Active Shooter Scenario
On December 25, 2009, Al Qaeda proved that air travel was still their primary high payoff target. I believe that this event will focus the majority of our homeland security efforts on air travel safety. I am confident that the failed attack will serve as a shot in the arm and ensure al Qaeda will not be able to successfully target American aircraft for a reasonable amount of time. Once a government highlights its security focus, their enemies will naturally look for other ways to achieve their end state.
The Active Shooter Scenario is not a new phenomenon to America. Active shooters are individuals or groups who, for a number of reasons, decide to murder innocent people in a shooting rampage. Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Ft. Hood are all examples of the active shooter scenario. Law enforcement statistics show that the average Active Shooter Scenario is a single individual who is rounds complete within 8 minutes. What I want to focus on is a terrorist scenario with the intent of lasting longer than 8 minutes, like Beslan (334 dead) and Mumbai (173 dead). We know al Qaeda seeks the spectacular attack with maximum media exposure and casualties. Mumbai was not spectacular because of the number killed, it was spectacular because it showed India's inept response to neutralize a mere 10 individuals.
I think we can benefit from looking at past incidents and attempt to gleam what al Qaeda can learn from our experiences in these scenarios. The Columbine school shooting was a watershed event that significantly changed law enforcement reactions to the active shooter scenario. The Columbine response had three phases. First, establish a cordon and contain the shooters in order to deny freedom of maneuver and allow the local SWAT team to arrive on scene. Second, the SWAT team systematically cleared Columbine High School, room by room, searching for the suspects and ensuring they did not miss any other unreported suspects. Third, neutralize the shooters and provide medical care to the wounded. The primary lesson learned was; when you have active shooters in a populated building methodically killing people, you no longer have the luxury of containing the shooters and waiting for the SWAT team. Al Qaeda now knows the United States will not allow a Mumbai style attack to proceed for 60 hours. Our local law enforcement officers will bravely challenge any shooter actively targeting innocent civilians. Two local law enforcement officers, who were the first to respond, neutralized the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hassan. This is our current neutralization TTP. Since it looks like we have a viable option to thwart a Mumbai style terror attack, how can al Qaeda successfully use the active shooter scenario and still achieve their objectives?
Law enforcement officers have to make the distinction between a hostage situation and the active shooter scenario because the response is vastly different. If a first responder receives a 911 dispatch to a mall or school where a suspect is actively shooting and killing citizens, that officer will undoubtedly move toward the small arms fire and attempt to neutralize the suspect. If that same officer is responding to an armed hostage situation at a school or bank, the officer will most likely establish a perimeter and evacuate any bystanders. This is how al Qaeda can target America using a combination of the active shooter scenario and a hostage situation. I believe we have a solid response to both hostage situations and the active shooter scenarios; however, a combination of the two provides al Qaeda a viable option for a low technology spectacular attack.
First lets white board what al Qaeda needs to avoid:
Foreign Nationals who infiltrate America from terrorist hot spots (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, ect.) We are watching those areas closely.
Explosives, excluding low technology pipe bombs. We are focused on the logistics and explosive facilitation.
Large Metropolitan areas because of increased law enforcement response capacity.
Airports large enough to facilitate C-130/C-17 aircraft landing (hard to do), mitigating rapid transportation of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (HRT).
Now lets look at plausible aspects of a future attack: Planning, Facilitation, Execution, and End State.
Planning: Al Qaeda needs to conduct their planning using the courier system in order to avoid raising concerns for a future martyrdom operation. I believe the initial planning would take place in the known terrorist havens, ie Yemen, Somalia, or Pakistan. The External Operations Network is the most likely point of origin for initial concept development. I think this operation would have a long range planning horizon, preceding the operation by more than 12 months. The plan would be simple and require less coordination than the 9/11 attack. The reason for such a long planning horizon is to ensure successful infiltration of the terror cells.
Facilitation: The active shooter scenario is logistically simple. LeT's doctrinal template, utilized in Mumbai, is a viable option. 10 shooters is a large enough group to simultaneously attack several objectives, while also being small enough to fly under the intelligence radar. One group of 4, and three groups of 2 allow al Qaeda to use a similar leadership scenario as the 9/11 hijackers. The could have 4 leaders who are knowledgeable of the operation, with 6 muscle men who are largely in the dark until immediately prior to the operation's execution. I also think the 9/11 hijacker model would be followed concerning the infiltration of the 10 terrorists. The 10 shooters would assimilate into a normal American life style for as long as a year in order to disguise intentions. The year dwell time would also be used for a deliberate accumulation of automatic weapons and body armor. The armament would logistically look similar to Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu's set up. The group leaders could also use this time to conduct surveillance and rehearsals on site.
