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Racist conspiracy theory unified white supremacists long before Buffalo, N.Y., shooting

Whether it goes by the "great replacement" or another name, the conspiracy theory embraced by the accused Buffalo, N.Y., gunman has inspired several mass shootings in recent years — in Canada and around the world.

Extremism experts say hate must be stopped at community level before it's too late

Calls to address online hate speech after Buffalo mass shooting

1 month ago
Duration 2:42
New details shed light on how the gunman in the Buffalo mass shooting was exposed to racist conspiracy theories online and the social media platforms he used to plan the attack, prompting calls for more oversight to prevent further tragedies.

Whether it goes by the "great replacement" or another name, the conspiracy theory embraced by the accused Buffalo, N.Y., gunman has inspired several mass shootings in recent years — in Canada and around the world.

Ten people died in the attack at Tops Friendly Market in a predominantly Black neighbourhood of Buffalo on Saturday.

A manifesto linked to the 18-year-old accused gunman is being investigated by the FBI, which described the deadly shooting at the supermarket as "racially motivated violent extremism."

The manifesto text, which was posted online, refers to the "great replacement" conspiracy theory, which promotes fears that Europeans are being replaced through so-called "white genocide." It also explicitly states the intention of the planned attack was "to show the replacers that as long as the White man lives, our land will never be theirs and they will never be safe from us." 

Investigators at the scene of the shooting at Tops Friendly Markets, in Buffalo, N.Y., Monday, May 16, 2022. Ten people were killed in the attack which police said was motivated by racism. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

Those who closely monitor violent extremism say it is another tragic example of how the racist ideology is spurring deadly violence.

"The great replacement conspiracy theory is kind of like the primordial DNA of racist conspiracy theory," said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

In essence, the conspiracy — which is not true — suggests there is an orchestrated plot to bring in more non-white immigrants to replace white "European" people in Western countries.

"They say this is actually a concerted effort by shadowy elites — in some cases it's the Muslim Brotherhood and in other cases, usually, they blame the Jews — [who] are controlling the media and the government so as to purposefully lower white birth rates," Balgord said of the conspiracy's proponents.

Evan Balgord, the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said people who subscribe to the so-called 'great replacement' conspiracy theory believe there is an organized effort to replace the white population by a shadowy elite. (Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society)

The term great replacement was originally coined by French white nationalist Renaud Camus. 

Balgord, who said the idea has picked up steam in the last decade, is quick to list off recent mass murders rooted in the ideology: the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting, which left six dead; the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which left 11 dead; and the 2019 mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 51 dead.

"All sorts of communities are targeted by this," he said.

Using fear of an urgent threat to spur violence

What makes the conspiracy theory such a catalyzing force for violence is the sense of urgency and the fear that white or "European" culture is under threat, according to Balgord.

He said in online forums and sites like 4chan, the language around this idea of a "great replacement" is often violent.

"They convince people that there's an apocalyptic situation, that you and your children — they're trying to replace you," he said. "That's scary for somebody who believes that."

The false sense of imminent threat makes the conspiracy particularly dangerous, said Amarnath Amarasingam, assistant professor in the school of religion at Queen's University in Kingston and a senior fellow with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. 

"The thing with some of these ideas is they kind of push general fear into a kind of emergency situation," he said.

In a photo from February 2017, a friend consoles Ilies Soufiane, the 15-year-old son of Azzeddine Soufiane, who was killed during the Quebec City mosque attack which was motivated by anti-Muslim animus. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Arsalan Iftikhar, a Muslim-American author and an associate with the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University's Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, said the malleability of the ideology also means it can — and has — been used to justify attacks against a range of minority communities.

"Racism is not isolated to any geographic boundary. We're starting to see this metastasize," he said. 

Canada's 'great replacement' problem

Even though replacement ideology originated in France, it has since been cited by multiple mass shooters in different countries. 

In the wake of the Buffalo shooting, some commentators were quick to blame Fox News host Tucker Carlson and certain Republicans for championing the racist theory. Analysts who study radicalization, however, said it's important to acknowledge it's not an exclusively American problem.

Amarasingam said some Canadian far-right movements have been known to push similar narratives about the majority population being replaced by immigrants, whether or not they use the term "great replacement."

