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Monday, June 5, 2023

Allen Outlets Mass Shooting Illustrates High Risk for Outdoor Soft Targets

Shooter’s social media displayed Nazi content and mall reconnaissance research, including photos, a map, and Google’s estimation of the busiest times at the outlet center.

Saturday’s mass shooting at an outlet center in Allen, Texas, was a nightmare scenario come true for soft targets and crowded places. The open-air nature of the outlet mall — venues that draw floods of shoppers who often travel considerable distances to seek bargains and share a day out with family and friends — meant that the killer was able to quickly approach his target without detection and catch victims off-guard.

Eight people were killed in the attack: parents Kyu Cho and Cindy Cho and their 3-year-old son James, security guard Christian LaCour, Aishwarya Thatikonda, Elio Cumana-Rivas, and sisters Daniela Mendoza and Sofia Mendoza — fourth- and second-graders, respectively, whose school district announced the girls’ deaths. Seven more people were wounded, some critically. Allied Universal CEO Steve Jones, whose company employed LaCour, noted that another security guard employed by the company was killed in last year’s Buffalo mass shooting. “This young man suffered a senseless death in sacrifice to others,” he said of LaCour’s slaying. The shooter was killed by an officer who was at the expansive shopping center on an unrelated call.

The shooter, 33-year-old Mauricio Garcia of Dallas, was killed by police outside of the mall’s Fatburger. Garcia served in the military for three months in 2008 before he was removed due to unspecified findings on a mental health evaluation. He had no prior criminal history and moved out of his parents’ house a couple of months ago. He reportedly had worked for three security companies for which he had to undergo Texas Department of Public Safety-mandated firearms proficiency training, though no longer had active private-security credentials at the time of the shooting. He used a rifle in the attack and had two other weapons on him, as well as five additional weapons in his car, all purchased legally mostly through private sellers, according to CNN citing law enforcement sources, which means that in the state of Texas he did not have to undergo background checks.

After reports emerged that law enforcement had discovered a trove of neo-Nazi materials on the shooter’s social media, some openly wondered how a Hispanic man could ascribe to an ideology that believes in the supremacy of European-origin whites. For the same reason why some neo-Nazi accelerationists share and admire ISIS propaganda including beheading videos: This is the “hodgepodge” of ideologies rather than a “purity of radical ideology” that FBI Director Christopher Wray has spoken of when characterizing the extremism trends of lone actors today. The writings on the Odnoklassniki profile (a Russian platform that could be attractive to extremists frustrated with content-related bans on American social media sites) attributed to the Allen shooter reflect an individual who identified with neo-Nazi ideology — openly admiring Hitler (saying “what’s not to like”) and the antisemitic core of the ideology (decrying in one post “Jewish muh diversity hippie bullshit” and using white supremacist terms such as “zog,” which stands for “Zionist occupied government”). He also posted misogynistic incel content and declared that “the violent responses of men today are retaliatory.” It is not surprising and these days quite expected for an extremist to pick which facets of ideologies are enticing and make him feel more enlightened, powerful, dangerous, or — a term embraced in the Allen shooter’s posts — evil.

The social media account, which uses a smiley face with a Hitler mustache as the avatar, also included photos of his Nazi tattoos and a photo of the tactical vest authorities said he was wearing during the attack. One of the patches bears the acronym RWDS — seen in previous extremist activity to stand for Right Wing Death Squad — on a Waffen SS divisional insignia shield. Another patch is the logo of the Punisher, which has been used by anti-government extremists such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, along with a patch bearing the Punisher logo imposed on the Texas flag.

In the dashcam video of a vehicle that was in the same row of the parking lot as the shooter, facing toward the stores, the shooter is seen jumping out of his car in the aisle and starting to fire at people outside of the stores — a tactic that raises the possibility that he at some point may have watched the livestream of the May 2022 mass shooting at the Buffalo supermarket, where the first victims were gunned down outside the store as soon as the shooter pulled up and exited his vehicle. The melting pot of extremism and cross-pollination of terrorist training means that tactical advice, guides, and emulation are easily accessible online for any ideology to consume and glean pointers. Garcia’s social media also displayed his mall reconnaissance research, including photos, a map, and Google’s estimation of the busiest times at the outlet center; Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron’s manifesto included descriptions of target recon and research — “According to Google and independent study, 4:00 PM on Friday is the most populated time at Top’s,” he wrote. Gendron also wrote of his intent to wear “decent body armor” and “use my car to store my guns.”

