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  • Beatriz Gutierrez, Phd. / APP

Arson attacks: is fire as a weapon a new active threat?

Actualizado: 11 oct 2020

Semana 36

ISSN 2603 - 9931

The 17th of July a shocking news reached Japanese society. The fire in one anime studio of Kyoto was in fact an arson, provoked by a young man in his early forties, who believe the studios had stolen his novel. Thirty-three deaths and a good number of injured formed the casualty toll, plus two more dead from their sustained injuries at the hospital in the following days. The attacker entered the studio, splashed flammable liquid all over there and he shouted “Die!” while he ignited the liquid in the third floor of the building; the presence of a spiral stair favored fire propagation un and down and prevented the evacuation of many victims.

Very few details are know about the attacker as to identify a category that could explain his behavior, but tentatively, it is established that he was claiming revenge for his novel to be stolen, and that when he was detained and medically assisted by police and EMS he behave in an angry way despite pain[1]. Shinji Aoba, had served some tome in prison after a robbery in 2012, and after his release he lived in Tokyo. According to NHK, Aoba had a record of mental health issues on treatment and he is regarded as a conflictive man by his neighbors in Tokyo, where anger bursts have been frequent since he served sentence[2]. Apparently, as mentioned, Aobe bought two canisters of gasoline, poured the gasoline in a bucket, and headed to Ky-An studios. The attack, thus, even shows some pre-planning, didn’t required a high level of sophistication. Likewise, focusing on the attacker’s psychological profile, we could be facing an amok case, where the weapon of choice is no other than fire generated with a simplistic mixture of gasoline as fuel and fire from a lighter as triggering energy. In this case, the dynamism of the action is not base in the attacker actively engaged in killing, but in the weapon of choice: it is the very same fire the one which provides dynamism, withdraws oxygen, suffocates by expanding CO2 and burns the victims. Although it might be considered much more predictable than any active shooter, its lethality is also potentially much more devastating.

In last years the use of fire as a weapon has become a new concern in the international security arena, to the extent that the Department of Homeland Security published an action guide of action for protecting soft targets against this emerging threat[3]. As this guide points out, “the use of fire does not require of sophisticated planning or capability by an attacker which makes this an attractive method to cause harm to people and property”. But probably there are two attached risks that the use of fire as a weapon may suppose.

1.- Fire as hindering. The explanation is simple: in presence of fire, the access to the threat and/or the victims is delayed. First responders will have first to control the fire to be able to reach them, if they are not dead due to previous injuries or due to the fire -burnt or suffocated. Smoke will difficult sight and will delay assistance. Likewise, fire has an impact over infrastructures, so in case of taking place inside a building, it will also delay first responders due to safety considerations about the infrastructure weakening integrity and the equipment which is required to access it with guarantees of survival both for rescuers and recued victim. All this in a shortened timeline, since on normal conditions, the longer the fire remains uncontrolled, the bigger it becomes and more difficult to control it will be, with the devastating consequences that it involves for potential trapped victims.

2.- Fire as part of the attack. The Japanese case is a rare case, although with precedents. Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT), the jihadist group who carried out Mumbai terrorist attacks (2008) used fire in combination to the active shooting attack and to IEDs planted at the Taj Mahal palace hotel. With this approach, first they capture the news media -fire as a strategic weapon, used to increase the psychological impact of the attack-, but secondly the attackers created a second layer of obstacles for first responders, in an already highly complex scenario with active shooters barricaded in the upper floors with hostages and trapped victims -fire as a tactical weapon-[4]. Finally there is another tactical use, implemented by the always innovative Palestinians of Hamas. Since the Great March of the Return began in March 2018, there has been a succession of attacks using relatively easy to acquire or to fabricate devices as kites and balloons, which carry incendiary devices attached. The mechanism is simple, when the helium runs out or the airflow decreases, the incendiary device falls to the ground, explodes and creates a fire: the system is the same than a Molotov cocktail but launch at a much longer distance. This rarely lethal modus operandi, however, has a point on its psychological impact. First because it means an ability on the terrorist side to bypass obstacles as the Gaza fence to continue attacking Israel with a low-tech and unending resource, and second because it is hardly difficult for this modus operandi to be mortal, but if may provoke extensive material damages in crops and, which seems probably more important, it may act as a diversion tactic: while a good deal of first responders are engage in suffocating the fire and preventing it to reach any urban center, another attack may take place in the area without first responder at their full capacity to respond. We could therefore assimilate this situation to a multiple assault scenario where first responders’ reaction is affected by more than one active threats. The risk is worthy to be considered.

The current trend for responding to active incidents relies in multidisciplinary teams, but in the case of fire things become a bit more complicated. However, training and coordination may be as well a good way to established pre-set protocols of response to shorten times of response, also in presence of fire. Other tactical considerations must be added: ballistic protection for firefighters in case of active shooting threats, and fire protection equipment for police responders in case of fire, situational and security awareness not only for responders, but for critical equipments to control a fire, as the protection of water bombs and water supply trucks, and obviously, safe areas for staging, not only to control the fire but to provide safe entry or access to the facilities or area of threat[5]. Another good question in presence of victims remains the same than in active shooting incidents: extinguish or contain? All clear to assist of confine the threat and treat victims meanwhile? Again, only training may provide an accurate, safe answer for both first responders and victims.

[1] Yamaguchi, M. (2019). Suspected arson in Japanese Anime Studio leaves 33 dead. Time, July 18, 2019.

[2]NHK (2019= Arson suspect may have held grudge.

[3] Department of Homeland Security (2018) Fire as a weapon Action Guide.

[4] Pfeifer, J. (2013) Fire as a weapon in terrorist attacks, CTC Sentinel, July 2013, Volume 6, Issue 7.

[5] IPSA (2019) Fire as a Weapon. InfoBrief, February 2019.

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