Confronting the Active Shooter: What are the Global Implications?

Introduction

In the accompanying paper titled “Confronting the Active Shooter Threat: Does Civilian Intervention Make a Difference?” We analyzed hundreds of incidents recorded by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation between 2000-2018. Our results indicate that, during incidents of mass killings in confined space, the act of physical intervention on the part of civilians or victims was correlated with a significant reduction in casualties. At the conclusion of our research, we posited the question: “What is the implication of our findings regarding civilian intervention beyond the borders of the United States?” 

The FBI Active Shooter Database provides a convenient and readily analyzable dataset for our previous study. To the best knowledge of the authors, no such database exists on a global scale. The authors are aware of databases such as the University of Maryland’s START Database of terrorist incidents, as well as the US Department of Homeland Security’s Worldwide Incident Tracking System. The pitfall of these databases is that they often do not discern how the incident concluded with enough specificity to determine if civilian intervention played a role. This essay is an attempt to answer this question through case studies and anecdotal observations by the authors. 

  1. London, November 29th, 2019 

Days before the publication of this essay, an IS-inspired terrorist of Pakistani origin, who was known to UK antiterrorism authorities, strapped an imitation explosive vest (s-vest) to his body, duct-taped kitchen knives to his hands, and began stabbing members of the public during an event commemorating a Cambridge University sponsored prison rehabilitation program near London Bridge. (1) 

The attack killed two, both recent graduates of Cambridge University, who were participants in the program and themselves strong advocates for prisoner rehabilitation. They were named as Ms. Saskia Jones, 23, and Mr. Jack Merrit, 25. When contacted by the New York Times, Cambridge faculty described them warmly. Professor Loraine R. Gelsthorpe said that Ms. Jones’s “warm disposition and extraordinary intellectual creativity was combined with a strong belief that people who have committed criminal offenses should have opportunities for rehabilitation.” Speaking of Mr. Merrit, Professor Gelsthorpe said: “He was deeply, creatively and courageously engaged with the world, advocating for a politics of love. He worked tirelessly in dark places to pull towards the light.” (2). The man who killed them, Usman Khan, was jailed on terrorism offenses in 2011. He was released after serving half of his 16-year sentence. The judge at Usman Khan’s trial allegedly “warned about the threat he might still have posed to the public” (3). 

Aside from the deadly implications of a criminal justice system unable to prevent known and convicted terrorists from planning and executing attacks on the public, a narrative of incredible heroism has emerged from eyewitnesses of the 2019 November London Bridge Attack. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, praised “breathtaking heroism” of civilians, while Queen Elizabeth commended “brave individuals who put their own lives at risk to selflessly help and protect others.” Numerous witness statements and associated news reports indicate that the attacker was already restrained when police arrived. Members of the public allegedly used their bare hands, a fire extinguisher, and, absurdly, a narwhal tusk to subdue the attacker (4). Video footage emerging from the attacks indicates that armed police were forced to literally pull a member of the public off of the restrained terrorist, before shooting him dead, fearing that he would detonate his s-vest (5). 

  1. Kenya, January 15th and 16th, 2019 

            The Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya is an affluent area, filled with upscale shopping centers, office buildings, NGO headquarters, and upscale hotels. The area is known for its large expatriate population. The DusitD2 compound, a high-class hotel located in Westlands, cites numerous awards for luxury status. Its own website describes it as “the very definition of contemporary chic” (6). At 2:30pm on January 15th, 2019, the 101-room, 5-star hotel came under a vicious and concerted attack by 6 heavily armed Al-Shabaab operatives who triggered their assault when one of their members detonated a suicide vest near the front gate. The remaining black-clad attackers then gunned down compound guards with automatic rifles while lobbing grenades into car parks, causing confusion and disarray before launching a final siege on the main hotel. There, some took to the top floor and sent a hail of bullets down from the atrium, while others went room to room, killing indiscriminately. The siege lasted until 10:00am the next day. (7) In total, 21 innocent lives were taken during Al-Shabaab’s relentless suicide mission, purported to have been spurred on by Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, including Kenyans and foreigners. 

