Homegrown radical terrorism and mass casualty events such as active shooter incidents in public spaces and schools remain real, prevalent threats to national security, to corporations, and to the security of schools, colleges, and universities. There have been over 30 successful or attempted radical Islamist terror attacks on U.S. soil since 2009, in addition to multiple terrorist incidents stemming from other ideological motivations. There have also been dozens of mass shootings and school shootings during that same period. These types of incidents have cost hundreds of Americans their lives just in the past year.
Individuals looking to commit terrorist attacks or other acts of violence do not operate in isolation – they leave indicators in their discussions, their behaviors, and their online activities. Using technology to identify these indicators and find these individuals before they can commit heinous acts is of the utmost importance for ensuring the security of our society and of institutions that may be at risk.
Being able to respond to attacks is not enough. Instead, we can best protect ourselves by proactively detecting and preventing these threats from being realized, integrating cutting edge technology into our efforts.
Finding New Ways to Detect Planning Behavior
The U.S. has witnessed a recent surge in mass casualty events such as mass shootings and school shootings. From 1966 to 2015, there were 146 mass shootings across 40 states and Washington D.C., resulting in 1,048 deaths. There have been 55 mass shootings since 2007 and 11 in 2017 alone. Statistical evidence shows that the frequency of mass shootings is increasing. Since 2011, the rate of mass shootings in the U.S. has tripled to an average of at least one event every 64 days. Yet, in many cases, the shooters have no connection to their victims or to their target locations that could provide a clue to their intentions. Over 71% of active shooter situations in the U.S. from 2000 to 2013 occurred in publicly accessible spaces including businesses, malls, schools, health care facilities, and houses of worship. Furthermore, victims of U.S. mass shootings are of every age, gender, race, and religion with no clear patterns.
This lack of generalized predictive information regarding who may commit these violent acts, where they may do so, and who they may target means that we must find new ways to detect and prevent mass casualty planning behavior. Schools are implementing active shooter safety drills and commercial facilities and organizations have new security measures and training to prepare for these scenarios. However, many of these mass casualty events occur in less than five minutes, meaning that training may not be enough to avoid fatalities. Stopping these attacks before they occur is key to averting mass casualties. Yet, mass shootings can be extremely difficult to predict or prevent due to the individualized nature of each attack, the relative ease of access to firearms in the U.S., and the minimal planning required. Therefore, we need new technological capabilities that can identify specific indicators of these mass shooting threats before they actualize.
Discovering The Clues With Technology
From Columbine to Virginia Tech, from Sandy Hook to Parkland, school shootings have impacted the lives of individuals of every age, gender, and background. Since 2013, there have been over 300 shootings in schools in the U.S., averaging around one per week. 70+ individuals have been killed and 130+ have been injured in shootings at schools since 2013. These incidents have had a broad impact – between 2013 and 2015, 54% of shootings in schools took place in K-12 environments, while 45% took place at colleges or universities. Victims and survivors include teachers, coaches, administrators, college students, and children of every age. The effect of these events lasts far beyond the immediate trauma and devastation. School shootings resulting in a homicide have a lasting impact on the affected school – they decrease student enrollment and lower students’ standardized test scores by almost 5%. It is evident that better methods are needed to detect and prevent school shooting threats in advance of a would-be attacker putting their plans into action. However, it is difficult to identify key traits that could indicate the type of person who may become a school shooter. Many school shooters experience a loss or personal failure that may help motivate their attack plans, and many were also bullied or felt persecuted before their attacks. Yet, a study carried out by the U.S. government in the wake of the Columbine attack concluded that there is no explicit “profile” of a school shooter – they come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and many are good students with functional families and friend groups.
There is no explicit “profile” of a school shooter – they come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and many are good students with functional families and friend groups.
Despite the fact that there is no exact profile to indicate potential threats, the same study also found that most school shootings were planned incidents and that attackers left clues to their intentions in the lead up to the attack. In most attacks studied, other individuals were aware of the school shooter’s plans or the shooter demonstrated concerning or help-seeking behavior that may have exposed their plans if investigated. For example, Nikolas Cruz of the Parkland shooting posted social media comments revealing his intention to carry out a school shooting.Furthermore, research shows that many school shooters seek to emulate prior school shootings, whether through their choice of clothing, weapons, or tactics. Potential school shooters often carry out comprehensive research on prior attacks, particularly Columbine. In a study of school shootings in Europe, 33% of the shooters had purposefully imitated aspects of the Columbine shooting. Alvaro Castillo, who carried out a school shooting in North Carolina in 2006, chose to wear a trench coat like the Columbine shooters and named his shotgun “Arlene” as one of the Columbine shooters had done. Many school shooters have also expressed the aspiration to do it “better” than prior shooters, killing more people.
Given that many school shooters conduct online research related to their attack and may leave indicators to their intentions online, new methods and technology are needed to detect and sense online behavior associated with school shootings to prevent further attacks. Rather than searching for descriptive traits to identify prospective attacker “personas,” sensing known online behavior patterns associated with the planning of school shootings allows for threat detection and intervention before an attack can be carried out. For example, it has come to light since the Parkland school shooting that the shooter had previously posted comments on social media about carrying out a school shooting and that his social media accounts contained pictures of guns, ammunition, and other violent or concerning content.
We must deploy technology that senses the Internet for these types of threats and language as these may be readily available clues to a shooter’s intentions prior to an attack.
Sensing for this type of content, alongside online behavioral patterns that demonstrate attack-planning behavior, can identify individuals who pose high-risk threats, distinguished from people conducting general research. Such sensing can also identify the particular web signatures of users engaging in attack-planning behavior. As a result, only users truly engaging in extreme, outlier behavior will be detected, making threat identification a fact-based process rather than one that could be biased on prior knowledge of a suspect individual. Similarly, this type of sensing can detect threats posed by individuals who may not be on law enforcement’s radar. As new technologies and weapons are developed and more information becomes accessible online, the potential severity of threats to schools, campuses, and other public places increases. We must similarly change the way we approach detecting and preventing these violent threats in order to adequately address the enhanced and changing capabilities and methods of those seeking to do harm.
In today’s world, there are far too many Orlando shootings, Las Vegas massacres, Sandy Hook, and Parkland school shootings that occupy our news cycle and the front of our minds. The individuals who carry out these devastating and heinous acts seek to undermine our way of life, our sense of security, and our freedoms. They also become increasingly hard to detect as they carry out attack planning online, where they are not easily identified or monitored. These violent actors must be met head on by the best possible tactics and tools to detect and prevent such threats before they are carried out. Indeed, both the public and private sectors are embracing the power of technology in this realm, particularly related to artificial intelligence and machine learning. At Lumina Analytics, we’re using these tools to understand threat-specific behavioral patterns and predictively identify threats to society and national security, as well as to private corporations, venues, and events.