Security and mass murder after 9/11: Lessons from Las Vegas

Las Vegas shootingThere’s a reason why America has not experienced another 9/11, and it’s not because militants are not trying. Through a series of sweeping reforms prompted by the tragic events of that day, United States intelligence and security agencies have become extremely efficient at preventing large-scale terrorist and criminal violence. Using increasingly sophisticated methods of intelligence collection, analysis and even prediction, counter-terrorism and security experts have neutralized countless attempts to replicate —or even surpass— the horror of 9/11.

But aspiring terrorists and mass murderers are learning fast. Despite their relatively young age, many are now disciplined enough to resist the temptations of the networked culture that surrounds them, and abstain from social media. They isolate themselves physically and emotionally from family and friends, creating a virtual wall that prevents even those close to them from noticing unusual signs of behavior. They effectively replicate the isolation of Ted Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber, but without the hermit beard and the log cabin in the backwoods of Montana. Most important of all, they work alone, which makes it immensely difficult to sense their murderous intentions. Counter-terrorism and security experts are trained to detect possible attacks by penetrating the communications between members of a conspiracy. When the operative is a lone wolf, and does not communicate his or her plans, the points of possible penetration diminish, as does the possibility of detection.

The case of Stephen Paddock, the 64-year-old retired accountant who perpetrated the Las Vegas shooting earlier this month, is indicative of the above trends. So secretive and emotionally isolated was he, that there exists no discernible evidence of his motive for killing 58 and injuring 546 people at an outdoor concert on the Las Vegas Strip. Moreover, Paddock had access to an expensive, sophisticated and extremely lethal arsenal. As is common with post-9/11 mass murderers, he avoided resorting to using bomb material, because he knew that these types of purchases are being carefully monitored by authorities after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. In the months leading up to his murderous act, he carefully researched other outdoor concerts, trained in armed combat tactics, and specifically sought large quantities of the most lethal ammunition he could find. On the day of the shooting, he also deployed an advanced tactical defense plan that included the use of at least three wireless cameras inside and outside his hotel room.

There is no question that Paddock studied previous cases of mass shooters, including that of the Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Breivik, who in 2011 killed 77 people with the use of explosives and guns. Breivik’s planning was meticulous. He went so far as to secure the proprietorship of a farm so he could justify purchasing large amounts of fertilizer. He used the material to build a large bomb, which he placed inside a van. Disguised as a police officer, he parked the van near the Norwegian prime minister’s office in Oslo. Two hours after the bomb went off, distracting the small Scandinavian country’s security forces, Breivik proceeded to execute the main part of his plan, which was to attack a summer youth camp hosted by the ruling Norwegian Labor Party on the island of Utøya. The most concerning aspect of Breivik’s plan is that he was able to execute it completely alone.

One can argue that developed societies have witnessed these types of attacks with firearms before. During the 1972 Summer Olympics, members of a Palestinian group calling itself Black September stormed the Olympic Village in the West German city of Munich, taking 11 Israeli athletes captive. All were eventually killed by their captors during a botched attempt by the West German authorities to free them. Thirteen years later, armed members of the Palestine Liberation Front stormed the cruise ship Achille Lauro, which was sailing in the Mediterranean with nearly 800 people onboard. But there was a difference between these types of incidents and today’s attacks. The Palestinians were working with a larger goal in mind, which was to internationalize their fight against the Israelis and to bring it to the world’s attention. Their actions were undoubtedly misguided, but there was a degree of logic behind them. And in fact history shows that their plan was largely successful.

However, contemporary attacks with firearms against civilians have nothing in common with those of the 1970s and 1980s. That was aptly demonstrated during the school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. On that day, 34 members of the Islamist group Riyad-us Saliheen Martyrs Brigade stormed the small Russian city’s main school, taking over a thousand hostages, the vast majority of them children under the age of 13. The militants were not interested in negotiating. They began shooting hostages within minutes of taking over the school. The final toll of the three-day terrorist attack, 354 dead, most of them children, is a chilling reminder of the evolving nature of mass-murder attacks against civilians. Unlike the Palestinian militants of the 1970s and 1980s, today’s perpetrators are not interested in negotiating. As the Las Vegas incident shows, in some cases they are not even interested in communicating their motives.

One can only imagine what this new reality feels like for counter-terrorism or security professionals. We have trained entire generations of counter-terrorism experts with an emphasis on deploying negotiation tactics during hostage-takings, and using logic to recognize, understand —sometimes even predict— attacks by militants and mass murderers. Increasingly, however, these skills are becoming irrelevant in the new world of mass shootings that we now find ourselves in. Las Vegas is not an isolated case —it follows a long-term trend that teaches us important lessons about security and insecurity in the post-9/11 world. We should be paying close attention to these trends, and seeking to evolve our responses accordingly.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 October 2017 | Permalink

► About the author: Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is Associate Professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. Before joining Coastal, Dr. Fitsanakis built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. He is also deputy director of the European Intelligence Academy and senior editor at

5 Responses to Security and mass murder after 9/11: Lessons from Las Vegas

  1. Being a non-US citizen, to me your article seems to have been written with tunnel vision. No doubt many reading this will therefore say it is none of my business.

    If Paddock had been living in any one of the many more civilised countries in the world which have robust gun laws, then there would have been literally dozens of instances where his preparatory activities would have come on the radar of law enforcement. In all probability they might well have prevented such a lone wolf atrocity.

    How anyone can justify US gun laws, or more to the point the lack of them, beats me in this modern era which you describe well. Modern US gun law may have been written into the heart of the US constitution many decades ago but nowadays most American citizens drive to work through civilised streets as opposed to riding through hostile territory.

  2. Bill Banks says:

    That’s “captors” in the last sentence.

    During the 1972 Summer Olympics, members of a Palestinian group calling itself Black September stormed the Olympic Village in the West German city of Munich, taking 11 Israeli athletes captive. All were eventually killed by their captives during a botched attempt by the West German authorities to free them.

  3. Nohchi says:

    @Bill Fairclough:
    Mr. Fairclough, It is difficult to understand US gun laws being non-us citizen.
    I grew up in communist country and know very well what means not to have rights.
    As they say in US, freedom is not for free.
    And they also say “From my cold dead hands…”
    Have a nice day.

  4. intelNews says:

    @Bill Banks: Good catch, thanks. [JF]

  5. Nohchi – I was lucky enough to be born in the UK in the fifties and haven’t needed a gun to reassure me of all the rights and freedoms I have. Put another way, the gun laws across the UK have upheld UK citizens’ rights and freedoms by restricting their rights (and those of the police) to carry guns. We live in a topsy-turvy world!

We welcome informed comments and corrections. Comments attacking or deriding the author(s), instead of addressing the content of articles, will NOT be approved for publication.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: