The ‘diary’ of Payton Gendron, who carried out the Buffalo attack on May 14 2022 killing ten and wounding three, is an important document insofar as it dives into the mind of a suspected terrorist in the months preceding an attack. This ‘logbook’, made up of Discord messages on a channel to which only he had access, was ultimately intended to be shared. Indeed, thirty minutes before his murderous act, Gendron sent an invitation link to this channel to about fifteen people. It is therefore not a diary in the strictest sense of the word, but nevertheless, Gendron seems to have expressed himself freely and we can admit that he shows a certain level of transparency and spontaneity. While others have already written about the ideology that motivated this attack, for example, the theory of the Great Replacement (tinged here with accelerationism), this article will deal with the drivers of Gendron’s radicalisation as they appear in his diary. Some points are also addressed in his manifesto, but it remains essentially a textual reworking of long passages from other manifestos, in particular, that of Brenton Tarrant, and provides less insight on the specificities of Gendron’s radicalisation.
This article is far from exhaustive because the logbook, composed of writings but also numerous screenshots, memes, various links, etc., spans over seven-hundred pages and could be expounded on in multiple dimensions. The authors focus here on a few specific themes: the virtualisation of Gendron’s radicalisation; his oscillation between doubts and determination; his entanglement in multiple grievances; and the compensation of his low self-esteem with the sense of a mission to accomplish.
NB – The expressions in quotation marks are taken directly from Gendron’s diary.
Virtualisation of the Radicalisation Process
Gendron claims to have spent “years” online. While he has some regrets about this, he says that overall others made him “uncomfortable” and it is, therefore, reasonable to think that the virtual space acted as a refuge for him. Nevertheless, his digital activity intensified with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My current beliefs started when I first started to use 4chan a few months after covid started. Many of which I got from 4chan’s /pol/ page and links found in /nsg/ and threads like that. “
Gendron was radicalised on the internet in what we could call a virtual form of radicalisation, essentially on 4chan, and to a lesser extent on other platforms such as Reddit. Present on the /k/ forum of 4chan, showing a keen interest in weapons, he drifted to the extreme right, white supremacist, politically incorrect /pol/ forum (as well as the /nsg/, national socialism forum) during the early days of COVID as he went through a phase of “extreme boredom”. As some authorities have pointed out, the lockdowns led people to frequent more radical online ecosystems, particularly the extreme right, both out of idleness and in search of explanations during a distressing period. In this regard, it is noteworthy that Gendron admitted an “extreme fear” of COVID, dreading contracting it and remaining “handicapped for life”. He also asserted that via these platforms, he finally had access to “the truth”, since he was convinced mainstream media was untrustworthy.
Gendron was strongly influenced by /pol/ culture, as attested by his diary which was full of various memes, as well as by his wording and rhetoric. What’s more, one notes a remarkable continuum between his digital activities and real life, as he writes a few weeks before he commits his attack, his intention to do “shitposting in real life”, showing how his digital life is imbricated in reality.
Significantly, he indicated that whenever his motivation waned, a short visit to /pol/ was enough to get him going again. In this case, the virtual environment not only accelerated radicalisation but also maintained and reinforced it.
The role of the virtual was fundamental to the attack, both before and during. Strengthened by the curiosity and fascination for the Christchurch attack video, he meticulously prepared his live stream, convinced that it would offer “a 1000x greater impact”.
Determined to pass the torch for future actions inspired by his own, he even chose his broadcasting platform by age, hoping to inspire as young an audience as possible. Twitch was chosen not only for its live stream sharing options such as viewing without having an account – also possible on Facebook – but particularly for the youthfulness of its audience, compared to the Facebook audience that Gendron describes as “boomers”.
The last notable element about his virtual activities: Gendron estimated a few weeks before the attack that he had to erase part of his publication history on Discord so that these publications “die with him”. This behaviour evokes that of Abdullakh Anzorov, Samuel Paty’s murderer, who had deleted his Twitter history a few weeks before beheading Paty in October 2020. This type of unusual behaviour in the digital field, combined with other parameters (a profile photo, biography, publications and problematic or radical ecosystem), could alert platforms and authorities and act as an early warning sign during the crucial moments before an attack, as the authors have suggested here in the case of Anzorov.
Oscillation Between Doubts and Determination
The second intriguing element in this testimony is the oscillation between his determination to carry out his attack and a subsequent surge of doubts, providing insight into his decision-making process.
Convinced that the white race was in existential danger, Gendron was self-assured to be the one designated for a mission and regularly reinterpreted the past events of his life in the light of this upcoming attack. According to him, this attack would be the result of a succession of events. The feeling that this act would be the result of destiny is nevertheless combined with doubts and growing anguish, which materialised in panic attacks, insomnia and nausea. As the weeks went by, the tension between this fear, these doubts, and the impossibility of renouncing what he perceived as his mission was transparent in his diary as if he was trapped without the possibility of turning back. It is as if he was caught up in an inescapable spiral that had already begun, as if “[his] whole life would be a waste if [he] gave up” as if he were already too far along in the process.
