black pistol and cartridges on a black wooden table

Lone Wolves – Finding the Red Flags

The Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged that the threat of “lone wolf” attacks continues to represent the greatest threat to national security. This acknowledgment is supported by the fact that the United States is experiencing an unprecedented number of active shooter events – whether ideologically or non-ideologically inspired. Two weeks following the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, details are no closer to being solidified and law enforcement continues to search for a motive.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), active shooter situations carried out by both ideological and non-ideological shooters are on the rise and, in fact, such incidents have increased sharply over the past decade from 6.4 events to 16.4 events annually in 2014. However, a more recent 2017 study conducted by the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs suggests a higher estimation of incidents and a rising actual trend over the past 15 years, from 1 shooting in the year 2000 to 20 incidents in 2015. Active shooter situations are unpredictable and evolve rather quickly. Because active shooters are not limited to a certain age, race, profile, or socioeconomic status, identifying a potential shooter is less predictable and almost impossible. A research-based academic study conducted in 2013 by the American Psychological Association concluded that, “There is no single profile that can reliably predict who will use a gun in an act of violence.”

Shooting on the Las Vegas Strip

On the night of 28 September 2017, wealthy retired accountant Stephen Paddock checked into suite #32135 at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. The room had multiple windows overlooking the Las Vegas Strip, offering Paddock uninterrupted views of many local attractions and approximately 22,000 patrons below. Typically, active shooters raise “red flags,” such as nervousness, eye contact, and erratic behavior. However, nothing during the check-in process arose suspicions of Paddock’s motivations or intentions of his stay.

Over the next three days, Paddock transferred at least 10 suitcases to his room. Starting at approximately 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, 1 October 2017, shots were reported at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a country music concert taking place approximately 300 yards from Paddock’s hotel. The selection of the suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino not only provided unobstructed views of the Strip and the venue, but also provided protection. Even if the room was easily identifiable by law enforcement, being surrounded by other guest rooms meant police and other responders could not return fire from the ground. This further delayed the response and allowed the shooter additional time to continue his rampage, elevating the body count. Likely because of the challenging task of quickly searching 43 floors and more than 3,300 rooms, it took Las Vegas Police 72 minutes from the initial gunfire to reach the shooter.

Once the shooting began, reports started pouring in from eyewitnesses, guests in the hotel, security guards at Mandalay, and police. Although about an hour elapsed from the initial gunfire, authorities were able to localize Paddock in less than 20 minutes, after he shot a security guard that approached his room around 10:20 p.m. Police then established a cordon and quickly brought in additional resources. The breach occurred approximately an hour later, and authorities found Paddock dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Details regarding the mentality, motivation, or political ideologies of Stephen Paddock, the alleged shooter, will take time and investigation, but initial reaction from his family and investigators indicate a lack of radicalization, political ideology, or other motivation.

Premeditated Actions

Although authorities have yet to establish any motivations, and have not recognized any connection to known terrorist groups, the Islamic State (IS) wasted little time in claiming the attack. There are a number of questions regarding this claim, including the fact Paddock does not fit the profile of an IS soldier, has no credible ties (thus far), and that IS has issued multiple claims over the last few months for other attacks with no apparent ties, along with at least two claims for incidents that did not occur. This lack of corroboration of a link to IS, however, does little to limit the propaganda benefit and utility for IS and other terrorist organizations.

The Las Vegas attack claimed 58 lives and injured 489, according to latest reports, pushing it past the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and making it the deadliest shooting incident in U.S. history. Authorities found 23 firearms in the hotel room of the alleged shooter, along with at least 19 more at his residence. At least 10 suitcases and bags were present in the shooter’s hotel suite, as well as different explosive components and thousands of rounds of ammunition stockpiled in his vehicle and residences. He used hammers to break hotel windows in two directions to improve his field of fire and vision of the Strip and target area. Among the avenues being explored is whether the shooter, who was also a licensed pilot, specifically targeted containers of jet fuel on an adjacent property owned by McCarran Airport or if the containers were inadvertently struck during the shooting.

The methodical preparation over the course of multiple days demonstrates that Paddock was not acting impulsively or irrationally, but building toward his goal over time. Paddock’s meticulous preparation is supported by a “Study of Ideological Active Shooter Events in the United States, 1970-2014” conducted by the CUNY Graduate Center. The study concluded that “lone wolves” are much more methodical and commit to their attack after considerable planning. Among the findings emerging from Las Vegas is Paddock’s apparent attempt to purchase tracer ammunition at a gun show shortly before the attack.

