Vehicle-based active shooters: Copycat or coincidence?

hesstonThe unassuming city of Hesston, Kansas is a recent victim of the ongoing security issue of mass casualty attacks in the United States, with three people killed and 14 wounded in an active shooter event on February 25, 2016. The shooter, an employee at local lawnmower manufacturer Excel Industries, initiated his attack by firing at random vehicles and pedestrians, then entered his workplace and shot multiple employees before he was killed by responding law enforcement. This followed an incident on February 20, where a 45-year-old man drove around Kalamazoo, Michigan, shooting at pedestrians in a six-hour spree that killed six people and wounded two others before he was detained by police.

Dashcam footage of police apprehending the Kalamazoo, MI shooter in the vehicle used during his attacks (February 2016)

There are unusual aspects to both active shooter incidents. In Kansas, the shooter was African-American, though this form of mass violence is overwhelmingly the domain of white males. In Michigan, the shooter was employed as an Uber driver, and reportedly collected fares during his killing spree. What is perhaps most interesting about these attacks, however, is that they were both vehicle-based in some capacity. The Michigan shooter opened fire from his car at three different locations, exclusively targeting pedestrians. The Kansas shooter, however, opened fire on other drivers as well (“He was shooting from his vehicle into other vehicles,” the Harvey County Sheriff told The Hesston Record), though also fired on pedestrians before arriving at Excel Industries.

To be blunt and clinical about it, augmenting an active shooter attack with a vehicle does potentially offer a shooter some advantages. A vehicle allows for rapid departure from the scene of a crime, thus helps to evade law enforcement; it permits an attacker to locate more victims, who may not be alarmed and therefore present targets that are easier to engage – as a point in case, Islamist gunmen fired from vehicles at multiple locations during the November 2015 attacks in Paris.

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Assailant in an armoured van (below left) exchanges gunfire with police during an attack on Dallas PD headquarters (June 2015)

Additionally, a vehicle offers concealment, a degree of protection from incoming gunfire, and a stable firing platform (for example, resting a rifle barrel on the window frame); this is particularly true if the vehicle is armoured, as was the case in an attack on Dallas, Texas police facilities in June 2015. The vehicle itself can also be used as a weapon, as demonstrated by a May 2014 active shooter incident in Isla Vista, California, where the shooter struck multiple pedestrians with his car.

There are disadvantages to using a vehicle, however – the car’s design features and license plate potentially make a shooter easier to identify and spot, while mobility is restricted to roads or other open and exposed areas. Even so, two vehicle-mobile firearm attacks managed to inflict significant casualties within the final week of February. Accordingly, it bears examination as to whether the Kansas shooter was directly inspired by the vehicle-based method of the Michigan shooter. Was it simply a coincidence, or did the Kansas shooter note the precedent set in Michigan and deliberately undertake an attack using a similar method?

The ‘copycat’ phenomenon surrounding active shooter events is well-established, and it is a sad inevitability that the United States will sustain another mass shooting in the near future. Two temporally proximate incidents do not provide anywhere near enough data to predict an emerging trend, of course. Nevertheless, taking a long term view, it might be pertinent for authorities – both in the US, and other jurisdictions where active shooter events have been flagged as a security concern – to keep a close eye on the potential for vehicles to increasingly form part of these attacks. The effectiveness of aggressive US law enforcement protocol in engaging foot-mobile shooters, a product of the ALERRT training program, was compellingly demonstrated in Kansas, with the Hesston Police Chief single-handedly neutralising the shooter. The complications and difficulties that can arise from vehicle-based attacks could, however, throw a spanner in police preparedness and response tactics.

Aussie Rules: Muslims Not Permitted

United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell (centre, in black hoodie) addresses the crowd at an anti-mosque demonstration in Bendigo, August 2015 (photo by author)

There have been two high-profile instances of anti-Islamic group activity in Australia in recent days. On Friday, April 1, the United Patriots Front (UPF) displayed a large banner during an AFL game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The banner – which declared “Go Pies! Stop the Mosques” – at once barracked for the Collingwood Magpies football club, and pushed a key UPF agenda of protesting mosque development in Australia. In the second incident, on Sunday, April 3, a group of supporters representing the Party For Freedom (PFF) – a Sydney-based right-wing political organisation – violently clashed with “anti-fascist” activists outside a Halal Expo at the Melbourne Showgrounds.