Because of the difference in the two targets, Garcia unfortunately found more victims outdoors to target as soon as he alighted from his car. The layout of the Allen Premium Outlets, with more than 120 stores, consists of an exterior ring of stores with storefronts facing inward to a parking area accessible by three distributed vehicle entrance/exit points; a pedestrian access point also links to a parking area outside of this ring. At the center of this open-air mall design, surrounded by parking lots, is an interior ring of stores. This is where the shooter went, stopping between H&M — one of the center’s larger anchor stores — and the Express Factory Outlet.

This problem of an expansive target with various points of uncontrolled outdoor and interior access and people consistently both outside and inside buildings was seen in another mass shooting this year: the Feb. 13 attack at Michigan State University in which three people were killed and five injured. Michigan State’s investigation of the events said that the first 911 call reporting shots fired at Berkey Hall, where classrooms were located, was received at 8:18 p.m. Police were there two minutes later, but shooter Anthony McRae entered the campus student union at 8:24 p.m., firing shots there two minutes later. By the time officers arrived at the union, McRae had slipped off campus. He shot himself on a Lansing street at 11:49 p.m. when approached by officers.

The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that defines a mass shooting as the killing or wounding of four or more people in one shooting incident, reports 208 mass shootings so far this year. Open-air venues such as the outlet center face unique challenges in preparing for and responding to targeted violence.

Lack of defined entry and access points. Rather than security potentially witnessing someone armed with a long gun enter the doors of an indoor mall (concealed handguns pose a challenge if there are no detection systems), security must scan multiple entry and exit points or swaths with continuous flows of vehicles and pedestrians. Security who may be monitoring vehicle entry at driveway points may not notice that something is amiss with a driver or passengers — such as an individual clad in body armor or wearing black long sleeves and pants on a warm Texas day — as these vehicles drive past at a normal rate of speed.

Large crowds in a defined — yet disperse — space. A killer can easily access crowds and multiple storefronts, and the outdoor nature of the mall can make it more difficult to notify customers of danger with loudspeakers or alarms. The nature of the venue can also make it easier for bad actors to blend in or escape. In addition, open-air shopping areas can be vulnerable to aerial threats such as drones with nefarious payloads.

Broad surveillance area. Individual stores have their own loss-prevention procedures that can include the presence of uninformed security in order to deter shoplifters and/or behind-the-scenes surveillance to catch theft as it happens. These staff will ideally be alert to adverse events or suspicious behavior happening just outside of the storefront. Surveillance of parking and pedestrian areas by centralized security should also include an established perimeter around the mall that will be observed for threat activity. Training is essential so that those on surveillance — whether at the “local” store level or the broader complex — understand and can spot indicators of suspicious activity.

Ensuring that stores are quickly notified to initiate run-and-hide procedures. This notification may come first from a store near the point of the shooting. While the first priority is ensuring the safety of staff and customers who may be fleeing inside the store to seek shelter, stores should be able to quickly alert neighbors to the possibly impending danger or seek assistance from their neighbors. Mall staff — from store associates to custodians and contract security — should also receive uniform training on detecting and responding to threats, such as the “Connect, Plan, Train, Report” steps detailed in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s “Mass Gatherings: Security Awareness for Soft Targets and Crowded Places” guide.

Moving into summer events, whether at informal crowded places like parks and malls or structured festivities such as concerts or farmer’s markets, many will be recalling the Fourth of July parade mass shooting last year in Highland Park — where the shooter fired from a store rooftop in order to bypass security presence on the ground, used the elevated position to target victims, and slipped away with the chaotic crowd before his apprehension eight hours later — and wondering what precautions are necessary to keep people safer. Unfortunately, actors with ill intent may simultaneously be thinking about how to emulate such an attack in their own areas. This makes a multilayered security approach all the more essential: identifying potential bad actors in the planning stages along with their attempts to acquire weapons, ensuring that risk assessment of a venue or event includes factors such as places that by nature have a lack of access control or other “soft” spots, incorporating a range of potential threats in planning from active shooters and explosives to chemical or biological threats, fostering relationships with law enforcement agencies and taking advantage of preparedness grants or training programs, and through training and guidance making sure that employees and attendees are prepared for the worst.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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