Tracer rounds contain a small incendiary charge at their base, which is ignited by the powder when the round is fired. These rounds are used to assist in adjusting aiming points, particularly with automatic weapons employment. With the high visibility of the path of the round, tracers can be used by both the shooter for aim and others to rapidly trace the origin of the fire. These rounds also have a mild incendiary effect, mostly known for starting fires when fired in areas of dry brush. The lack of tracer rounds used in the attack contributed to the difficulty in locating the shooter during the initial minutes. These rounds might have been useful sighting in on specific targets, and could ignite the explosive Tannerite found in Paddock’s vehicle, creating additional carnage and confusion to the existing situation.

Finding Answers

Americans want answers regarding the events that transpired in Las Vegas. As such, there is a growing number of thought pieces and statements from multiple fronts on the need for greater gun control and how to provide better event security going forward. Thus far, the gun control discussion is centered on two facts: all the weapons identified by authorities were legally obtained over the course of several years; and the shooter used bump stocks. Under current laws and regulations, bump stocks are legal accessories for semi-automatic rifles that allow the shooter to significantly increase the firing speed to approximate an automatic weapon. Both areas are receiving a lot of attention and calls for improved regulation and smarter controls, with the National Rifle Association even recommending that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives revisit the legality of bump stocks, adding the National Rifle Association felt additional regulations should apply to these and similar devices. Debate on the number and types of weapons citizens should be able to purchase at one time, transport, or own is beyond the scope of this article, but will continue in the national discussion for some time.

In addition to gun concerns, extremist groups have often considered hotels as “soft targets.” The 2008 attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, launched hotels as the preferred target for terrorist groups, thus forcing the Taj to upgrade security measures post attack by screening guests and luggage with metal detectors. On concerns of how to better secure hotels and special events in the future, several areas have been discussed at length since the attack. The first is how the shooter could move such a large quantity of weaponry into his hotel room without raising suspicions. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, many hotels will not openly discuss their security measures, but metal detectors, especially in higher-end facilities, are widely viewed as a negative from a hospitality perspective. Some security officials in Las Vegas insist their facilities would be able to identify similar behaviors but demurred in providing details or a technological basis for their claims. Open-air events will struggle to secure adjacent properties such as the one involved in the Las Vegas shooting.

The infrastructure of Las Vegas is designed to allow visitors to “get lost” in the casinos, hotels, and enjoy the wide range of activities and experiences the city has to offer. Threat detection and mitigation is complicated by this structure, in addition to the reliance on the tourism industry. Hotel security going forward needs to change. However, a significant increase in overt security, onerous regulations, or burdens on visitors may be viewed as a threat to tourism and revenue – thus creating a balance of security versus commerce and convenience.

Securing buildings and controlling access to these structures are commonplace for high-profile government events, such as a presidential speech. In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, this security protocol is likely to expand to other open-air events. Emergency managers and security specialists need to understand the concerns of local leadership and citizens and find alternate methods or partnerships to help accomplish goals. Preparing for and guarding against these types of high-impact, low-probability events are an issue long discussed, but this event brings them to the forefront of public consciousness. Therefore, it is imperative to take steps to educate while people are listening.

Educating for Change

A long-standing pattern in the wake of active shooter events is a significant increase in the conversation and attention regarding the subject for a brief period, the introduction of some legislation at the federal, state, and local levels, but little to no progress or change as the national consciousness shifts to the next piece of news. Even a week after the Las Vegas attack, maintaining focus on the issues at hand is problematic, with other events taking precedence on the front pages of papers and discussions on the attack devolving along political lines. Such behaviors make it even more imperative to identify best practices and be proactive to avoid having the same conversations after the next attack.

Although the mental stability of Paddock is hypothesized, officials have not rushed to judge his attack as an act of terrorism without further exploring his motivations – something that is still unclear at this point. A terrorist attack is typically driven by an ideologically motivated individual, much different than a typical active shooter driven by emotionally or mentally disturbed individuals. Whether or not the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history was driven by ideology or mental illness, the act itself is a game changer for both the public and private security sectors as it uncovers future barriers for the safety and security of the public.

Society is faced with the new normal being a constant state of heightened security, with elevated angles of shooting being added to the concern. Regardless of motivation, Paddock’s actions certainly provide an example for others aiming to commit horrific acts of violence – whether ideologically motivated or mental instability. Despite Paddock’s preparation for the Las Vegas attack, academic research demonstrates that ideological active shooters are much more methodical and they significantly are more likely to have higher levels of planning. Unlike non-ideological active shooters, ideological extremism has a momentous influence on the way these individuals prepare, execute, and conclude their attacks. Most concerning of the Las Vegas shooting, Paddock may have planted a seed in the mind of someone ideologically motivated to carry out a “copy-cat” style attack.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authorednumerousscholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 

Daniel Scherr
Daniel Scherr

Daniel Scherr holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy Administration with a terrorism, mediation, and peace focus. He is an assistant professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Tennessee Southern and program coordinator for the Cybersecurity Program. In addition, he is a Certified Fraud Examiner and Army veteran with two decades of experience in homeland security and operation.



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