As the closing act of the three-day, open-air Route 91 Harvest Music Festival took the stage the evening of Oct. 1 on the Las Vegas Strip, a 64-year-old man used a sledgehammer to smash out two windows in his suite at the adjacent Mandalay Bay hotel. His perch on the 32nd floor gave him a clear field of fire on the 22,000 or so concertgoers below. He took aim with one in the arsenal of guns in his room and opened fire. The shooter's intent was clear – he wanted to create as much carnage as possible. The crowd below remained oblivious to the threat 100 meters (328 feet) above and 400 meters away until bullets began raining down.
The attack, which left 59 people dead and more than 500 hurt, was certainly well-planned. The shooter, who had occupied the suite on Sept. 28, had methodically ferried in weapons concealed in luggage until he had amassed 23 guns, including several rifles with high-capacity magazines, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Photographs from the scene indicate that at least two of the rifles were semi-automatic AR-platform guns that had been equipped with legal "bump fire" stocks that allowed them to operate at a rate mimicking automatic gunfire.
The massed crowd offered an easy target. Indeed, recruits in the armed forces are trained to shoot at human-size targets at 400 meters using iron sights, so targeting the throng below at that distance did not require advanced marksmanship. Given his elevated position, unobstructed view of the crowd and large arsenal, it is not surprising that the attacker was able to inflict such mayhem, whatever his motive for doing so might have been. Moreover, the bloodbath that followed provided a blueprint for other killers to follow, providing many important lessons for security professionals and ordinary citizens alike to heed.
Expect Copycat Attacks to Follow
Given the high death toll in Las Vegas, copycat attacks are bound to follow. One of the factors that drives terrorism, after all, is the success of past attacks.
Early anarchist ideologues saw terrorism as a form of propaganda. In 1885, Johann Most famously declared, "we preach not only action in and for itself, but also action as propaganda." Indeed, in many ways, it seems as if successful attacks are able to influence future attacks more than simple propaganda does. For instance, even though al Qaeda began calling for grassroots jihadists to conduct vehicular assaults in the second edition of its Inspire magazine, published in 2010, and despite the ease of conducting such attacks, only six were recorded outside Israel between 2010 and 2016. However, since the deadly and well-publicized Bastille Day attack in Nice, France, in 2016, at least 10 vehicular assaults have been committed by jihadists in North America and Europe (as well as two others not connected with jihadists). Success, and the heavy media coverage that accompanies it, clearly breeds imitation.
Because of this, we can expect to see more attempts to shoot at crowds from elevated positions. The tactic does not pose a threat just to music festivals like the one in Las Vegas, but rather to any large crowd, whether gathered for parades, sporting events, rallies, protests or celebrations — or even at a tourist site. Indeed in many cities, even everyday commutes create a large, vulnerable crowd at major intersections and travel hubs.
Can the Threat be Mitigated?
Security planners for large events, especially official high-profile ones designated national security events because they are at high risk of being targeted by terrorists or criminals, may have the resources to conduct extensive pre-event preparations, including sweeping for potential threats and positioning countersniper teams. However, even the federal agencies in charge of securing such events will have to rethink some of their standard assumptions to now account for snipers inside buildings with windows not designed to open. Furthermore, the concert attack presented a wrinkle that even one standard protective method probably would have missed. A review of the Mandalay Bay's guest registry in a search for potential threats likely would not have flagged the shooter, as there was little in his history to indicate he might take such an action.
But outside major events, most security managers simply do not have the resources to devote to those kinds of arrangements. In the Las Vegas case, the crowd, and not the concert itself, was the target. In similar situations, there may be absolutely no link, such as a previous threat, between an attacker and an event, increasing the difficulty of anticipating that kind of trouble. In a typical city, there are simply too many events during an average week for law enforcement at the local, or even state, level to cover with enhanced security. Even if tight security can be provided at some events, a determined attacker could simply shift to a softer target.
This reality puts even more emphasis on the need for the authorities to focus on the terrorist attack cycle, giving them the opportunity to detect when a would-be attacker is conducting surveillance on a target, acquiring weapons or getting ready to act, all points at which a plot is vulnerable to disruption before an attack proceeds. Further, the Las Vegas shooter, a white, 64-year-old millionaire, does not fit the profile most people picture when thinking about a terrorist or mass murderer. Therefore, this case presents a prime example of why counterterrorism efforts should focus on the "how" rather than the "who."
What Can Ordinary People Do?
Two weeks ago, I discussed how people can help protect themselves when they are in a crowd that is targeted for an attack. If you are in a vulnerable location, to increase your odds of escaping if an attack erupts, it is critical to remain aware of your surroundings, stay alert for trouble and quickly recognize if an assault is unfolding. But most important, you should already have mentally prepared yourself to take immediate action to get out of the kill zone once you are aware of the danger. Reviewing some of the videos of the Las Vegas attack, it was easy to see the difference between people who took immediate action after they recognized the threat and those who simply froze. Indeed, instead of running for cover, some people just stood there, shooting video with their cell phones. One person was shown actually jumping up and waving his arms as if to taunt the shooter. In another widely circulated video, a man made an obscene gesture at the attacker. Don't be these people: Get out of the kill zone immediately and find cover.
Even in media interviews of the survivors, there is a marked difference between the accounts of those who simply dropped to the ground immobile and those who ran to find cover — and those who repeatedly ran back into danger to grab the immobile or wounded and move them to cover.
Besides shock, first responders and others who came to the aid of the wounded had to deal with extensive bleeding. In fact, bleeding is the primary cause of death when people are hurt by gunshots or shrapnel in bombings. Beyond knowing how to administer basic first aid, it is important to have materials with which to effectively do so. I carry a tourniquet, hemostatic bandage and chest seal in a small bag in my briefcase every day. I also carry kits equipped with those items in each of my vehicles. While it is certainly possible to create an improvised tourniquet using shoelaces or a belt, why rely on makeshift methods when genuine emergency supplies are so inexpensive and light to carry? Being prepared will not only allow you to treat yourself or a member of your family if needed, but it will also perhaps save a life in the aftermath of an attack.
We do live in a dangerous world, but honestly, at no time in history has civilization been free of those who would hurt or kill others. It's a fact of life today that just as automobile accidents and disease pose a threat to life, terrorists and mass murderers will target innocents. Recognizing that these attacks are possible, however, does not mean that you must live in fear. In fact, paranoia is counterproductive to a healthy and sustainable level of personal security. However, by understanding the threats and developing the proper mindset, people can remain resilient in the face of them.