Earlier this year, overlaps between that ideology and the leadership of the so-called Freedom Convoy came to light when previous racist comments made by one of the key organizers surfaced. 

In videos circulating on social media, protest leader Pat King speaks about "an endgame," which he said has a goal "to depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race, because they are the ones with the strongest bloodlines."

WATCH | Convoy organizer Pat King answers questions on racist videos:

While the convoy as a whole was not a far-right event, Amarasingam said he is concerned that some of the leaders with far-right beliefs have now gained a following. 

"The convoy has given all these people a massive megaphone to play with," he said.

Balgord said beyond rhetoric, you don't have to look far to find violence in Canada inspired by the same type of ideology.

A year ago, a Muslim family was killed in London, Ont., in a crime police said was motivated by anti-Muslim hate.

In 2017, a white 27-year-old man walked into a mosque in Quebec City during prayer, shooting and killing six and seriously wounding dozens of others. The killer later said he was bothered by Canada's openness toward refugees.

During the Quebec City mosque shooter's trial, video of his police interrogation was played. When asked why he chose to attack a mosque, the shooter said he was afraid of terrorist attacks and said he was afraid his family would be "killed by terrorists." 

At that time, Balgord said, Canada's new far-right movement was taking shape and focusing on Muslims.

"It wasn't explicitly called 'great replacement theory' everywhere perhaps ... but elements of it are the same," he said. 

He said the Quebec City shooter "believed that there was an Islamic and a Muslim takeover of Canada, because those garbage ideas were put in his head by both mainstream and more fringe figures."

The 'fill-in-the-blank, racist conspiracy theory'

Balgord and other analysts said the ideology is a part of a larger ecosystem — each attack that cites the racist conspiracy draws more attention to it.

In fact, the name of the Quebec City mosque shooter was among the names scrawled on an ammunition magazine by the Christchurch shooter. The Buffalo shooter is believed to have extensively researched the Christchurch shooting, according to the results of a preliminary investigation.

In a picture from Aug. 24, 2020, Maysoon Salama, mother of Ata Mohammad Ata Elayyan who was killed in the Christchurch, New Zealand shooting, gives a victim impact statement about the loss of her son during. The gunman who killed 51 worshippers at two mosques was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (John Kirk-Anderson/Reuters)

Iftikhar, author of Fear of A Muslim Planet: Global Islamophobia in the New World Order, said there is power in calling these attacks what they are.

"Everyone is more than willing to condemn terrorism whenever a brown Muslim man commits it ... we [should] be as quick to condemn terrorism when a white supremacist does it," he said.

These attacks shouldn't be seen as disconnected or blamed on lone wolves, he said, when they're linked by shared beliefs.

"Sadly, the 'great replacement' conspiracy theory has become the grand unification theory for white supremacists worldwide. It's literally what I call the 'fill-in-the-blank, racist conspiracy theory.'" 

Countering white supremacy at the community level

Canada's public safety minister has said the racism and white supremacy behind the Buffalo mass shooting is present in Canada. 

In a statement sent to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) said the threat of ideologically motivated violent extremism is complex and "fuelled by proponents that are driven by a range of influences rather than a singular belief system." 

CSIS said tackling the issue requires "a concerted and co-ordinated effort by intelligence services and law enforcement, in co-operation with civic and community leaders, academic researchers and others."

Non-governmental extremism experts agree. They say addressing far-right hate should ideally happen long before law enforcement needs to get involved. 

"The best solutions are located within the community and stopping things before it goes too far," Balgord said. 

This photo of ammunition appeared on a now-deleted Twitter account from a user whose name matched that of the Christchurch shooter. The names written on the ammunition include Quebec City mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette and Sebastiano Venier, who led a Christian naval force in a 1571 wartime victory over a Muslim fleet in the Mediterranean. (Twitter/Reuters)

He said there are concrete actions that can make a difference, such as teaching educators to spot warning signs, providing communities with tools to intervene if someone is going down a path of violent white supremacy, and naming an ombudsperson to work with social media companies to prevent violent radicalization. 

If nothing changes, Iftikhar said, hateful violence will simply continue to happen. 

"This is a new normal," he said.

"We have to decide, as the human race, if we're going to let our better angels prevail or go in the other direction." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jaela Bernstien

Journalist

Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and human rights for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at jaela.bernstien@cbc.ca

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