Technology Offers a Practical Step to Thwart Violent Attacks

Opinion

Javed Ali held senior counterterrorism positions at DHS, the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Council. He is an Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.

View all articles by Javed Ali

OPINION — The mass shooting in Buffalo is the latest in a long line of similar attacks over the past decade, with each one demonstrating the challenges in detecting and stopping plots before they happen. Beginning with the attack against a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in August 2012, that killed seven people, a closer examination shows similarities amongst them. 

The Wisconsin attack, the Charleston church shooting in June 2015, the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, an attack in El Paso, Texas in August 2019, and the latest attack in Buffalo, all demonstrate how lone individuals could conduct mass casualty attacks, despite potential red flags and warning signs of their (in some cases) alleged radicalization and mobilization to violence. 

Authorities believe that each of the shooters in these cases legally purchased firearms, were heavy consumers of white supremacist propaganda published narratives online, were considered loners or not fully integrated into broader society, and attacked immigrants and ethnic and religious groups whom they believed were legitimate targets– despite coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds and geographic locations.

Authorities say that none of these lone wolves were part of formal white supremacist groups that directed or sponsored the attacks, although each arguably was part of the broader white supremacist movement that exists in the United States and is connected more by online experiences and networks where individuals seek to encourage others and share extremist-related ideas.  The background of the alleged Buffalo shooter in particular seems to highlight all of these features based on media reporting to date. 


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In the aftermath of another national tragedy where senseless and hate-filled violence has claimed the lives of innocent victims, a review of available policy options to tackle the threat from future lone wolf attacks is necessary. 

Last year, the Biden administration released the country’s first-ever national strategy on combating domestic terrorism, which laid out a strategic blueprint for how the federal government will – or already has –  begun to address the broader threat inside the country.  There are various “strategic pillars” in the document that describe lines of effort, but even with the work that is already ongoing, it remains difficult to stop lone wolf attacks in advance.  While no one single policy solution—whether laid out in the strategy or other potential options that have yet to be formally introduced—will result in a dramatic roll-back, the one that may be the most feasible and practical in the short-term lays not within the realm of the federal government, but the private sector and specifically the social media and technology world.

Given that in these lone wolf plots, the attackers were (in some cases, allegedly) heavily immersed in the online ecosystem of white supremacy, social media and technology companies should continue to invest in capabilities and resources that flag such content for removal, close accounts that violate terms of service agreements, and coordinate with FBI or other law enforcement agencies when content clearly indicates direct threats of violent action. There is currently however, a lack of standards and policies across the board that mainstream companies follow, and organizations like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism can serve as clearinghouses and thought leaders to bring common solutions driven from within the technology space. In addition, other companies and platforms on which white supremacist content exits, either do not feel the need to enforce existing terms of service agreements or fail to have them at all, given their stated positions as bastions of free speech, no matter how extreme the material.

Despite some of the challenges laid out, it still seems more likely for meaningful reforms to be driven in the technology and social media sphere as opposed to those implemented from Washington D.C. – either by Congress or the Executive Branch – that will take more time and will involve moving past the partisan gridlock that makes it difficult to pass any legislation—especially on hot button topics like gun control and reform.  In the meantime, the threat of additional lone wolf white supremacist attacks will continue based on the combination of key drivers and personal factors that combine to motivate individuals toward such agendas. 

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