At the same time, his fears were multiple: the fear of dying or not completing the mission, the fear of the hero who would oppose him, the fear of what his life would be like after the attack, and the more global tension between doubt and “duty.” Claiming to have nothing against the people he plans to kill, at least on a personal or individual level, he stated that he was “desperately looking for a sign that would dissuade him from the act” and implored God to send it to him.
He wrote that a dichotomy had developed between his emotions – which suggested that there was “another way” – and his logic – which indicated that there was no other way out. If his emotions converted back to logic after consulting 4chan, he also indicated at a certain point that he “no longer [felt] emotions” because everything seemed “false” to him, as if he were progressing in a mechanical and disembodied way in his preparations.
A Mixed, Unclear & Uncertain Threat
Gendron’s grievances were not limited to the Black population. In his writings, a very violent and obsessive anti-Semitism can be observed. He believed Jews to be at the origin of both the Great Replacement and COVID. Gendron speaks of the Jewish religion and race, but also of Jewish behaviour, citing non-Jewish personalities who could be “considered as such”. Gendron invokes the usual clichés associated with Jews, interchanging the adjectives ‘Jew’ and ‘deceiver’, and judging Jews as intrinsically guilty. He does not hide his admiration for Louis Farrakhan for his anti-Semitic rhetoric, despite Farrakhan being black. Gendron thought of targeting a synagogue but did not follow through. He initially thought of taking action on March 15, the anniversary of the Christchurch shootings, which fell through and was not, in his opinion, an ideal day to target a synagogue.
Gendron’s radicalisation pathway was multifaceted: he mentions the pervasive conspiracist trope of ‘red pilling’ – a reference to the 1999 film The Matrix in which swallowing the red pill results in a dramatic change to the subject’s perspective of things vs the status quo ‘blue pill’; he displays violent hatred towards elites, and makes references to eco fascism and negationism. This is in line with what the authorities describe as the evolution of the threat: intertwined drivers of radicalisation and the interweaving of personal grievances and vulnerabilities on the one side and ideological hatred on the other.
Finally, it is noteworthy that Gendron expresses his admiration for violent Islamists, who he believes have the courage to “give up living for their ideology”. This form of respect from one form of extreme political violence to another appears regularly online in the form of tributes to the patriarchal figures of jihad (such as Bin Laden or Zarqawi) or borrowing from jihadist iconography in ultra-right memes.
Vulnerability Compensated by Leading a Mission
Gendron had a dark vision of himself and a pessimistic vision of the future, which systematically brought him back to the idea of this attack or death by suicide. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive, since the idea of dying during the attack is a risk he clearly assessed.
Gendron seems to have a degraded self-image, with frequent denigration of his intellectual capacity mentioned in his writings. In the diary, he mentions that he has autism, but repeatedly uses this as a means of self-denigration. He expresses concerns that his mental health would put the integrity of the attack into question, potentially erasing its ideological and political significance, as well as dissuading others from following in his footsteps. Youssef T, the perpetrator of the attack in Colombes, France in April 2020 wanted his action to be qualified as a terrorist act but was later diagnosed with mental illness by psychiatric experts.
Another notable characteristic of Gendron is his solitude. He says he has a complicated relationship with others and feels distant from his parents. In April, he indicated that he felt “completely disconnected from his past” and had the impression that he had been “forced to ingest memories that are supposedly linked to him”. These feelings of disconnection and disarray are not insignificant and have already been observed in other perpetrators. For instance, Salah Abdeslam, one of the terrorists in the November 2015 Paris attack, was diagnosed with a similar disconnection by psychiatric experts. This disassociation, according to them, occurred so that he would “get closer to his brothers in Islam”. In the case of Gendron, he appears to compensate for this disconnection with the idea of a vertical filiation rather than a horizontal fraternity. He describes Tarrant as a mentor and leader on multiple occasions and wishes to emanate Tarrant for the next generation.
While each radicalisation pathway is unique, Gendron’s contains markers and tendencies that can be likened to other individuals who have also carried out violent acts. An in-depth analysis of these elements by experts in radicalisation, prevention and disengagement, as well as psychologists and experts in behavioural science would provide valuable insight into the motivations, thought processes and inner worlds of radicalised individuals and may lead to recommendations on preventative measures.
Laurence Bindner is a founding partner of JOS Project, a platform of extremist and terrorist propaganda analysis. Laurence is a member of the UN CTED Global Research Network and was an auditor at the IHEDN (Institute for Higher National Defense Studies) in Defence Policy in 2019-2020.
Raphael Gluck is a founding partner of JOS Project. With a background in web development & social media marketing he has spent the last years researching terrorist and hate group abuse of the internet & social media platforms.