Buffalo Exposes The Limits Of Biden’s Domestic Terror Strategy

9 minute read

Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old accused of killing 10 people in Buffalo on May 14, was first questioned by police last May. It was the end of Gendron’s senior year of high school, a time marked by pandemic isolation and boredom during which he had begun obsessively browsing extremist, violent, white supremacist forums. Asked in an economics class assignment, “What do you plan to do when you retire?” he had written, “murder/suicide,” triggering a mental health evaluation and an interview with New York state police. After the teenager shrugged the comment off as a joke, he was released.

“It was not a joke,” Gendron wrote eight months later on the popular app Discord, according to chat logs reviewed by TIME. “I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do.” Over the following months, Gendron openly discussed his plans for the attack and detailed his growing anger at the belief that the white race was being pushed to the brink of extinction on his Discord channel. “I was thinking of a personal attack against the replacers at this point, and I had watched the Christchurch mass shooting a few weeks previously and began reading up on his motives,” he wrote. Thanks to the light police interest in his increasingly extremist plans, he wrote, “I am still able to purchase guns.”

The online radicalization that preceded Gendron’s attack is a textbook case of the rising threat posed by racially-motivated domestic extremists that the Biden administration has vowed to combat. But it also shows how the U.S. government, from the White House down to local law enforcement officials, continues to be ill-equipped to counter homegrown extremism, with deadly results. The tragedy of the Gendron case, experts say, is that the tools exist to have intervened and, potentially, to have stopped it, but they are not being used. “The Buffalo shooting was fundamentally preventable,” says Elizabeth Neumann, who until 2020 led the DHS office that oversees responses to violent extremism. And that means similar attacks will surely follow.

The problems run from top to bottom. Local police and schools still label warning signs as mental health matters, rather than being on the lookout for red flags that could indicate a person has been radicalized by violent extremist ideologies. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programs meant to train community organizations and law enforcement to detect and investigate such links before they become a threat are still in their infancy and, according to former officials, vastly underfunded. Efforts to target domestic terrorism have been denounced as politically motivated attempts to crack down on free speech, especially since the Jan. 6 insurrection. And although Biden promised to “work for a domestic terrorism law” during his 2020 campaign, his Administration has so far declined to back bipartisan efforts for such new legislation.

It’s not exactly surprising: constitutional protections for gun rights, free speech and assembly make law enforcement skittish about digging into far-right rhetoric. While the U.S. government erected a global intelligence network to defend the homeland from Islamist terror attacks after 9/11, few of those lessons and tools can be applied to extremists when they are American. But the domestic threat continues to metastasize. With 10 new victims in Buffalo, right-wing extremists have killed a total 122 people in the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks, whereas 107 people have been killed by jihadist terrorists, according to data compiled by New America, a Washington-based think tank.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has struggled in recent years to allocate law enforcement resources to keep up with the rapidly growing number of federal investigations into violent domestic extremists. There are dozens of local organizations with proven programs waiting for a chance to help at a local level before extremist radicalization spills into violence, says Neumann. “It’s just words and policy papers if we don’t actually fund the plans to actually prevent it,” she says. Far-right extremists have launched complex attacks for decades, from Oklahoma City to Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to Poway to El Paso to Buffalo. “It’s sad that it takes an attack, but let this be a wake-up call,” she tells TIME. “This is not 2001, where we’re wondering why radicalization happens: we have plenty of evidence, plenty of science, plenty of practical experience to know how to stop this—but it does take time to build.”

Read More: ‘They’re Fighting Blind.’ Inside the Biden Administration’s Uphill Battle Against Far-Right Extremism

In his first days in office, President Joe Biden directed U.S. security agencies to prioritize domestic terrorism and allocated millions of federal dollars to combat it. But the effort faced intractable challenges. Far-right-wing extremism is a problem worldwide, but it is perhaps most dangerous in the U.S., which has more guns per capita than anywhere else in the world and an epidemic of mass shootings. At the same time, the American commitment to free speech and constraints on law enforcement make it hard to counter disaggregated movements that exists largely in the shadows of cyberspace.

