Resilience

Four Takeaways From the Nashville Christmas Bombing

by Robert F. Kelly & Dean C. Alexander

Click HERE for the Article Out Loud 

At approximately 6:30 a.m. (CST) on Christmas morning 2020, Anthony Quinn Warner’s explosives-laden RV and Warner himself (identified through his remains) detonated in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, near the AT&T building. The blast hospitalized three and caused extensive property damage and disruptions to telecommunications systems. In addition to the substantial explosion and extensive damage and impacts, the case drew worldwide interest due to the bizarre precursor to the attack. Before the attack, a speaker attached to the RV issued warnings in a digital female voice to leave the area. The RV also broadcasted the 1964 hit song “Downtown” by Petula Clark, which CNN observed is “about how the bustle of a city can cure a lonely person’s blues.” The investigative determination was that Warner’s act – including the building of the explosive device – was not terrorist in nature and that he was a lone actor. 

Targeted violence incidents involving motivation-elusive lone actors, such as Warner, present numerous additional challenges to investigations and proactive risk management efforts in an already complex field. They may not present as many proactive intervention opportunities as one may see unfold, for instance, during the process of online radicalizations of extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has noted this difficulty, raising concerns regarding the increasing prevalence of lone wolf and leaderless resistance attacks. Authorities have trouble disrupting such attacks because, without the presence of multiple conspirators, it is more difficult to learn of and penetrate plots during their formation. For example, leadership resistance emerged as a countermeasure by the Ku Klux Klan due to the prevalence and frequency of penetration into their networks by law enforcement. 

After reviewing the pre-attack variables in the “motivation elusive” Nashville Christmas bombing, these are the four main takeaways. 

With lone actors, the absence of multiple conspirators lessens opportunities for pre-attack interventions by decreasing the chances for the plot to be leaked in its formational stages. However, these plots may still be discoverable in advance. Anthony Quinn Warner’s 2020 Christmas Day bombing in Nashville, Tennessee, serves as an illustrative case-in-point as the police received accurate information regarding Warner’s activities months before the attack. Ultimately, problems in communication and follow-up led to a missed proactive prevention opportunity. This article examines Warner in the context of the variables used in the FBI’s June 2018 release A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 using the variables as a framework to assemble available information from open-source investigative or agency-released documents and statements, where possible, and press reports, when necessary. Although Warner was involved in a bombing, as opposed to an active shooter plot, the FBI’s framework remains useful toward the overall goal of increasing success in proactively identifying behaviors prior to a mass violence incident.  

Case Analysis: Examining Warner’s Pre-Attack Behaviors 

In analyzing this incident, the FBI – Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) addressed Warner’s motivations, observing that “only Warner knows the real reason why he detonated his explosive device.” However, they confidently noted in their assessments that the act was an intentional suicide contributed to “by a totality of life stressors.” They also assessed that Warner chose the time and location of the bombing for impact and that the bombing was not ideologically motivated. The FBI further noted that Warner’s “life stressors – include[ed] paranoia, long-held individualized beliefs adopted from several eccentric conspiracy theories, and the loss of stabilizing anchors and deteriorating interpersonal relationships.” Press accounts indicate a conversation between Warner and his “neighbor, Rick Laude…less than a week before Christmas,” where Laude recounted asking Warner “Is Santa going to bring you anything good for Christmas?” To which Warner reportedly replied, “Oh, yeah, Nashville and the world is never going to forget me.” 

Warner’s criminal history is limited to two years of probation for a 1978 drug charge. Regarding more recent police contacts, officials initially reported, “Warner wasn’t on the radar of law enforcement before… [the] explosion.” However, this was quickly called into question on December 29, 2020, when released police reports (pursuant to public records requests) indicated that 16 months before the explosion, “officers visited his home in Antioch after his girlfriend reported that he was making bombs in the vehicle.” Responding to public concerns, Metropolitan Nashville Police Department (MNPD) Chief John Drake commissioned a Nashville Bombing After Action Review Board (AARB) on January 7, 2021. The AARB submitted the report on May 26, 2021, to “look at what occurred, what mistakes, if any, were made in the handling of information, and whether changes to policy or procedures are needed to help keep Nashville safer.” 

Surveillance photo of Warner’s RV (Source: Nashville Police Department, 2020). 

