National Preparedness Month: Soft Target Awareness

By Don Bartlett, Criminal Intelligence Analyst Security and Emergency Services, Defense Logistics Agency Installation Management Richmond

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In recent years, numerous violent extremists have targeted movie theaters, shopping centers, marketplaces, schools, night clubs, transportation systems, concerts, sporting events, public arenas and other crowded places in attempts to inflict mass casualties, terrify the public and/or influence public policies. Regrettably, intentional mass casualty incidents are increasing worldwide, especially here within the U.S. 

In observance of National Preparedness Month, Defense Logistics Agency Installation Management Richmond’s Security and Emergency Services is aiming to keep the DLA community safe by raising awareness of the potential for mass casualty attacks committed in public spaces and against “soft targets.” 

The term soft target refers to a facility, complex or venue that is relatively exposed or unprotected, and vulnerable to attack by threat actors, violent extremists or terrorists.  Such locations are easily accessible to large numbers of people and typically have limited protective measures to keep people safe from intentional violence. Large gatherings and public events are attractive targets because they offer an opportunity to capitalize on large crowds and increased symbolism of the intended target. 

Law enforcement and government agencies remain extremely concerned about the difficulty of protecting soft targets and crowded locations because attacks on such places have typically been perpetrated by lone offenders who went undetected until they launched their attacks on unsuspecting victims.     

The following intentional mass casualty incidents in the U.S. exemplify the enduring threat to soft targets and crowded places:

Year    Location                                Target(s)                           Method                    Total Casualties

2012    Aurora, CO                            Movie Theater                 Shooting                   82
2013    Boston, MA                            Boston Marathon            Bombing                   19
2015    San Bernardino, CA               Health Department         Shooting                   40
2016    Orlando, FL                            Pulse Nightclub              Shooting                   103
2016    Chelsea, NY & Seaside, NJ   Seaside Park, et al         Bombings                 35
2016    Columbus, OH                       Ohio State University      Vehicle Ramming     14
2017    Las Vegas, NV                       Music Concert                 Shooting                  851
2017    Sutherland Springs, TX          Church                            Shooting                   27
2017    New York City, NY                  Hudson Bike Path           Vehicle Ramming    20
2018    Thousand Oaks, CA               Borderline Bar & Grill      Shooting                  38
2018    Pittsburgh, PA                         Church                            Shooting                  18
2019    Dayton, OH                             New Peppers Bar & Grill Shooting                  37
2019    El Paso, TX                             Wal-Mart                         Shooting                  24
2019    Virginia Beach, VA                  Municipal Building           Shooting                 18
 

The above-listed incidents have significantly impacted the safety and security of the places where we work, learn, shop, dine and conduct our daily activities. Each tragedy serves as a reminder that we must continue to be vigilant and increase our awareness to help prevent these types of tragic occurrences.  

Regardless of whether these attacks were acts associated with domestic or international terrorism, mental health issues, workplace violence or atrocities carried out in furtherance of extremist ideologies, there were commonalities among the incidents, including the following:

  • Occurred at populated or crowded locations with little or no warning.
  • Took place where no significant police or security presence existed.
  • Created mass confusion and posed significant escape/avoidance challenges for victims and bystanders.
  • Perpetrated by offenders who utilized easily attainable weapons, employed simple attack tactics and had no specialized/formalized training to commit such atrocities.

Case studies of intentional mass casualty incidents have revealed extremists typically select their attack locations based upon the vulnerabilities associated with the potential number of civilians present, as well as the security footprint of the intended target. 

For example, the extremist who ultimately committed the Pulse Nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016, originally intended to conduct his attack at Disney World. In order to develop his plan of violence, he conducted pre-attack surveillance at Disney World to fully assess his target. 

During surveillance, the perpetrator observed a significant number of uniformed security and law enforcement personnel, along with persons in plain clothes he believed to be undercover security or law enforcement personnel. After evaluating his chances of executing a successful attack, he began searching for other locations better suited for attack. Ultimately, the offender selected the Pulse Nightclub because the facility possessed only one entry/exit point and usually had only one security officer present.

In order to increase your chances of remaining safe in crowded locations, public venues or other potential soft target locations, various law enforcement, public safety and private security personnel, who collaborate on intentional mass casualty incidents after each occurs, strongly urge people to consider the following recommendations:

  • Overcome denial. Understand that violent incidents can happen anywhere, anytime. 
  • Use the buddy system and attend events with friends or family.
  • Keep your cellular telephone handy.
  • Know where entry and exit points are located.
  • In crowded venues like theaters or concerts, try to sit or stand on a back row, preferably on one side or the other so that exits are more easily accessible. 
  • Consider seeing movies earlier in the day when less people are present. 
  • Make escape and/or evasion plans for every place you frequent. 
  • If you hear something that sounds like gunshots or an explosion, do not attempt to rationalize what you are hearing. Act first, then figure out what is happening later. 
  • If you find yourself in an active shooter incident, remember the survival concepts of RUN and/or HIDE and/or FIGHT.  The order in which you employ these concepts will depend upon the dynamics of your situation.  If feasible, get as far away from the shooter(s) as possible because distance makes you a harder target to acquire.  If you can put a locked door between you and the perpetrator(s), you vastly increase your chances of survival.  If you choose to fight, do so in a coordinated effort with others and attempt to incapacitate the aggressor(s).
  • Avoid walking on crowded sidewalks directly next to roadways on which vehicles have access.  Vehicle ramming incidents are becoming a preferred tactic of extremists and other threat actors for committing mass casualty attacks.  If you are present when a vehicle crashes into a crowd of pedestrians, do not assume it is merely an accident.  Run from the area immediately, being aware of the potential for a follow-on attack by knife, explosive or firearm.     
  • Remain mentally alert and vigilant, constantly observing your surroundings.
  • Report suspicious activity to law enforcement and/or security personnel.

The information in this article was designed to help raise public awareness of the current threat environment and to offer safety considerations for everyday life in public places, crowded locations and other areas considered to be potential soft targets. Mitigating the risks of intentional mass casualty incidents requires the efforts of everyone with a role in public safety, including the general public.

Thank you, be safe and be vigilant!