RICHMOND, VA –
September 11, 2001 marked a dramatic escalation of terrorist activity around the world and signified an alarming trend toward the targeting of civilians. In the last 19 years, violent incidents have occurred worldwide, leaving tens of thousands of innocent people dead or wounded. Terrorist attacks and intentional mass casualty incidents have occurred frequently, having entailed active shooter incidents, suicide bombings, vehicle ramming attacks and bombings, hostage events, and edged-weapon attacks.
Recent worldwide events underscore the serious threat violent extremism poses to the world, especially to the United States.
History has demonstrated that terrorists and extremist threat actors typically conduct certain activities prior to executing their attacks. Such activities usually appear suspicious and can include surveillance (observation), photography or videography, testing or probing security, misrepresentation, theft, sabotage, tampering, elicitation (questioning), materials acquisition and operational rehearsals. These types of activities are part of attack planning cycles and are important for us to recognize because it is during such activities that threat actors are most vulnerable to detection and apprehension.
Pre-attack activities directly expose violent threat actors to the public and provide invaluable insight of their intended targets, thus representing the best opportunity for their malicious plots to be disrupted.
In recent U.S. history, several deadly incidents serve as profound examples of violent acts that were precipitated by pre-attack activities such as those described above.
Prior to executing attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, some of the 9/11 terrorists conducted surveillance of the actual flights they later hijacked. During pre-attack operations in the months leading up to September 11 some of the terrorists documented times between take-off, cruising altitude and times when the seatbelt lights were turned off. Several of the hijackers were observed walking from their seats to the area of the cockpit door, turning around and walking back to their seats in first class while closely watching to see if anyone was paying attention to their activities.
Another example of pre-attack activity occurred prior to the June 12, 2016 shooting attack on the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida. The shooter participated in pre-attack activities that served as pre-violence warning indicators. He talked to coworkers about killing people and expressed open hatred for segments of the American population. One month before the Pulse attack, the shooter entered a gun store in south Florida and asked about purchasing “heavy-duty law enforcement style body armor” along with bulk quantities of rifle and handgun ammunition.
Pre-attack activities were also evident in the case of the San Bernardino, California, attack on December 2, 2015. Investigation revealed the two suspects who committed the attack brought packages and boxes to their residence during odd hours of the morning and night, after which they worked for several hours at a time assembling items in their garage. After the attack occurred, law enforcement agents searched the suspects’ home and seized bomb-making tools, hundreds of pieces of pipe and more than a dozen homemade pipe bombs from their garage.
Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City when the 9/11 attacks occurred, is also a former United States attorney for the southern district of New York. Shortly after details of the San Bernardino attack emerged, Giuliani went on the record, emphasizing the necessity of reporting suspicious activity. “Maybe it could have been avoided if the neighbor had reported the suspicious activity in the garage. Why didn’t she report it? She was afraid of being politically incorrect.”
These types of incidents cause many of us to wonder if reporting such suspicious activities could have exposed the assailants’ intentions and attack methodologies, ultimately leading to the arrest of many or all those involved in those violent schemes. Understanding the significance of pre-attack activities and how they relate to attack plotting can provide citizens with a heightened sense of awareness necessary to detect and help prevent violent incidents.
Should you observe activities that are suspicious in nature, please contact local law enforcement immediately and provide details of what you have witnessed. You may also call the Virginia Fusion Center Suspicious Activity Tip Line at 1-877-4VA-TIPS or download the VFC See Something/Send Something app that is available for Android devices on Google Play and Apple devices at the App Store. If you are located at a DLA installation, you may report suspicious activity by telephoning your local DLA Police Department or utilizing DLA’s suspicious activity reporting mechanism, “iWATCH DLA” which can be found on the DLA Today website.