I have written at length about the recent rise in Australian anti-Islamic groups for the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal for Deradicalization, and the national security issues this form of political activity presents. In short, there has been tangible growth in anti-Islamic sentiment among Australians during the past two years, ranging from spiteful posts on social media, to public demonstrations against the Islamic “enemy” that is supposedly undermining Australian social values. This type of activity builds in large part on mistrust towards Muslims that followed the 9/11 attacks, and has been exacerbated more recently by atrocities committed by, or on behalf of, Islamic State.

In light of the March 2016 attacks by Islamic State operatives in Belgium, a sudden spike in overt anti-Muslim sentiment is not surprising – as a point in case, the UPF has latched onto social media hashtags like #RememberBrussels and #ProtectAustralia. Islamic State has recently suffered significant military and territorial losses in its heartland of Syria and Iraq, but by equal measure, the group has found success in striking soft western targets – San Bernadino, Paris, Parramatta – through direct or inspired operations. The public fear that this type of violence generates also manifests itself as anger and resentment in some sections of the non-Muslim population, with groups like the UPF and PFF expressing a particularly bellicose and nasty form of opposition towards Australia’s Islamic community.

The two incidents in Melbourne over the weekend were hardly a compelling display of potency by these anti-Islamic groups. The UPF banner was an amateurish effort, hand-painted onto a piece of cloth, and was pulled down by security, its owners evicted from the AFL match. The PFF protest at the Halal Expo, meanwhile, only attracted a few dozen supporters, and the sole casualty from the violence that ensued was an anti-Islamic adherent, hospitalised for cuts and bruises. Even so, the incidents both received a high volume of media coverage, providing a national soapbox for these groups to disseminate their agenda; this was amplified further when AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan directly addressed and condemned the UPF’s actions.

UPF Facebook post regarding its AFL banner display (April 3, 2016)

These incidents are, of course, perfectly legitimate news items – setting aside the audience appeal factor of social conflict and tension, the activities of anti-Islamic groups is the type of information that Australians are entitled to, and ought to be informed about. Yet media coverage of these groups is also something of a double-edged sword. It provides the anti-Islamic movement with exposure, perhaps to unaffiliated or undecided Australians who may harbour some bitterness towards Islam, thus serving to help the movement gain new supporters. Indeed, the UPF claims on Facebook that “We have had over 2000 new supporters since our ‘Stop the Mosques’ banner at the MCG,” a declaration that, as of April 4, received close to 600 ‘Likes’.

Blair Cottrell’s response to media coverage of the AFL banner (from the UPF Facebook page, April 1, 2016)

By the same token, a high degree of media coverage also helps groups like the UPF promote their “us vs them” narrative. Islam is deemed the primary antagonist, but complicit parties such as the media industry, left-wing/socialist groups, and multicultural government policymakers, are facilitating the religion’s hostile takeover of the western world. As UPF leader Blair Cottrell declared on Facebook, “When they [Muslims] want to make a statement, they blow up a city, terrorise and torture our people. When we want to make a statement we take a banner to a footy match. But if you believe the media, we are the problem.”

This type of defiance in the face of a supposed Islamic conspiracy is a recurrent reference point for the UPF and similar groups. They view themselves as being locked into a conflict with the supporters of Islam, including left-wing groups like the “antifa” counter-demonstrators outside the Halal Expo. To that end, provocative and confrontational actions by the “antifa” are just as counterproductive as the racism and bigotry of the groups they oppose. Such behaviour only stands to incense the anti-Islamic movement, and harden its resolve, feeding into its “clash of civilisations” narrative. And of course, these displays of anti-Islamic sentiment will, in turn, only serve to marginalise – and potentially radicalise – Australia’s Muslim population.