic terrorism is rising – rethinking how we label it can help the FBI stop it,” NBC News, August 10, 2019.

[80] Helen Taylor, “Domestic terrorism and hate crimes: legal definitions and media framing of mass shootings in the United States,” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism 14:3 (2019), pp. 227-244. For a comparison of U.S. and European legal frameworks, see Natalie Alkiviadou, The Far Right in International and European Law (Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge, 2019).

[81] Joshua A. Geltzer, Mary B. McCord, and Nicholas Rasmussen, “The Christchurch Shooting: Domestic Terrorism Goes Global,” Lawfare, March 19, 2019. See also Mary McCord, “Filling the Gap in Our Terrorism Statutes,” George Washington University, Program on Extremism, August 2019.

[82] Paul Cruickshank and Brian Dodwell, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan,” CTC Sentinel 12:9 (2019): p. 13.

[83] Jake Tapper, “Exclusive: White House rebuffed attempts by DHS to make combating domestic extremism a higher priority,” CNN, August 7, 2019. See also “National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America,” White House, October 2018.

[84] “George Selim, Senior Vice President, Programs, Anti-Defamation League, before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a hearing on Confronting White Supremacy (Part 1): The Consequences of Inaction, Washington DC,” May 15, 2019. However, as Peter R. Neumann notes in Bluster: Donald Trump’s War on Terror (London: Hurst, 2019), p. 142, although Trump officials “drastically cut” the CVE budget, it “was relatively small to begin with and right-wing extremism had never been a priority” even for the Obama administration.

[85] Brian A. Jackson et al., Practical Terrorism Prevention: Re-examining U.S. National Approaches to Addressing the Threat of Ideologically Motivated Violence (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2019), p. xii. The report notes pointedly that terrorism prevention “must be inclusive of the threat of ideological violence from all sources – from ISIS to white supremacists to environmentally inspired violence – and must do so not only in statements, but also in programming and investment.”

[86] “Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” Department of Homeland Security, September 2019.

[87] Kathy Gilsinan, “DHS Is Finally Going After White Supremacists. It’s Not Going to Be Simple,” Atlantic, September 20, 2019.

[88] Pete Williams, “Department of Homeland Security strategy adds white supremacy to list of threats,” NBC News, September 20, 2019, which also reported that the El Paso attack “hit DHS particularly hard” since six of the victims “were family members of DHS employees.”

[89] Cruickshank and Dodwell, p. 11.

[90] Robert Legare, “Coast Guard officer who drafted hit list pleads guilty to drug and weapons charges,” CBS News, October 3, 2019.

[91] David Shortell, “FBI investigating 850 domestic terrorism cases,” CNN, May 8, 2019.

[92] Ibid.

[93] FBI Phoenix Field Office, “(U//LES) Anti-Government, Identity Based, and Fringe Political Conspiracy Theories Very Likely Motivate Some Domestic Extremists to Commit Criminal, Sometimes Violent Activity,” FBI Intelligence Bulletin, May 30, 2019. The document specifically mentioned the QAnon and “Pizzagate” conspiracy theories.

[94] Morgan Chalfant, “FBI’s Wray says most domestic terrorism arrests this year involve white supremacy,” The Hill, July 23, 2009; Matt Zapotosky, “Wray says FBI has recorded about 100 domestic terrorism arrests in fiscal 2019 and many investigations involve white supremacy,” Washington Post, July 23, 2019. The latter report contains clarification of Wray’s remarks on domestic terrorism data.

[95] Christina Maxouris, Josh Campbell, and Evan Perez, “The FBI director ordered the agency’s field offices to scour the country for mass shooting threats,” CNN, August 5, 2019.

[96] “Lone Offender,” National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, p. 29.

[97] Russell Travers, “Counterterrorism in an Era of Competing Priorities: Ten Key Considerations,” The Washington Institute, November 12, 2019.

[98] “Counterterrorism in the Western Hemisphere, Remarks, Nathan A. Sales, Acting Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, The American Jewish Committee, Washington, DC,” U.S. Department of State, December 10, 2019.

[99] Joel Busher, Donald Holbrook, and Graham Macklin, “The Internal brakes on violent escalation: a typology,” Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 11:1 (2019): pp. 3-25.

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