The AARB report confirms that, on August 21, 2019, MNPD responded to a 911 call by attorney Raymond Throckmorton regarding suicidal threats made by his client, Pamela Perry. Perry, a friend of Warner’s, was visibly distressed upon the officers’ arrival. The AARB report further describes Perry’s report to MNPD as follows: 

[Perry]…was adamant about getting rid of …[two] firearms that she said belonged to Anthony Warner…The officers stated that Ms. Perry seemed paranoid when they talked to her and she rambled about her friend (Anthony Warner) ruining her life. In addition, she showed signs of mental distress and she complained of physical distress. She said on several occasions that she felt like she was dying. She also stated that she believes Anthony Warner is making bombs in his RV at his home and she couldn’t die until she saved the “innocents” from Mr. Warner. 

The report states that Attorney Throckmorton is also Warner’s attorney and: 

[Throckmorton] told officers…that Mr. Warner frequently talked about the military and making bombs…[and that]…he believes Mr. Warner is capable of making a bomb but, he has never seen Warner with a bomb. 

Additional noteworthy pre-attack activity includes two curious gift-based property deed transfers from Warner to AEG music executive Michelle Swing: 

  • The first transfer involved the Warner family home in January 2019, for which his mother Betty Christine Lane sued him, and Swing transferred back to Lane on July 23, 2019; and 

  • The second transfer was on November 25, 2020 (reportedly, “the house in Antioch that Warner had last lived in…worth $160,000”).  

Press accounts indicate Swing declined questions regarding the nature of her relationship and connection with Warner referring said questions to the FBI. There are also press reports regarding a November 2020 letter from Warner to Swing where Warner “said his basement was ‘not normal’ and urged her to ‘take a look’.” The official sources and statements from the investigating agencies regarding the relationship and communications (letter) with Swing are limited, and publicly available electronic records of his internet search activity are not extant at this time (limiting the analysis of Warner’s Planning and Preparation). However, certain pre-attack variables for Warner have already been strongly confirmed, allowing for a summary analysis of many of the pre-attack variables for Warner through a similar lens as the FBI-BAU’s 2018 pre-attack study variables (see Table 1). 

Table 1. Anthony Warners’s Pre-Attack Variables Viewed Through the Parameters Featured in the FBI Pre-Attack Study 

FBI pre-attack study variable 

Case Examination of Nashville Christmas Bomber Anthony Warner 

Demographics 

Warner was a 63-year-old white male, high school graduate, self-employed (IT consultant), relationship status unknown, with a two-year probation for a 1978 drug charge. 

Stressors 

Paranoia, conspiracy theories, loss of stabilizing anchors, deteriorating relationships, and a family lawsuit involving Warner’s mother were reported. 

Grievance formation 

The motivation for the attack was not determined, but there was no evidence of specific grievances against persons or locations. 

Mental health 

Suicidal ideation was present, and the act was intentional. 

Planning & preparation 

Publicly available data is currently limited. 

Acquisition  

Publicly available data is currently limited. 

Pre-attack behaviors & communications 

  • In January 2019, Warner transferred the family home deed to Swing. 

  • On 07/23/2019, Swing transferred the deed to Warner’s mother. 

  • On 08/21/2019, MNPD interviewed Warner’s friend Pamela Perry, who had specific allegations of bomb-making in his RV and concern for innocents. 

  • On 08/21/2019, MNPD interviewed Warner and Perry’s personal attorney Throckmorton. Throckmorton’s remembrance of Warner included his military background and bomb-making, along with Throckmorton’s opinion that Warner was capable of making bombs. 

  • On 11/25/2020, Warner transferred the deed of the Antioch Home, where he lived, to Swing.  

  • November 2020, press reported letter from Warner to Swing regarding looking in the basement 

  • Less than a week before Christmas 2020, Warner spoke with neighbor Laude, “Nashville and the world is never going to forget me.” 

  • Immediately preceding the attack, Warner used digitized warnings via loudspeaker. 

  • Immediately preceding the attack, Warner played the 1964 song “Downtown” via loudspeaker. 

Targeting decisions 

FBI (2021) concluded the location was chosen for impact but also minimizing the likelihood of injury with no evidence indicating ideological motivations. 

Four Takeaways From This Review of Warner’s Pre-Attack Variables   

1. Concern for Fame 

Warner may have had some concern or awareness of fame or infamy, making his suicidal exit from this world in a manner he knew would dominate headlines. Warner’s neighbor Laude, for instance, reported such a statement to the press. 

