The softest of Targets: Worship houses & the Texas Shooting
Year 2 - Week 44
ISSN 2603 - 9931
Is it that weird to suffer an armed incident as the last Sunday, November 5, in Texas Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church? Till today and at least in the United States fortunately it hasn’t been a common pattern, but that doesn’t extinguish the broader world picture. Religious feeling is probably one of the stronger ideological mobilizer agents, to the point of considering the current wave of terrorism, according to David Rapoport, a “religious wave”, because of its ties with a perverted, radical and violent vision of Islam. This radicalization level is or has been present in every religion, especially in monotheistic ones, from the Jewish sicarii in the first century to the Assassins Shiite sect in the Middle Ages or the white Christian supremacist Ku Klux Klan. The believe in one creed or another may turn its believers in the target audience for terrorist attacks.
The lack of previous examples is due to our short memory, since the cases has been multiple. Just mention some of them.
1986, Istanbul. Synagogue of Neve Shalom. On the anniversary of the Munich Olympics massacre, the biggest synagogue in Istanbul reopened its doors after a period of works, with a mass participation of Turkish Jewish. Two Arab speakers acting as journalists pretended to cover the reopening. Once inside and during one of the shabat services, took out automatic weapons from their bags and gunned down most of the thirty people during their prayings. After that they poured gasoline over the dead and dying and set them afire; finally they blew themselves up with hand grenades. Twenty-two persons lost their lives. The perpetrators belong to a radical Palestinian group, Abu Nidal, with international connections with Syria and Libya. Even though the group had no religious inclination in his ideological framework, the target was chosen in base to the religious identity of the victims.
1994, Hebron (Israel). Ibrahimi mosque, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs. During the Holy Month of Ramadan more than seven hundred worshippers gathered inside the mosque for Friday’s first pray. A man dressed in Israeli military fatigues with captain bars. He walked up the IDF checkpoint for entering in the Arab part of Hebron and went directly to the mosque’s door. The Arab security guard recognized quickly the man and tried to prevent him from accessing: Baruch Goldstein was a settler from the near ultra-orthodox and radical settlement of Kyriat Arba, and a known member of Kach, a radical militant Jewish group fervently opposed to any agreement between Israel and Palestinians. The man hit him with the stock of his Galil assault rifle and entered in the mosque, opening fire over the worshippers. Taking aim at the heads, he continued shooting for ten minutes up to 110 rounds. Fifty Palestinian worshippers were killed and more than seventy were wounded. The massacre ended when a mob covered by a wall rushed towards Goldstein, lynching him and shredding his body into pieces. This event sparked a wave of suicide terrorist attacks in vengeance and lately the Palestinian Second Intifada.
2012, Oak Tree (Wisconsin) gurdwara or Sikh temple. Back to the US, and to a much more recent time, on Sunday, August 5, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page entered the temple with a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun and killed six people, injured another four, and took his own life. The community was mistakenly targeted as a Muslim one.
And finally, among a much longer list, November 2017. Texas Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church. During the Sunday morning service, Devin Kelley, a former USAF soldier discharged with dishonor in 2014 because of domestic assault on his wife and son. Equipped in tactical gear and with a ballistic vest, he entered in the church and open fire with an assault rifle Ruger AR-556 over the around forty churchgoers. The toll quickly raised to 26 people dead and another 20 wounded, some of them in critical condition. When he left the church he was engaged by a local resident with his own gun, so Kelley fled, being found later on with what may have been a self-inflicted gun.
What is the common denominator in these cases? Motivations are quite different. The first case has traditionally tagged as terrorism. The second two ones have been traditionally treated as hate crimes. The last one, however, seems to be unrelated to any kind of political motivations. Kelley attacked the church due to family issues and because their in-laws were supposed to be inside the church. Motivations, thus, change from one case to the other. But the modus operandi is painstakingly similar, as similar is the outcome: an active shooter gunning down victims confined in the close quarters of a worship house.
Churches and other worship houses are included in the category of soft targets, especially due to what it turns out to be their main vulnerability: gathering good number of potential victims on regular bases at regular timetables. Religious services, in this sense, add another vulnerability: the creation of a community. In opposition to other soft targets such as a shopping center, worship houses often attract the same individuals, tied by a feeling of belonging to the same faith made real in the specific community of this church, mosque of synagogue. This is probably of limited importance for a terrorist profile perpetrator, since the target are the potential victims in general and even the physical building and the meaning it has attached. The set timetables for services and the lack of security awareness of the worshippers, obviously focused on praying, eases the planning cycle of the terrorist over the specific target. But the existence of a community eases also the planning cycle of a non-terrorist attacker: a pseudocommando profile, as seems to be Kelley’s case, would target a specific community against whom he has develop a feeling of grievance, humiliation and hostility. A church is a place of habits for parishioners, so targeting a specific churchgoer in most cases than not become an easier task due to the routine act established by set services.
Response must be given then by other means oriented to soft target hardening, and keeping in mind that worship houses are normally arm-free areas, this hardening should follow different patterns. The presence of security guards may act as a deterring figure, but without weapons to oppose fire superiority probably it is not going to deter an active shooter. Neither would do it CCTV systems, it will maximize the propagandistic effect of a terrorist attack and raised the narcissistic profile of a pseudocommando attacker. Then what? a good approach would be following a situational preventive approach, hindering the chances of access to the building, and reducing the benefits of the attack, especially in terms of propagandistic effects and victims maximizations. Finally, security awareness must be raised in all this kind of potential targets; in the end, active incidents are active because of the role played by the potential victims, and, as happened in Texas, on of this prospective victims may be the one neutralizing the threat before it materializes.