Execution: (Location) Taking a look at the number of casualties from both Beslan and Mumbai shows us that a large metropolitan area is not needed and in fact would increase the likelihood of successful law enforcement interdiction. This is why I believe an attack on a small town would increase the likelihood of successful execution while still netting a significant number of casualties. A rural town will not have a full time SWAT team, will increase the response time of national law enforcement, and the local law enforcement might initially have to operate on a 1:1 ratio of officers to terrorists.
(Targets) A mix between hostage situation and active shooter scenario is more advantageous. A combination of Beslan and Mumbai is a viable scenario. Four well trained terrorists, could control a local high school and initiate a hostage situation, drawing the events out long enough to facilitate the media's live reporting. Once the media is in place, the active shooter scenario with the remaining three teams of two could over whelm the local 911 network and sow enough disorder to create havoc among the responding officers. The active shooter scenario could take place on mini-malls or other locations that provide multiple areas with moderate to high civilian density. They could use spike strips on the highest traffic road/highway and create a traffic jam while shooting civilians stuck in their vehicles. One of the objectives would undoubtedly be to show the government's inability to protect its citizens. This would be highlighted if the local medical response is over whelmed along with the law enforcement. Molitov cocktails are a cheap, easy option to start fires once they leave each objective. Changing vehicles between targets would also add to the confusion with 911 callers reporting more groups than there actually are.
(Command and Control) Again, the Mumbai attacks illustrate the best way to C2 an active shooter scenario. The live media feeds allow terror leaders to use cell phones to direct multiple teams throughout the operation. They also allow the terror leaders to warn their shooting teams of pending SWAT team assaults. One way to increase the effectiveness of the attacks is to have prepared lists of targets that allow the active shooting teams to conduct the operation with limited direction. The leadership could inform other shooting teams that an adjacent team has been neutralized and they should pick up their target set.
End State: What would be the benefit of an attack of this style for a terror group that is largely under the gun in all corners of the World? I think the best possible outcome for al Qaeda is for an attack that creates a situation for America to loose inherent freedoms or degradation of our system of values. I want to offer up two worst case scenarios that may be unlikely, but not impossible.
1) What if AQIM could tap into the drug cartels they currently collude with and use their members as the active shooter teams? These teams would infiltrate through the porous Mexican/US border and assimilate into daily life within the States along the border. If al Qaeda could use South American's from Venezuela, Columbia, or even worse Mexico, it would cause a massive amount of rage toward illegal immigration. It could cause a situation of hysteria and increase the risk of acts of violence against anyone with South American/Mexican decent. Also, it utilizes a race of people that we currently don't associate with acts of random non-Narco terrorism.
2) Another possible scenario looks to our Northern border. I think it would be beneficial for al Qaeda to use the United Kingdom and/or Canada as a pool of recruits to carry out an active shooter scenario. Both countries could have citizens that hold dual citizenships, who travel to terrorist havens and hand carry instructions to terrorists who will cross into America illegally or legally from Canada. Canada is a viable launch pad for a terror operation. This may cause a rift between the intelligence collection and sharing between these nations. It may lead to alleviating pressure from Pakistan since the latest attack originated from an ally nation. These are just two possible scenarios, we could play the "what if" game all day, but I think it is important to highlight unlikely scenarios in order to get our analytical powers moving. I left out the most obvious scenario, a home grown terror attack like Nidal Hassan's.
The Way Forward: Fred Leland, Law Enforcement Security Consulting Inc., has a two part series that dives into the Active Shooter Scenario, here. Fred focuses his attention toward the response and law enforcement training. He coined the term, "Full Spectrum Policing" which alludes to the wide problem set law enforcement officers have to deal with. Our officers across the board need to have quarterly or bi-annual training responding to an active shooter scenario. I have a few points to add in addition to Mr. Leland's recommendations. First, law enforcement officials need to identify likely locations for active shooter scenarios and conduct mass casualty drills on location. Next, the local news executives need to be brought into the fold and agree to delay live footage of active shooter scenarios for at least 30 minuets. This should almost be a non issue since the majority of active shooter incidents are over within 8 minuets and most news agencies cannot respond fast enough. My concern would be for a Mumbai style attack where the shooting teams have commanders who are directing their activities from another country through live news footage. Finally, the intelligence sharing between the federal agencies and local law enforcement needs to be improved. This is a topic that will need continual improvement; however, we need to ensure that credible threats make there way down to the state and local level.
My hope is that this new series of posts can bring in expert opinions, as well as average citizens, who can throw out ideas and continue build/improve doctrine templates, that homeland security officials can turn into individualized situational templates.