2. Targeting Decision 

The FBI concluded that Warner chose the location for impact but also for minimizing the likelihood of injury with no evidence indicating ideological motivations. Warner, at the least, chose a target at a time when there would not be much human traffic in the area. He also issued preemptive blast warnings followed by a cheerful 1960s tune regarding taking one’s troubles and worries “downtown.” However, Warner still created a manifest risk of death and severe injury to a several-block radius in a major U.S. metropolis, but his intentions were not clearly homicidal.  

3. Planning and Preparation/Acquisition 

Regarding planning and preparation activities, it is difficult to analyze this variable as there is limited information currently available regarding the Warner investigation, much of which is from press sources and interviews. What is clear is that the attack required substantial long-term planning and preparation (12 months or greater), with evidence of it occurring as early as August 21, 2019 (as evidenced by the police reports of Perry and Throckmorton). Little is known about Warner’s acquisition of bomb-making materials beyond the FBI’s information release that he was “acting alone.” By inference, it was within Warner’s capabilities to organize, select, obtain, and assemble the materials he needed for a vehicle-borne explosive device. 

4. Concerning Behaviors and Missed Signs 

The variable related to concerning behaviors yields perhaps the most constructive learning opportunity from this incident. In the FBI’s 2018 study of pre-attack variables, the authors describe concerning behaviors as “what was objectively knowable to others” before the attack. Warner’s concerning behaviors objectively manifested and were reported to authorities before the attack. The concerned party reported to the police well in advance of the attack, and it was specific to the type of attack being planned. Warner’s case is thus clearly identifiable as a missed opportunity, or what some researchers have termed a “missed signs” attack. Unfortunately, Warner’s case is not the first where authorities have missed signs prior to an attack. For example, other prominent and recent missed-signs cases include: 

  • Esteban Santiago (killed five in Ft. Lauderdale in January 2017); 

  • Ahmad Rahimi (detonated explosives in New York and New Jersey in September 2016); 

  • Omar Mateen (killed 49 in Orlando in June 2016); 

  • Tamerlan Tsarnaev (along with his brother, Dzhokar, killed 3 and injured hundreds at the Boston Marathon in April 2013); and 

  • Maj. Nidal Hasan (killed 13 and injured dozens at Ft. Hood in Texas in November 2009). 

As with past incidents, public concern is high regarding this missed opportunity, resulting in Nashville’s formation of the AARB and its reported findings. The AARB report ultimately: 

[C]oncludes that there is no way to know for sure if the suicide bombing on December 25, 2020 could have been prevented. Law enforcement followed protocols and procedures regarding the 8/21/19 incident, however deficiencies were identified in how the follow up investigation was conducted. 

Follow-up concerns include, for example: 

  • “[I]nsufficient follow up with Ms. Perry,” 

  • Lack of investigative updates and documentation by the Hazardous Device Unit (HDU), including supervisory escalation and coordination with detectives, and 

  • Lack of a procedure to forward information for such investigations to higher leadership ranks. 

To address the concerns raised by the response to pre-attack information that sources relayed to law enforcement before this attack, the AARB recommended

  • Joint HDU/precinct detective investigations for all bomb incidents, 

  • Reinstatement of a Joint Terrorist Task Force Officer liaison position, and 

  • Immediate updates to executive staff regarding “any significant investigations surrounding viable threats or counterterrorism.” 

The overall theme of the recommendations is improving organizational communications for significant threats. 

Additional Considerations for Explosives-Based Attacks 

Explosive devices, in contrast to firearms, are comparatively highly regulated. As such, simple possession-based offenses, without appropriate licensing and documentation, can trigger enforcement activity of their own accord. However, as Dori Persky at the American University Washington College of Law noted in 2013, precursor explosive materials – such as ammonium nitrate fertilizers, fireworks, pressure cookers, and diesel fuel – are legal, commonly available, easily purchased, and have frequently been used, successfully, to construct improvised explosive devices. These devices were deployed in high-profile attacks such as the Tsarnaev brothers’ 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The roles of researchers and practitioners in preventing the next explosives-based attack are vital and interdependent. Mitigation strategies for explosive-based attacks include restricting access to necessary materials and increasing public awareness (including that of retailers of such materials) regarding the suspicious purchase and behavior patterns related to them. 

