Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

Locations of Mass Attacks in Public Spaces in the United States, 2019

In 2019, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed 200,000 Americans, this death toll may seem to pale in comparison. However, much like with COVID-19, fairly simple measures could have a significant effect on the death toll. This article reviews recent US Secret Service assessments of mass casualty attacks in public spaces, discusses recommended measures to prevent some attacks, and suggests improvements for future reports.

Since 2017, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center published an annual report on mass attacks carried out in public or semi-public spaces (2017 report, 2018 report, 2019 report). The Secret Service defines a mass attack as an incident “in which three or more persons, not including the perpetrator, were harmed during a targeted attack in a public or semi-public space.” 2017 saw the highest numbers of deaths and injuries from 28 total mass attacks (147 deaths and 700 injuries). The October 1 shooting at a Las Vegas music festival drew these numbers sharply upward – in that incident alone, 58 were killed and 546 were injured. Additionally, two shooting incidents and two vehicle-ramming incidents in that year caused higher casualties than average for these types of attacks. In contrast, 2018 saw 27 mass attacks with 91 deaths and 107 injuries, and 2018 saw 34 mass attacks with 108 deaths and 178 injuries. In both of these years, the incidents with the highest numbers of casualties involved mass shootings. Figure 1 below shows weapons types used by year.

Figure 1: Breakdown of Weapons Types for 2017, 2018, and 2019

These reports identify important similarities among the attackers, as well as potential indicators that an attack may have been forthcoming. For example, each report highlights how these attacks were very often preceded by a significant stressful event in the attacker’s life, such as divorce, death in the family, unemployment, and/or financial hardship. Additionally, many attackers struggled with substance abuse and/or mental health conditions. Each report found that a majority of attackers elicited concern from others in their life, to the extent that these people felt concerned for their own or others’ safety. Many attackers also had some sort of criminal record; a history of domestic violence was fairly common.

This personalized analysis of the attackers leads to several actionable conclusions to potentially reduce the occurrence of and casualties associated with mass attacks in public spaces. The latest report offers five recommendations:

  1. Establish threat assessment programs for commonly targeted areas, such as schools and workplaces
  2. Enforce existing firearms laws – the majority of mass attacks in the US are carried out with illegally owned firearms
  3. Provide crisis intervention, drug treatment, and mental health treatment
  4. Recognize the risk of crime and violence, based on criminal histories (particularly violent criminal histories)
  5. Encourage reporting of concerning behavior

While these recommendations would likely have some impact, many focus entirely on the individual’s personal situation (recent hardships, stressors, and issues with drugs and mental health) and fail to incorporate the role that extremist ideology can play in many of these attacks. In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray highlighted the “evolving and persistent terrorism threat to the homeland,” in which “the greatest threat we face in the homeland emanates from self-radicalized lone actors, of any ideology, who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.” This depiction is in line with many other threat assessments conducted in recent years.

The 2019 report begins to tackle the issue of ideology, highlighting the rising threat of misogynistic extremism such as the incel movement. However, no other ideologies are discussed here. Also, in this section, the report describes the hyperconnected nature of the internet’s potential to radicalize, allowing “those with fringe or extremist ideologies to converge and promote their beliefs to a wider audience.” The report specifically calls out the message board 8kun as a hub for this type of content, particularly among the far right. Simply mentioning incel ideology without discussing white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of extremism, and just mentioning 8kun while saying nothing about Telegram, BitChute, and the many other dark corners of the internet where extremists congregate, makes this section seem woefully incomplete, more of a suggestion of areas for future research than an assessment informed by the 34 mass attacks carried out that year.

These annual assessments could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. In particular, clearing up definitional ambiguity around ideological affiliations could provide much needed clarity going forward. Assessing the importance of ideology for each attack is composed of two steps: (1) determining if the perpetrator had any history of association with extremist ideologies and (2) determining whether the extremist ideology had any impact on the attack itself. For example, the 2018 report finds that only two of 27 total attackers were motivated by an ideology: “one was motivated by anti-abortion beliefs while the other was motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs.” But the report also notes that

[W]hile only two of the attackers were primarily motivated by an ideology, nearly one-third of the attackers appeared to have subscribed to a belief system that has previously been associated with violence. 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.

The nature of extremism today is multidimensional, decentralized, and highly connected; one attacker may be active in many online extremist communities, including those that glorify mass shooters and seek to gain the next “high score” in terms of fatalities when they conduct their own attacks. For future reports, the Secret Service should determine a methodology for identifying the attackers’ ideological affiliations, as well as the level of impact these ideologies had on the attack itself. Making this information public will provide important context to the rising threat of violent extremism in the US.

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