“White supremacy is a poison,” Biden said Tuesday, standing before mourners and residents in Buffalo. “It’s been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes.” He said the grocery store shooting rampage was an act of “domestic terrorism,” emphasizing that racist ideology increasingly imperils Americans’ everyday lives.

The president may be willing to call the Buffalo massacre “terrorism,” but his Justice Department, noticeably, is not. Under federal law, domestic terrorism itself is not a crime, political speech—no matter how hateful—is protected, and any attempt to expand federal investigative tools into Americans’ lives is likely to be met with political backlash from the right and left alike.

In a conference call over the weekend with Buffalo community leaders, FBI Director Christopher Wray offered his condolences to the victims, but carefully constructed the words he used to describe the “despicable” shooting. “I want to be clear, for my part, from everything we know, this was a targeted attack, a hate crime, and an act of racially motivated violent extremism,” he said.

Some former officials say this reluctance is hamstringing efforts to prioritize domestic extremism. “When it’s a community of people that you’re targeting, it becomes terrorism at that point… this guy even wrote a manifesto outlining his beliefs,” says Daryl Johnson, a former DHS senior analyst who authored a 2009 report warning of the rise of right-wing extremism in the U.S. “We need to get over this stereotype that terrorism is al-Qaeda. When you call it terrorism, in the minds of Americans that ratchets up the level of seriousness.” The inconsistent categorization of hate crimes also means it makes it more difficult to keep accurate statistics of domestic terror incidents, he says.

The rigid language reflects the legal terms that U.S. law enforcement officials must use to charge domestic terrorists in absence of a federal statute, which range widely from vandalism to hate crimes to firearms offenses. During his 2020 campaign, Biden had promised to “work for a domestic terrorism law,” but his administration has so far proven reluctant to publicly back several bipartisan efforts to write such new legislation. One such measure, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, had bipartisan support in the House after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In the intervening months, however, Republicans have turned against it, saying the legislation is just another way of persecuting or silencing conservatives for political reasons.

The White House says it’s not categorically against new legislation, but is reticent for now. “We want to be careful if we do end up endorsing any legislative proposals,” a senior administration official told TIME. “Our view has been, we have to get to work addressing a threat that’s not going to sit and wait for the legislative process to move forward.”

The administration is pursuing a strategy to tackle domestic extremism under existing authorities. The Justice Department recently established a new unit of lawyers dedicated to investigating domestic terrorism. The FBI said last year it had more than doubled its domestic terrorism caseload, from about 1,000 to around 2,700 investigations. The White House in June released the first-ever U.S. domestic terrorism strategy, which included plans to work with law enforcement officials around the country to help recognize signs of domestic terrorism.

DHS has labeled domestic violent extremism as a “national priority area.” The decision resulted in $77 million in federal grants being allocated toward state and local programs that try to prevent those who flirt with extremist views from joining militant groups or committing violent acts. Another $20 million was distributed through 37 grants under the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) program, which helps local communities combat extremist threats.

One recipient was Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit organization that traditionally worked on extremism issues in Africa and the Middle East, but opened a U.S. office in 2021 when it became clear there was demand for their expertise. Under a $949,338 grant, they are working with a faith-based organization to ensure extremist propaganda doesn’t take root in Tarrant County located in north-central Texas. “Religious leaders were concerned about the conspiracy theories, racism, anti-Semitism, and so on, that they’re starting to see in their congregations,” said American University professor Brian Hughes, associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, which is a sub-recipient of the grant.

Programs such as these are essential, but they must be expanded, according to Ryan Greer, a former DHS official who now studies extremism at the non-profit Anti-Defamation League. “Much more must be done,” he said. “Whether the administration is cautious that Congress will not be aligned on the need to do more, or whether other threats have taken priority, the momentum since announcing the national strategy seems to have slowed and the requests from the administration to Congress for things like grant funding to support the priorities outlined in the strategy have been modest.”

TVTP funding has remained flat at $20 million since the fiscal year 2021 budget, which was drawn up by the Trump Administration. For next fiscal year, Biden has requested just $20 million. “The administration clearly prioritizes the issue, but we need to hear more from them on what they are doing and whether they are open to doing more,” Greer says.

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com and Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@time.com