National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine (NASEM) researchers also note that violent actors and groups adapt to regulatory countermeasures regarding bomb-making materials. Hence, a multi-chemical awareness strategy is necessary. To help agencies stay abreast of ever-evolving threats and tactics, NASEM provided additional research recommendations, including: 

  • Increased data collection for explosive incidents, 

  • Product research and development to search for potential substitute chemicals, 

  • A systematic scientific study to better inform regulatory thresholds for precursor chemicals, and 

  • Additional comprehensive behavioral research relevant to these incidents (e.g., the actors themselves and responses from policymakers, businesses, and the public). 

In addition to keeping abreast of the relevant research to inform evidence-based practice, practitioners should be aware that opportunities for praxis are available through the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ National Center for Explosives Training and Research, which offers subject matter guidance, expertise and training support regarding these complex and multi-faceted investigations. 

Concluding Thoughts 

Once a preliminary investigation establishes the who (regarding the identity of an attacker), the other questions of why (regarding motive), how (regarding planning, preparation, and acquisition), and if (regarding whether potential opportunities for intervention were missed) inevitably follow. For example, if a lone actor were disciplined during pre-attack preparations, particularly regarding the actor’s communications, the why for motivation can remain frustratingly elusive. Further, the if for prevention not only haunts investigating agencies but can become their public scourge when wielded by outraged communities who perceive organizational failure through the clearer picture of events illuminated by hindsight. 

In Warner’s case, as the AARB findings confirm, specific and credible reports of concerning behaviors were made known to law enforcement well over a year before the attack, and the agency indeed faced scrutiny. Practitioners in law enforcement, intelligence, and threat assessment/risk mitigation communities know all too well the pressures and tradeoffs regarding allocating and prioritizing their limited resources to the nearly constant influx of information regarding potential threats to community safety. While the frequent successes of threat assessment and risk mitigation seldom make headlines, successful attacks always do. Agencies must evaluate and learn from these attacks, not from the perspective of the negative judgment of one’s peers but from the standpoint of collective and continuous improvement. 

Considering the variables in Warner’s attack and the presence of missed signs, which are heavily attributable to communications issues, the following questions focus thematically on internal and external agency communications. These questions may launch productive discussions as leaders seek to close potential gaps in their risk mitigation strategies and narrow the opportunities for nefarious actors – regardless of their motivations – to succeed in their malicious designs: 

  • When was the last time the agency conducted a top-down review of its multidisciplinary, multiagency threat management strategy (including the related policies, procedures, and accountability measures) along with a status evaluation of the information flow between all relevant stakeholders? 

  • Should the agency instill a realistic but hopeful perspective into its organizational culture regarding its role in preventing targeted violence? 

  • Does the organizational culture treat information from the public and other agencies as both a precious resource and a sign of trust? 

  • Does the agency leverage information received to the appropriate investigative conclusion and fully document its investigative efforts? 

  • When was the last time the agency engaged with the community regarding signs of suspicious activities or concerning behaviors?  

  • Does the public know: How to make a report? How may confidentiality be protected? What to expect following a report? 

  • Are there any barriers – such as logistics, trust, or public confidence – that may discourage potentially lifesaving reporting to the agency? 

Robert F. Kelly, JD, is an assistant professor with Western Illinois University’s (WIU) School of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration. Before his WIU professorship, he was an experienced police leader who served 25 years with the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP). He retired from the PSP as a station commander, having served in various field and administrative roles throughout his career. 

Dean C. Alexander JD, LLM, is the director of the Homeland Security Research Program and professor of Homeland Security at the School of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University. In addition to numerous peer-reviewed publications, he has authored several books on terrorism, including: Family Terror Networks (2019); The Islamic State: Combating the Caliphate Without Borders (Lexington, 2015); Business Confronts Terrorism: Risks and Responses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004); and Terrorism and Business: The Impact of September 11, 2001 (Transnational, 2002). In addition, he is frequently interviewed by domestic and international media, such as the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Orlando Sentinel, Associated Press, Voice of America, Security Management, El Mercurio, Tribune de Genève, and NHK. He has provided on-air commentary for television and radio stations, including CBS Radio, Voice of America, Wisconsin Public Radio, and CB-Business. 

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