Friday, July 17, 2015

Defeating "The Ultimate Smart Weapon"

**UPDATE//20 July**

In the wake of last week's attack on the military recruiting station in Tennessee, U.S. Northern Command has directed recruiters to "close their office blinds" for added security.  Meanwhile, the Marine Corps has directed its personnel "not to wear their uniforms at work" as a force protection measure.

Raising the white flag outside the recruiting station is apparently optional.  

Based on this "guidance," it appears the Pentagon believes that occasional "lone wolf" attacks against recruiting offices are a risk that can be endured without special security measures.  As we noted last week, there are several steps that can be taken--short of arming recruiters--that would enhance their safety.  Reinforced doors (with remote locks) and ballistic glass would provided increased protection from attacks like the one in Chattanooga last week.  So would the installation of a safe room or vault in the back of the recruiting office.  And the military should not dismiss the option of arming recruiters.  Several governors are allowing National Guard recruiters in their states to carry sidearms for protection.  Apparently, they understand that the image of an armed service member has a certain deterrent quality, and it's far more effective that closing your blinds or wearing civvies to work.


On CNN a few moments ago, I heard former Navy SEAL (and ex-FBI special agent) Jonathan Gilliam describe the terrorist who killed four Marines in Chattanooga as "the ultimate smart weapon."

As Mr. Gilliam explained, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez represents the type of threat that is hardest to detect.  He fit seamlessly into the local community, graduating from a local high school and earning a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Former classmates, friends and neighbors almost universally described him as "polite" and "friendly."  His social media profile--like the rest of his life--offered few hints of the murderous rampage that unfolded yesterday at a military recruiting center and a Navy Reserve facility.     

Yet in hindsight, there were reasons for concern.  The New York Times reports that Abdulazeez's father was questioned by federal authorities about contributions to an organization with terrorist ties, and may be have been on a terrorism "watch list" at one time, but was later removed.  

And in recent hours, Reuters has learned that the gunman made at least two trips to the Middle East, visiting Jordan and Yemen on separate occasions.  So far, officials have not been able to determine if the younger Abdulazeez was in contact with militants or militant groups during those visits.  There are indications that he spent much of the last two years living abroad.  Abdulazeez's father told a neighbor his son "had moved back home" after earning his engineering degree in 2012.  He had returned to the Chattanooga area by early 2015; he was arrested on DUI charges in April, 2015 and scheduled for a court appearance later this month.  

If someone like Abdulazeez represents a serious challenge for counter-terrorism officials, that raises  obvious questions about preventing such attacks in the future.  Assuming that low-profile terrorists like the Chattanooga shooter will often evade preemptive detection, how can local communities and  government organizations prepare for the threat, beyond the acknowledgment that "it can happen here," and staging the "active shooter drills" that are often conducted at schools, shopping malls and and other potential targets.

For starters, how about appropriate security measures at military facilities that may be in the cross-hairs?  In the aftermath of yesterday's terrorist attack, it became painfully evident that security was non-existent, both at the armed forces recruiting center (where Abdulazeez first opened fire) and minutes later at the Navy Reserve Center, where the four Marines were killed.  

As someone who spent a little time in the recruiting world (as an ROTC instructor in the 1990s), I can attest that process of attracting new recruits poses special security challenges.  As a detachment recruiting officer, I operated from a college campus, which was open and accessible to everyone.  Enlisted recruiters usually work from a storefront office in a strip mall, typically located in high-traffic areas.  After all, if you're looking for young people who might be interested in enlisting (or pursuing a commission through ROTC), the recruiting office needs to be convenient and visible.   

So, it's no surprise that Abdulazeez was able to drive up to the recruiting station and open fire, then drive away.  Recruiters on the premises are not allowed to carry weapons, except in extreme circumstances.  In fact, there is a decal on the door of every recruiting office, reminding staff and visitors that the facility is a gun-free zone.  It's a fair bet the gunman knew that, and it influenced his target selection.  

More disturbing is the lax security at the Navy Support Operations Center (the Reserve facility's formal title) which was targeted next.  He simply drove his rented Mustang through an unmanned gate, dragging it more than 40 feet before stopping in an open area, where he opened fire on the Marines and a female sailor.  All were unarmed.  Had it not been for the timely response of the Chattanooga Police Department (which began pursuing the shooter after he left the recruiting station), the death toll could have been much higher.  

Most of the solutions are relatively simple.  Recruiting offices will always be in high-traffic locations, but they can be made more secure by installing Level 3 frames, doors and glass that can resist rounds from anything short of a .50 caliber weapon.  Entrances should also be equipped with remote locks that allows recruiters to restrict access (some stations already have this feature).  The military might also consider installing a reinforced vault or "saferoom" in the back of the recruiting office, similar to those used in areas vulnerable to tornadoes. Additionally, the various recruiting commands work with property owners to limit parking near offices used by military recruiters. 

They might also be a little less candid about how their personnel respond to an attack.  In the aftermath of the Chattanooga massacre, an Army spokesman reported that recruiters exited "out the back door" when their office was attacked.  Next time around, the gunman will simply move around back and wait, ambushing personnel as they try to escape.

At facilities like the NOSC, unmanned gates which can be accessed from public roads should be reinforced with Jersey barriers or similar obstacles that prevent a vehicle breach.  One of the "quickest fixes" is placing a large truck directly behind the gate, parallel to the opening.  The Marine unit targeted at the Chattanooga NOSC is an artillery battery; presumably, there are a number of prime mover vehicles that could have been used to reinforce that gate.  Still unanswered are questions about the actual security presence at the reserve center:  Were any military police on duty, or had that task been farmed out to a civilian contractor?  What types of security sensors were in operation and how were they monitored?  And what type of response did base security forces muster after the terrorist crashed through the gate?  Early reports indicate that the Chattanooga PD was responsible for eliminating Abdulazeez; if that 's accurate, it suggests the NOSC was largely unprepared for the threat that materialized Thursday morning.  

Against that backdrop, it only makes sense to arm more military personnel at bases and recruiting stations around the U.S.   The sad irony is that the Marine Corps stress marksmanship, perhaps more than any branch of the service.  Every Marine is a rifleman first, before they train for their primary MOS.  Had they been armed, there is little doubt the Chattanooga Marines could have defended themselves and their base.  Instead, they died at the hands of a determined terrorist, unable to shoot back because of outmoded DoD regulations.       

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