SWAT agents demonstrate an active shooter scenario during FBI Atlanta Range Day on March 22, 2019. (FBI photo)

Fixations and Red Flags: NTAC Report Narrows Down Warning Signs of 2018’s Mass Attackers

A new report on Mass Attacks in Public Spaces, issued by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, found that 85 percent of attackers had a “significant stressor” in the previous five years of their life, with more than half weathering financial instability.

The annual study review 27 incidents in 2018 in which three or more people were harmed by an act of violence in a public place; the toll from these attacks was 91 people killed and 107 wounded. Fifty-six percent of attackers did not have a previous history of violence.

“While not every act of violence will be prevented, this report indicates that targeted violence may be preventable, if appropriate systems are in place to identify concerning behaviors, gather information to assess the risk of violence, and utilize community resources to mitigate the risk,” states the report.

Most of the assailants used firearms in their attacks (10 of the 24 illegally possessed these weapons), while three used vehicles. Ninety-three percent preceded these attacks with “threatening or concerning communications” while more than three-quarters “elicited concern from others prior to carrying out their attacks” — including “expressing interest in previous attackers, racist and misogynistic comments, referencing a desire to purchase a gun, and comments that suggest an aspiration to commit future violence.”

Two-thirds had a mental-health history, most commonly depression or psychotic symptoms, while half were motivated by a grievance such as trouble at work or home. Half either fled the scene of their attack or committed suicide.

Twenty of the incidents occurred at a place of business, seven more than in 2017, ranging from warehouses and bars to a hospital and a yoga studio. Attacks occurred in every month except December and on every day of the week, though most often on Wednesdays. Seventeen of the attacks lasted less than five minutes.

Most of the attackers were male, and a quarter of all assailants had a history of substance abuse. The youngest shooter was 15 years old, and the oldest was 64.

The report identified no attackers in 2018 as having a “political” motive, but the motive of 22 percent was ultimately unknown. “Of the two perpetrators motivated by an ideology, one was motivated by anti-abortion beliefs while the other was motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs,” said the report. “Additionally, one attacker appeared to have been motivated by the desire for fame or notoriety.”

“Often the attackers’ beliefs were multifaceted and touched on a range of issues, including white supremacy, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, sovereign citizens, animal rights, and the ‘incel’ movement,” referring to “members of an Internet-based subculture of heterosexual males who view themselves as undesirable to females and therefore unable to establish romantic or sexual relationships to which they feel entitled.”

(NTAC)

Eleven of the assailants developed a fixation beforehand, either with a specific person or beliefs that culminated in  “posting written material or videos online, stalking or harassing others, and filing lawsuits or complaints to police.”

In 11 attacks the assailant appeared to have a specific target in mind, while in 16 attacks “harm was directed at persons indiscriminately.”

The report stressed the importance of reporting concerning behaviors and emphasized that when people “see something, say something,” public safety professionals must “do something.”

“By adopting a multidisciplinary threat assessment approach, that standardizes the process for identifying, assessing, and managing individuals who may pose a risk of violence, law enforcement and others are taking steps to ensure that those individuals who have elicited concern do not ‘fall through the cracks,'” said the report.

“The National Threat Assessment Center has unique and unparalleled experience in identifying threats to safety and preventing tragedies,” U.S. Secret Service Director James Murray said. “This report provides our communities with information and best practices to recognize and prevent future violence.”

Unveiling the report alongside Murray, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said his department “prioritizes the prevention of targeted violence, to include domestic terrorism inspired by all ideologies — hate and violence have no place in our public spaces.”

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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 senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She 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 and SiriusXM.

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