Hybrid Targeted Violence: Fire, Firearms & Complex Threats

Attacks involving firearms, explosives, or even the use of fire as a weapon against unsuspecting victims can quickly strain the capabilities of most first-responder agencies. When an attack involves multiple adversaries and several modalities of violence, however, the difficulty rises exponentially. In today’s increasingly dangerous world, preparing for the next complex incident may well require a more descriptive term that goes beyond such common phrases as “active shooter” or “terrorist attack.”

These terms no longer adequately describe the grim realities of the more complex threats occurring more and more frequently in recent years, not only in the United States but in many other countries as well. A more comprehensive term for today’s complex attack scenarios is perhaps needed – “hybrid targeted violence” (HTV) is one example of such a term that, if generally accepted, could be defined as “an intentional use of force to cause physical injury or death to a specifically identified population using multifaceted conventional weapons and tactics.”

That term, which more accurately describes the operational range of the broader modern spectrum of dangers confronting first responders today, encompasses both “hybrid” weapons and diverse tactics. The numerous HTV assaults that have been launched in recent years used not only a combination of lethal conventional weapons – fire, small arms, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), for example – but also a diverse set of well-planned tactics such as ambushes, breaches, barricades, and maneuvers.

From Rome to Mumbai to Aurora and Beyond

Diversionary tactics are not new, of course – the Roman legions used them in numerous campaigns. The use of a broad spectrum of weapons of various types, if available, also has been a standard operating procedure throughout history. The difference today is that a single or very small number of terrorists who have access to weapons of various types pose a considerable danger to communities in a free society. They also have the benefit of greater mobility and instant communications, which makes them that much harder to stop.

The coordinated November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, by ten armed militants is perhaps the best recent example of how a small but well-organized team can terrorize an entire nation. During the three-day siege, the militants divided into small teams to carry out a carefully crafted and orchestrated series of attacks. Lobbing grenades and firing assault rifles, they entered several hotels, a crowded railway station, and a number of other buildings, killing at least 164 people and injuring more than 300 others. The siege was so devastating and so effective that it, along with current threat intelligence, served as the foundation of a tabletop exercise in the United States sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There have been many other mass-killing scenarios in recent years. Two young men, using both IEDs and firearms, carried out the 1999 Columbine High School attack that killed 12 students and one teacher, and injured 21 other students – and today, 14 years later, continues to impact school safety and law enforcement response protocols. The 2012 ambush of firefighters in Webster, New York, which killed two people and injured two more, represents the significant harm that one man can levy – with fire being used as both a weapon and a distraction – to maximize the effectiveness of a small-arms assault. Another contemporary example of a complex hybrid attack is the 2012 Aurora Theater shooting in Colorado in which one man – armed with chemical weapons, IEDs, and firearms – was able to single-handedly kill 12 people and injure 58 others in a very short period of time.

These and other headline incidents of similar magnitude are grim reminders that complex manmade events can occur in any jurisdiction, at any time – and with little or no warning. The men and women in public safety and emergency response positions who are on duty when such events start – and then unfold in many and various unexpected ways – must therefore be cognitively prepared both to neutralize the attacker(s) and to protect the lives of the targeted population.

JCTAWS: A Paradigm Shift in U.S. Training Tactics

Since 2011, the Joint Counterterrorism Awareness Workshop Series (JCTAWS) – sponsored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center – has been a collaborative effort among federal, state, local, and private-sector agencies and organizations that empowers cities to provide significantly improved responses to a HTV incident. The JCTAWS HTV scenario focuses special attention on the use of cooperative response strategies well ahead of time, rather than during an actual event. These ongoing workshops reveal not only current strengths but also the need for improvement in certain areas. The latter weaknesses, of course, are best identified in a training environment, rather than in an active-shooter incident.

A major value-added benefit of the workshops is that they bring together representatives from all levels of the federal, local, tribal, state, and territorial partners, as well as some nongovernmental organizations, to address and defeat a complex threat. Although a single complex attack may quickly overwhelm almost any community, it can be defeated – but not without considerable difficulty and, perhaps, many casualties. The potential launching of several simultaneous attacks, carried out by multiple attackers, poses a much greater danger, though – and requires that first responders join forces, in advance, to perfect a rapid response strategy that embraces a “whole community” perspective on cooperation and collaboration.

A Turbulent Future Requires a Greater Sense of Urgency

Changing the current perspectives of first responders to recognize a potential HTV incident can positively influence training, tactics, and the development of new procedures that build resilient team approaches. The goal is clear: The nation’s future HTV response capabilities should be both expanded and fortified to the point that defenders and responders can swiftly and decisively disrupt the Mumbai, Columbine, and Newtown types of attacks that have killed so many innocent people and captured the attention of the nation, and the world, in recent years.

Forums such as the JCTAWS workshops are particularly effective for brainstorming innovative strategies across functional disciplines through informative and cooperative discussion-based drills and exercises. Nonetheless, the only “appropriate” time to debate precisely how police, fire, and medical professionals should engage an active shooter in a burning building – while also caring for the injured – is in training sessions, rather than after human blood has been spilled during an actual attack.

In short, whole community shifts in thinking are essential to achieve both strategic and tactical success against an ongoing threat. Predicting the next community likely to be subjected to an HTV attack is virtually impossible, but there is a high degree of certainty that such an attack will, in fact, occur again – perhaps many times, and in many locales.

It is up to the strategic leadership of the nation’s public safety community to prepare, fully and well in advance, the interdisciplinary teams needed to thwart future HTV incidents, upon which they and their agencies will be judged by for many years to come. The lives of all members of the local community depend on creation of a collective sense of urgency across all functional domains of the public safety community.

Tracy Frazzano

Tracy L. Frazzano, a Lieutenant with the Montclair Police Department in New Jersey, was awarded the 2011 Center for Homeland Defense and Security Alumni Fellowship and detailed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C., for one year. A 2010 graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, she earned a Master of Arts degree in security studies (homeland security and defense), and also holds a Master of Arts degree in human resources training and development, from Seton Hall University.

G. Matthew Snyder

G. Matthew Snyder, an advanced leadership instructor with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A police officer with the City of Waynesboro (Virginia) Police Department since 1992, he now serves as a part-time investigator assigned to the department's Criminal Investigations Division. In 2010, he retired from the U.S. Army Reserve as a Command Sergeant Major with over 24 years of active and reserve service. He earned a master’s degree in public administration from James Madison University and recently completed his coursework for a doctorate in education at Liberty University.



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