A man toting an assault rifle walked into the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston, N.Y., on Feb. 13 and opened fire, injuring a National Guard recruiter and a shopper before two employees of a sporting goods store wrestled him to the floor. Police have arraigned Robert Bonelli, a 24-year-old resident of Saugerties, N.Y., on charges of assault and reckless endangerment. One state police official said the attack could have been a disaster. The shooting underlines the fact that public places are extremely vulnerability to an attack by a "lone wolf," one person or a small group that stages an act of violence with little or no planning or support from an organization. The many entrances at shopping centers — and the near lack of security at these malls — make them especially vulnerable. Mall security guards usually do not even carry weapons. Therefore, it would not be too difficult for someone to smuggle serious weapons, grenades or even bombs into a mall. The threat is real. U.S. counterterrorism sources, citing the relative ease of attacking a public place, have expressed serious concern about the possibility of an Islamist militant assault against such a locale. If Bonelli allegedly could bring an assault rifle into a shopping mall, what prevents an ideologically inspired terrorist from doing the same — or worse? The lone wolves who have staged attacks in the United States over the years — at airports, universities, post offices, schools, community centers, on the streets and elsewhere — seemingly appear out of nowhere. This is largely because they primarily operate alone, giving law enforcement or counterterrorism agencies no advance clues as to their plans. Some recent examples:
In 1993, Mir Amal Kansi, a Pakistani living in the United States, ambushed and killed two CIA employees as they commuted to work, injuring three other people as well. He then fled the country, but was apprehended after the U.S. government posted a $2 million reward for him.
Buford Furrow, a former member of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations group entered a Jewish community center in Los Angeles in 1999 and opened fire, wounding three children and two adults. Furrow then shot dead a letter carrier he encountered at random. He was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences without parole, plus another 110 years in prison.
In 2002, Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Hadayet opened fire on the El Al airlines ticket counter at Los Angeles International airport, killing two people and wounding four before security forces killed him.
Also in 2002, "D.C. Snipers" John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, acting on their own, killed 10 people, mostly in the Washington, D.C., area. Both men eventually were caught, charged and convicted in connection with the shootings. Kansi and Muhammad both had formal military training and thus were able to attack with directed, disciplined fire. In the Los Angeles community center case, the inexperienced shooter apparently fired randomly. It is unknown whether Bonelli had experience with weapons. The conditions that allow disgruntled employees, jilted lovers and other mentally unbalanced individuals to kill and maim people in public places can also allow those with ideological motivation to do the same — as in the case of the El Al ticket counter and the community center attacks. The spontaneous and solitary nature of these attackers makes it difficult for law enforcement to interdict them before they execute their plans. In these cases, the onus is on the lowest level of security — local police, security guards and vigilant citizens — to provide the protection. Had it not been for the employees of the sporting goods store, the Feb. 13 New York shooting could have been a great deal worse.