Are Indicators Always Present BEFORE An Attack?

The short answer is simple. Yes. The long answer is more complicated: you might not be the person who recognizes those indicators, but still right in the middle of danger when the attack happens.

We’ve chosen a few well known and not-well know violent attacks. Based on law enforcement investigations, we’ve summarized some of the pre-attack indicators that were present in these circumstances. We’re sharing this for two reasons:

  1. You need to recognize how people of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life can escalate to the point where they perceive violence to be a justified means of solving problems. This escalation does not always predict violence: but it unequivocally helps us prevent violence if we learn to take action early. Early action includes prevention measures and intervention measures.

  2. You need to understand that life is full of dangerous circumstances. Instead of being terrified, entirely giving up your social life, or moving to a deserted island, you should engage your deliberate brain: plan out what you would do if violence does happen in your vicinity. Then, you must insert that plan into your automatic brain: Practice. Train. Condition yourself mentally to be able to act immediately.

Note that our team very much appreciates reactive based aggression can be dangerous and often unpredictable. But, history has show us that targeted aggression consistently follows a predictive pattern of thinking and behavior. Consider the following.

Cases of Violence: Pre-Attack Indicators Freeman High School Shooting. A sophomore brought a rifle and handgun to school, killing one student and seriously wounding three others. Who Saw & Did What?

  • Fellow Students witnessed the suspect “obsessed with school shootings”

  • The suspect offered to show friends how to make explosives, and bragged to friends he had access to his father’s gun safe

  • The suspect asked friends to provide him with gasoline, tinfoil and fuses.

  • Other students were given notes by the suspect, indicating he was going to do something that would cause him to “end up in jail or dead”.

  • The school obtained these “threatening notes” from the suspect

  • Counselors were aware of suspects suicidal thoughts

  • School: followed protocol by suspending the student for threatening behavior and sending to get a mental health evaluation (…how did that work out?)

  • Parents knew suspected played video games such as Grand Theft Auto, a violent game that awards the player for actions such as mass murders, rapes, and shooting law enforcement.

  • Online access: suspect watched a documentary called “Mind of a Rampage Killer” about ten times.

  • Social and online media showed the suspect playing with firearms, including “shooting friends”

  • Indications of planning in the home, including a Molotov cocktail and a manifesto, were found

  • The bus driver knew the student didn’t play sports, and wondered why he had a duffle bag with him on the day on his first day back (day of the shooting).

  • Murdered Student: saw suspect loading weapons. Walked up to the suspect and said, “You know this is going to get you in trouble”.

  • Suspected self-admitted for thinking about this action for two years

Summary: Students, friends, family members, and school officials were either aware of pre-attack indicators, or could have been aware if they had displayed appropriate levels of concern.

Las Vegas, Route 91 Shooting. A suspect opened fire from an elevated position on a music festival, killing 58 and injuring over 700. Who Saw & Did What?

  • The suspects partner complained of him getting “distant” and non-intimate over the prior year.

  • The year prior to the event, the suspect purchased over 55 firearms and over 100 firearm related accessories. Dozens of these firearms were purchased within 48 hours of the shooting.

  • The suspect practiced with his firearms at an unofficial shooting range within 48 hours of the event.

  • The suspect stalked similar venues to the festival, changing rooms that overlooked different vantage points. The suspects partner noted him “moving from window to window looking at the site from different angles”.

  • Excessive gambling

  • Multiple monetary deposits were made in excess of $100,000 to an account overseen by the suspects partner; she felt like he was “trying to get rid of her”.

  • The suspect had reservations for high-vantage point hotels for two other open air events. One he cancelled. The other he carried out what appeared to be the same rehearsed plan, but refrained from engaging victims at that time.

  • The suspect claimed he consistently felt ill and in pain.

  • Online searches included “biggest open air concerts USA”, and “how crowded does Santa Monica beach get”

  • Physical alterations to the hotel room were made leading up to the event, with reports of drilling noises

Summary: The suspects partner was aware of concerning anomalies before the incident. Other more telling indicators were veiled, and could have individually been taken for ‘normal’ behavior; they became apparent only after the event, showing that this suspected targeted and planned this attack with stealth in mind. Even then, not all signs were hidden.

Borderline Bar and Grill Shooting. A suspect opened fire at a bar during a college dancing event. Early reports claim 13 fatalities and an unknown number of injuries. Who Saw & Did What?

  • Six months prior to the event, the suspect was involved with a domestic dispute. LE learned he had access to weapons.

  • The suspected posted on social media prior to the event detailing the shooting & his mental state

  • Suspects former coaches claimed he assaulted staff and was a “ticking time bomb”

  • School admin had noted “warning signs”, including “mimicking shooting staff”. No action was taken.

  • Suspect claimed he joined the military because he “wanted to kill people”

Even with this short summary so close to the event occurrence, it is already clear indicators were present leading up to the event. Some are more obvious than others. Yet 100% of shooters studied by the FBI had significant interpersonal relationships: people who were close to them, and noticed warning signs. But, like a single piece in a large puzzle, it can be impossible to tell exactly where an action fits into the justification of violence. Be mindful. Report and take action upon early warning signs, understanding that you won’t always see violence coming a thousand yards away. We must also be ready to act, ready to the depth that our actions are an automatic response. The correct automatic response. Don’t be caught by surprise. Don’t hesitate. Move, Evade, Defend.

For more written material on prevention, action and recovery from violent events, check out Forged Through Fire: Developing Preparedness for the Perilous Encounter on Amazon.

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