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The Hard Line On Soft Targets

The Paris attacks served as a brutal reminder that the areas where we most often congregate are also the most vulnerable to attack.

Posted on November 20, 2015, at 11:52 a.m. ET

Tables were tightly packed Friday night in front of La Belle Équipe bistro in Paris as waiters weaved in and out under the cool night. Then, in an instant, a hail of bullets were unleashed upon the classic Parisian scene, striking patio diners and those sitting inside.

The drive-by shooting, carried out as part of a larger coordinated attack across Paris that night, left 19 dead, including Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old industrial design student from Long Beach, California, who was having dinner with friends.

Once again, the world was served a harsh and bitter reminder: We are vulnerable, even in the most everyday scenarios, far from the turmoil of the Middle East.

Law enforcement officials have increasingly warned about the possibility of an ISIS-inspired or -coordinated attack on U.S. soil as the group — which claimed responsibility for the Paris bloodshed — continues to successfully convince people to act against their own nations through an aggressive social media strategy. Despite the terror watch databases and no-fly lists and a massive intelligence-gathering apparatus to keep foreign fighters at bay, U.S. security experts say all it takes is one person, a lone wolf, to be recruited.

"The war on terror — I don’t even know what that is anymore."

Just as Paris was laid bare, the so-called “soft targets” where the vast majority of Americans spend their time — such as concert venues, office buildings, university campuses, sporting events — offer little protection against the determined.

“It happened there, it can happen anywhere,” said Steve Bagamian as he shopped at a popular outdoor mall in Glendale, California, just outside Los Angeles.

Bagamian used to think of the "war on terror" as a far-removed conflict on foreign soil. Now, he said, he isn’t so sure.

“The war on terror — I don’t even know what that is anymore.”


Coordinated attacks on the scale seen in Paris are less likely in the U.S., experts said, given the greater degree of difficulty in reaching America. It is the “lone wolf” attackers, who largely act on their own or in small groups — with minimal resources — who worry authorities most.

Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev — who used pressure cookers to bomb the Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three and injuring scores more — had no training in Syria, no overtures from ISIS. Instead, authorities said, the brothers were self-radicalized by extremist Islamist beliefs and learned to build their weapons using online resources.

This year saw a steady beat of lone-wolf attacks across the U.S.

In June, 21-year-old Dylann Roof — who posted a racist manifesto online — walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and gunned down nine black worshippers.

One month later, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who is suspected of being self-radicalized, fatally shot five at two military facilities in Chattanooga.

In October, Chris Harper-Mercer walked into a classroom at Umpqua Community College in Oregon and opened fire, killing nine. In his own manifesto, he described his animosity toward black men, feeling isolated, and being sexually frustrated.

And there were armed attacks at two movie theaters over the summer, one in Louisiana, the other in Tennessee.

More and more, locations that lack “hard” external security measures — such as guards, gates, visible cameras — are becoming attractive targets, Scott Stewart, a terrorism and security expert for the global intelligence firm Stratfor, told BuzzFeed News.

Not only are fortified targets like airports harder to attack, but organized terror groups like al-Qaeda have been under constant disruption, Stewart said. Attacks that require extensive planning, funding, and other resources are less likely to go unnoticed.

“They have a much more difficult time for them to get trained terrorists to attack us,” Stewart added.

So terror groups like ISIS have shifted tactics, encouraging supporters to attack targets on their own turf with minimal support.

“They are going to attack within their means,” Stewart said.

This is true for Islamic extremists, who have been increasing their recruitment online, as well as homegrown right-wing extremists, who have been recruiting sympathizers and touting their ideology online for years, he said.

“With leaderless resistance, it’s hard to figure out who is a potential threat,” Stewart said.

Michael Kirby Smith for BuzzFeed News

There are no armed security guards at the Rev. Peet Dickinson’s parish, and he has no plans to add them.

He has no plans to set up metal detectors either, or lock doors when there are no services, or turn away suspicious visitors to Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, a Charleston, South Carolina, parish that sits just three blocks from Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal.

