June is popularly celebrated as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride Month across the United States, and in various countries and parts around the world, as a time for LGBTQ community to come together and work toward acceptance and equal rights. As the movement has grown, the display of outward signs of acceptance by governments and businesses around the world has become more common, including Pride Month signs, symbols and flags (i.e., rainbow flag) on display, and equal opportunity offices holding events and activities similar to other cultural pride events. While there may be growing acceptance, it has also served as a polarizing topic for those with differing views not only of LGBTQ rights but the attention the month receives, including among ultra-nationalist groups, conservative groups, or religious based-organizations. This can potentially lead to hostile events.
Pride Month is celebrated in June to mark the movement that began with the 1969 New York City police raid on the Stonewall Inn, but the month also includes another ominous anniversary: On June 12, 2016, an American-born man who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people early on a Sunday morning at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. At the time it was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11. During the attack, the assailant called 911 to record that he pledged allegiance to ISIS and mentioned the Boston Marathon bombers. Not only was this a terrorist incident, but it was also a hate-based crime against the LGBTQ community. Orlando police noted that the attacker “was organized and well-prepared” and the ensuing investigation examined different motives and potential triggers, which included several deleted social media posts discussing U.S. and Russian airstrikes in Syria as well as pledging support to the Islamic State. Online searches also indicated the attacker was familiar with the club, information that was likely used as part of surveillance efforts and attack planning. Coupled with the weapons and equipment used, all indications point to a deliberate process undertaken by the attacker.
Wednesday is the three-year anniversary of the shooting, and the U.S. is again asking security questions in the wake of another shooter who killed 12 at his workplace in Virginia Beach. The anniversary of the Pulse shooting, along with the celebrations of Pride Month, present many challenges for organizations. As LGBT organizations and rights groups continue to push for increased acceptance and for equal rights, demonstrations and gatherings are likely to occur and impact many industries broadly. This is symbolic of the challenges security teams continue to face when it comes to protecting soft targets. In April 2018, DHS released “Security of Soft Targets and Crowded Places–Resource Guide” and captured the essence of the first challenge up front: openness. “Segments of our society are inherently open to the general public, and by nature of their purpose do not incorporate strict security measures,” noted the guide.
This is particularly important given the “increased emphasis by terrorists and other extremist actors to leverage less sophisticated methods to inflict harm in public areas.” Even the Pulse nightclub, with a controlled entrance and security personnel on scene, was not immune because they — like many other organizations — were unprepared for the firepower threat actors may bring to bear in their attack. New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Las Vegas, and San Bernardino are just four of the many examples in which threat actors exploited an open society with their large arsenals of weapons and explosives.
The second challenge in these types of situations is with security teams – they cannot do it alone. DHS remarks that “it is vital that the public and private sectors collaborate to enhance security of locations such as transportation centers, parks, restaurants, shopping centers, special event venues, and similar facilities.” Organizations are encouraged to reach out to and join information-sharing and analytical centers and organizations (ISAC/ISAO), coordinate with neighboring businesses or organizations, and develop or leverage public- and private-sector partnerships, such as with local law enforcement, fusion centers, and other local resources, to ensure they have the latest threat understanding and information. Data gathering is an important part of this, but so is effectively processing and disseminating that information to ensure that information of value can be handled and actioned on as necessary. In some instances, social media monitoring can be a critical component of maintaining active situational awareness of events in your immediate area. This allows security offices to stay on top of trending discussions, possible movements and other relevant information in your areas of responsibility and will allow you to make critical decisions based on up-to-date information. Working together with partners will help organizations have visibility on potential threats as well as coordinate response actions.
The third challenge for security teams is in how attackers such as the Pulse perpetrator, Omar Mateen, and other recent attackers are memorialized by extremist and terrorist groups or used by other attackers as inspiration. The New Zealand attacker cited Charleston church gunman Dylann Roof and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik as inspirations for his actions. These attackers are used by terrorist and extremist groups in propaganda and in publications to help inspire and influence other would-be attackers to pick up arms. Their tactics are captured in publications and used to illustrate the different ways to carry out an attack to further their ideology or cause.
While Pride Month will likely be largely peaceful without significant security incidents, there is an increased likelihood of smaller-scale violence at LGBTQ events and/or targeting LGBTQ-associated individuals and organizations. According to the 2017 FBI Hate Crime Statistics, over 15 percent of victims were targeted based on their sexual orientation and nearly two percent of victims were targeted based on gender identity. Additionally, it is also possible, and more likely in what could be seen in the more politically charged environment, that there may be counter-protests and demonstrations against LGBTQ rights based on personal beliefs. While there is not enough data available at the current time, there have been some increases in the publicity given to hate crimes, such as attacks against Muslims or foreigners. This may carry over to the LGBTQ community. At the very least, these anniversaries and events are a good time for organizations to conduct a periodic review of their contingency and emergency response plans and procedures to determine if these are sufficient to address appropriate potential threats based on a well-informed understanding of the threat environment and an organizational risk assessment. The chaos at the D.C. Pride Parade on Saturday, in which crowds fled after some heard popping sounds believed by attendees to be gunfire (police said there was no evidence of gunshots), underscores how even a false alarm can put people’s safety at risk.
Based on the current threat environment, organizations should assess their readiness for more common types of attacks such as workplace violence, active shooter, and low-tech terror attacks (vehicle ramming attacks or knife attacks, etc.). This will help lay the foundation for each organization and properly prepare each employee. While there is no known or credible information suggesting deliberate terror targeting or threats toward the LGBTQ community, extremist and terrorist groups have historically targeted the LGBTQ community. During the reign of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, fighters participated in extreme acts of violence toward homosexuals. The group executed what the Washington Post referred to as a“relentless campaign against gays,” noting that, “Ever since the group came to prominence amid security vacuums in Iraq and Syria, it has set about persecuting religious minorities, women and others whose identity and lifestyle are anathema to its puritanical creed. In areas under the control of the Islamic State, its fighters have issued edicts against homosexual behavior and flashy hairstyles and promised death for anyone caught in the act of sodomy.”
The 2016 Orlando nightclub attack represents one of the deadliest attacks against the community, and while the attack is remembered also for the attacker’s connection or influence by the Islamic State the motivations were clearly directed against the LGBTQ community. While the Islamic State is far removed from their high point, the group and its followers still have the potential to target Pride celebrations around the world. Such attacks would most likely come in the form of low-tech terrorism such as knife attacks, active shooter, small-scale explosives, or vehicle ramming attacks, as have been observed in ongoing international efforts. Large, well-publicized mass gatherings could make opportune targets for would-be attackers. And certainly, as various incidents of vandalism and confrontation have demonstrated, such threats are not limited to international terrorism but a number of extremist ideologies.