Still of two of the attackers caught on CCTV

  Photo: Reuters 

One of the dead was an American, reported to have survived the 9/11 attack in New York in 2001 (8). Perhaps more alarmingly, the attack seems to indicate that Al-Shabaab’s regional clout is metastasizing, made clear by the Kenyan, rather than Somali, nationality of the attackers, as well as the use of a suicide bomber. (9)

            Amidst the initial reports of carnage at the DusitD2 compound and the subsequent alarm bells sounded by international experts regarding a resurgent Al-Shabaab, a story of remarkable valor emerged. A surge of online photos and eyewitness reports indicate that a lone British Special Air Service Commando was present during the attack, where he donned protective equipment over his jeans and t-shirt, armed himself with his M4 Rifle and Glock pistol, and entered the compound to rescue civilians. In a testament to his courage, he appears to have entered the building again and again, each time emerging with newly rescued innocents. More a testament to his skill and professionalism than raw courage alone, it appears that he personally dispatched several of the attackers. (10)

A group of people jumping in the air

Description automatically generated

Photos, Top left-bottom right: The Telegraph, The Guardian, Express, Daily Mail, Sky News, The Times

            Due to the sensitive nature of identities within special operations communities such as the SAS, it is unlikely we will ever know the identity or mission of this man. The UK Daily Mail reported that he was off-duty at the time, having been sent to Kenya on a train-and-advise mission with Kenyan forces. (11) While this man’s identity will likely remain obscured, there is no doubt his actions saved lives. His proximal location near to the scene likely allowed him to respond rapidly, ultimately collaborating with the forces he was deployed to train in order to rescue over 700 members of the public. 

Conclusion: It’s Time to Match Courage with Action

It could never be clearer that civilian intervention will continue to play a role in protecting human life during the tragic and despicable attacks on members of the public that have become commonplace in the 21stcentury. It is time to match the courage of bystanders with the convictions of governments. Gavin De Becker, a leading author on public safety, who also fields a 1000-man strong protective security agency deployed to ensure the safety of some of the world’s most high-risk clients, penned an article on the subjects. Mr. De Becker urges us remember the courage of two students, one of college age and one still in high school, during separate incidents. Riley Howell and Kendrick Castillo were reported to have lunged at their attackers during school shootings in the United States, affording others the opportunity to continue to fight back, or to flee. Their actions cost them both their lives. Mr. De Becker outline’s his firm’s “Early Prevention, Early Identification, Early Notification, Early Confrontation” strategy, which is taught on a consultancy basis to schools, businesses, and houses of worship. The core principle of this strategy is to encourage learners to become “active participants in their own survival”. Such a strategy, which focuses on proactive behavior to identify and mitigate the threats posed by active killers, is consistent with the findings in our reports.   

The findings illustrated by anecdotal evidence as described above, and empirical data derived from incident meta-analysis of the type discussed in the accompanying paper are also consistent with other research efforts in this same field. During a comprehensive dissertation for the United States Naval Academy, Ergenbright and Hubbard begin their efforts by describing the unfortunate presence of a “lag time” or a temporal gap between average incident duration and average law-enforcement response time. (13) While we should be cautious to expand the findings of their study internationally, because they initially focused on a US higher education settings, it is well understood that the temporal frame during which when attackers are permitted to kill in confined spaces, unchallenged by security forces, is precisely the frame demanding our urgent attention, which must be addressed to support public safety. Victim intervention offers what is perhaps the only reasonable solution to this conundrum: by definition, victims are already present at the site of the attack, and thus by choosing to act decisively to end the killing of their own accord, the resulting timeframe during which the killing occurs unabated becomes exactly zero. 

The types of interventions which can be implemented to improve the public’s ability to become active participants in their own survival are not necessarily complicated or even intrusive. The study mentioned above focused on infrastructure hardening, which has the potential to have a profound effect on survivability by improving victims’ ability to barricade themselves until help can arrive. There is also a fomenting discussion regarding training, or even arming, some members of the public. Different societies must decide whether they consider armed citizenry a public duty or a public danger, and there is no “one size fits all” solution. 