Given that the mass shooting occurred within earshot of Dickinson’s, few would question the decision to tighten security. But for the reverend, doing so would detract from a core mission.

"We can't turn our churches and synagogues into fortresses. Fear is not something we're supposed to live by."

“We can’t turn our churches and synagogues into fortresses,” Dickinson told BuzzFeed News. “Fear is not something we’re supposed to live by.”

He acknowledged that the shooting in June was “a wake-up call” and even hosted an FBI forum on security measures.

Since July, the FBI’s South Carolina office has hosted four similar forums at churches. The agency doesn’t provide specific security measures to adopt, but the meetings offer a realistic look at the possibility of a threat.

“We’re basically talking to them about the survival mindset,” Robert Brown, the special FBI agent in charge of criminal investigations in South Carolina, told BuzzFeed News.

For example, Brown said most active shooters walk through the front door, and about half of them don’t attack during business hours. That intel could help churches decide where they should shore up vulnerabilities.

Still, “I’m not sure I would have done anything differently than what they did at Emanuel,” Dickinson said. “Rage and fear and all that does not have a grip on us.”

Michael Kirby Smith for BuzzFeed News

Dickinson’s sentiment, law enforcement and security experts say, is a big reason why private properties used for public gatherings have been slow to “harden” up in the way airports and government buildings did after the 9/11 terror attacks.

“Most of these leaders, their goal is, ‘How can we be welcoming of the people of the street, while being wise and protective of the people here?’” Brown told BuzzFeed News.

The same holds true for private industry, where apathy and fear of alienating customers has nearly paralyzed progress in overhauling security measures, said Jennifer Hesterman, a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism expert.

“People don’t want to be inconvenienced, especially in America,” Hesterman said.

"People don't want to be inconvenienced, especially in America."

To be sure, there have been some changes made in order to bolster security. But businesses often try to keep them as low-profile as possible. After the August attack in Tennessee, Regal Cinemas implemented a policy that would allow staff to search backpacks, packages, and any large bags brought in by patrons, because, according to a company statement, “security issues have become a daily part of our lives in America.”

The theater chain did not return requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.

Standing outside a movie theater at the same outdoor mall in Glendale, 23-year-old Michael Wilson said that while Paris was a reminder that terrorists can strike anywhere, anytime, he doesn’t necessarily want to see more security in public venues.

For some businesses, an added concern is that in trying to foster a sense of safety, hard security measures can serve instead as constant reminders of the ever-present threat, said Hesterman, who is also the author of Soft Target Hardening: Protecting People From Attack.

“I don’t want to be harassed at all,” Wilson said. “Remember after 9/11, the idea that if you don’t go out the day after, the terrorists have won? It’s kind of the same thing.”

Left to right: Michael Kirby Smith, Susan Morelock for BuzzFeed News

In the past six years, the FBI has increasingly relied on local police departments, security companies, and private industry to prevent lone-wolf attacks, officials told BuzzFeed News.

“I think we’re at the point where we have no choice,” Stephen Woolery, the special agent in charge of counterterrorism division at the FBI’s Los Angeles office, told BuzzFeed News. “Folks recognize that we can’t do this alone.”

By and large, Woolery said, the frontline to protect soft targets is private security.

“We send information to them, and hopefully they send us information,” he said.

That means constant communication between the FBI and corporations to assess threats and intelligence, he said.

The agency also continues to rely on a nationwide network that includes joint terrorism task forces in more than 100 cities to collect and share intelligence.

“We leverage those resources,” Woolery said. “I think that when you look at the frequency of mass casualty events, everyone recognizes, whether you are in the private sector or in government, we can’t do this alone.”

There was a time when tips may or may not have been taken seriously depending on the workload of a day and the perceived seriousness of how the threat was initially interpreted, Woolery said. But with the rise of the lone-wolf threat, every tip submitted to larger bureaus in cities like New York and Los Angeles are checked out.

“We used to look for whether there were any bonafides,” Woolery said, referring to people with direct or legitimate links to terrorist groups. “Now we don’t even care.”

Michael Kirby Smith for BuzzFeed News