            Some strong proposals to improve public safety may meet ardent resistance, whether from political camps or those with budgetary concerns. In such times, it is appropriate to remember the courage and sense of duty that has spurred victims into action. Thomas Gray, 24, a London tour manager who was present during the November 29thLondon Bridge Attacks, recounts the harrowing moment he confronted the attacker in an interview given with The Guardian: 

“He had two knives on him, one in each hand. I stamped on his left wrist while someone else smacked his hand on the ground and kicked one of the knives away. I was brought up on rugby and the rule is ‘one in, all in’. I did what any Londoner would do and tried to put a stop to it.” (1). 

In regard to the surge of active killer tragedies, which now occur globally, and on a daily basis, it is the recommendation of the authors that a broad coalition of stakeholders, including governments, civil society, academia, and the public at large, recognize the heroism of their citizens, and commit to going “one in, all in”. 

Citations

  1. Sarah Marsh “Narwhal Tusk and Fire Extinguisher Used to Tackle London Bridge Attacker” The Guardian, Nov 30th, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/nov/30/narwhal-tusk-and-fire-extinguisher-used-to-tackle-london-bridge-attacker
  2. Megan Specia “London Bridge Attack Victims Were Advocates for Prisoner Rehabilitation” The New York Times, Dec. 2nd, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/02/world/europe/london-bridge-attack-victims.html
  3. Ibid.
  4. Audrey McNamara, “London Bridge Attack: Bystanders Praised for “Breathtaking Heroism” In Taking Down Attacker” CBS News, November 30th, 2019. 
  5. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/london-bridge-attack-bystanders-praised-for-breathtaking-heroism-in-taking-down-attacker-2019-11-30/
  6. @LondonTrafficW1 “Eyewitnesses say one person was shot by police” Twitter, Nov. 29th 2019, https://twitter.com/LondonTrafficW1/status/1200423213672648704
  7. “Welcome to DusitD2 Nairobi” Dusit, date of publication unknown, https://www.dusit.com/dusitd2/nairobi/
  8. “Kenya attack: 21 Confirmed Dead in DusitD2 Hotel Siege” BBC, Jan. 16th2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-46888682
  9. Ibid.
  10. Matt Bryden & Premdeep Bahra “East Africa’s Terrorist Triple Helix: The Dusit Hotel Attack and the Historical Evolution of the Jihadi Threat” The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Jul. 2019, Vol. 12, Issue 6. https://ctc.usma.edu/east-africas-terrorist-triple-helix-dusit-hotel-attack-historical-evolution-jihadi-threat/
  11.  Kim Sengupta, “Nairobi Attack: Who was the SAS soldier with Pirate Badge Pictured at the Scene of Deadly Assault?” The Independent, Jan. 16th2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/nairobi-attack-sas-soldier-terror-pirate-badge-hotel-dusitd2-kenya-al-shabaab-a8730561.html
  12. Jake Hurfurt, “SAS Hero who Saved Hundreds of Lives When He Shot Dead Two Terrorists During Attack in Kenya is Awarded Conspicuous Gallantry Cross” The Daily Mail, Nov. 14th2019. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7688099/SAS-hero-saved-hundreds-shot-dead-two-terrorists-Kenya-awarded-Gallantry-Cross.html
  13. James Hamilton & Ed Hinman, “Active Shooter Prevention: Let’s Match Student Courage with Real Change” Gavin De Becker & Associates, May 17th, 2019. https://gdba.com/blog-post/active-shooter-prevention/
  14. Ergenbright, Charles E., & Hubbard, Sean K. “Defeating the Active Shooter: Applying Facility Upgrades in Order to Mitigate the Effects of Active Shooters in High Occupancy Facilities” Jun. 2012, Naval Postgraduate School, M.S. Dissertation

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