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Defending Southeast Michigan Schools from an ISIS-Inspired Terrorist Attack

On November 29, 2017, Newsweek magazine reported that ISIS is now urging their “lone wolf” terrorists to attack American children. There is nothing new about Islamic terrorists targeting children and schools; they’ve been doing it for decades globally, and the death toll is in the thousands. They haven’t done it yet in America, but it will be a miracle if that day does not come. Signs of their intent and preparations have been discovered for years – reconnaissance of school buses, training videos captured from Al Qaeda, school floor plans in the files of the San Bernardino jihadist couple, and more.

The threat is certainly very real. We haven’t seen anything, in a America, like the 2004 attack by Chechen Islamic extremists on Beslan School #1 in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, where 330 people – students, parents, staff, and ten responding soldiers – were killed and 728 injured, by a band of 50-70 terrorists, many of whom escaped in the chaos of the final, emergency assault by authorities. This is a worst case scenario, an improbable event in America, because of the enormous difficulties involved in planning, organizing, equipping, and staging actions by armed groups of this size here without being detected and compromised.

The trend of jihadist terror attacks in every Western country for the last several years has been quite different: decentralized actions, committed by individuals or small groups with minimal outside direction or support. That is exactly what ISIS is now encouraging, targeted specifically on our children.

Beslan school child.

Beslan school child.

If community engagement, proactive policing, and the constant background efforts of the intelligence community allow even a handful of radicalized individuals to avoid detection before they execute the sort of action now openly urged by ISIS, we must be prepared to disrupt and defeat their attack in its earliest moments, whether it is targeted on schools, other institutions, public gatherings or any other venue.

Are Southeast Michigan schools at risk?

Michigan has a thriving Muslim population, more than two and half times their proportion in the U.S. population overall. Our purpose here is not to impugn the members of this community, who are overwhelmingly peaceable, law-abiding people. However, as Dearborn’s Chief of Police Ron Haddad has acknowledged, individual Muslims in this community, as elsewhere, may be susceptible to the propagandizing, indoctrination, and incitement to violence of groups like ISIS. Chief Haddad’s relationship with the local Muslim community is the first line of defense against this threat. However, the huge potential consequences of any failure to detect radicalization within the Muslim community suggest that more may be needed to ensure our safety.

Dearborn to Ann Arbor 30 miles as the crow flies.

Dearborn to Ann Arbor 30 miles as the crow flies.

Southeastern Michigan has many schools that represent soft targets attractive to a lone wolf terrorist. Of these targets, Ann Arbor, only 30 miles as the crow flies from Dearborn stands out as an especially vulnerable community due to its “progressive” view on gun control and its vocal school board adamantly refusing to allow trained individuals to carry weapons inside schools. This vulnerability is further compounded by many Ann Arbor residents who feel that One Human Family yard signs combined with Gun Free Zone stickers on school windows will act as magical talismans in thwarting a potential attack.

Are Southeast Michigan schools vulnerable to a lone wolf attack? Yes.

How do we defend against a lone wolf attack on our school children?

There are those whose fear and antipathy toward firearms lead them to believe that palliative measures like the ALICE program will provide real security against armed attack. ALICE encourages the belief that upgrades to physical security, and to procedures and protocols for  lockdown or evacuation, or last-ditch resistance via flying tackles and thrown staplers will defeat a determined active shooter. While physical security measures are important and useful, they are unlikely in themselves to delay an active shooter for the 5-10 minutes or more before police arrive and intervene. Students of military science understand the axiom that obstacles not covered by observation and fire provide nothing but delay. All obstacles can be defeated. Sandy Hook Elementary School had a locked front entrance – but the attacker shot out the adjacent glass, reached through and opened the door. Locks on internal doors can be defeated; doors and walls themselves can often be penetrated by gunfire. Unarmed resistance to a determined shooter is a desperation measure, unlikely to succeed – the one heroic individual who tried it at Virginia Tech was simply shot to the floor at the attacker’s feet. Programs like ALICE, and the measures they promote, are better than simply denying the possibility of armed violence in the school, but not by much.

When good intentions are not enough.

When good intentions are not enough.

We suspect that most parents and staff at Sandy Hook, Columbine, Jonesboro, Virginia Tech and the rest believed “it could never happen here” until the day it did. The threat, which in any one location may have a very low probability of occurrence, has the highest imaginable consequence, and deserves more serious and realistic attention, before that day.

Michigan’s current gun laws, like those of many other states, aren’t helping as they present an irrational mix of restrictions and permissions for both concealed and open carry by citizens. Under current law, open carry on school property is broadly permitted, while concealed carry by permit holders is prohibited, exactly the inverse of any reasonable approach.

Open carry alarms many people, especially when it’s open carry by anyone, on school grounds. Concerns about the psychological effect of visibly armed people – especially strangers unknown to students and staff – are not overstated. Rightly or wrongly, it distresses the innocent. Even from a purely tactical perspective, we don’t promote open carry; to the bad guy, it just hangs a “Shoot me first” sign around the citizen’s neck. As professional firearms trainers, we do not support open carry on school property.

A magic talisman?

A magic talisman?

There’s a huge difference between open and concealed carry, and it does no service to anyone to conflate the two. Most of us pass fellow citizens legally carrying concealed weapons on a daily basis, without identifying them or being affected one way or the other, because the weapons are hidden, and are not presented or used except in the defense of the innocent; this occurs rarely, but when it does it is far preferable to the alternative. Responsible concealed carry in the schools would be no more obvious than it is on the street.

The Michigan House is now considering Senate Bill 0584, which would extend legal concealed carry by holders of Concealed Pistol Licenses who meet additional training requirements, to several venues where such carry is now forbidden, including schools. Several other states have had similar laws on the books for years, and there is no evidence of a decrease in real or perceived safety and security in their schools.

The battle lines over expanding concealed carry are drawn largely on ideological grounds – people generally hostile to private gun ownership and carry oppose the legislation on principle, while those who believe that more guns mean less crime think this legislation would make everyone safer. The historical record supports the latter group.

There are those whose fear and antipathy toward firearms lead them to believe that palliative measures like the ALICE program will provide real security against armed attack.

Holders of concealed carry permits nationwide are demonstrably more law-abiding than the general population and even than law enforcement officers. They almost never commit any form of violent offense, and almost never have their permits revoked for cause. Predictions of Wild West shootouts and blood running in the streets, which accompanied the liberalization of permitting laws over the last three decades, have proven false. In states with “shall-issue” permitting systems – where law enforcement authorities cannot restrict permits to people who show direct and immediate cause – violent crime has been trending downward for years, a trend masked by its continued uptick in a relative handful of major urban areas, many of which, paradoxically, severely restrict firearms possession and carry by the law-abiding.

Another proven solution

There is yet another option that the legislature might consider, that has been proven successful elsewhere. At least 12 states allow concealed carry in schools only by school district employees, and only if they both have a valid state concealed carry permit, and are individually approved for carry by their local school board. This neatly answers the oft-stated concerns about “strangers” of unknown intent carrying weapons on school property, and is a great example of the principle of government at the lowest possible level. School boards can choose not to implement these laws, authorizing no concealed carry by their staff; but when neighboring districts do so, without negative consequences, attitudes tend to change.

The threat is real

Shifting our focus from the political to the practical and tactical, professionals in law enforcement and counterterrorism recognize a critical fact: that most mass shootings (variously defined as 3-5 or more victims in one incident) are over within 5-10 minutes of their start, ending when the shooter decides he’s done, well before police are able to respond and intervene. At an average rate of 6-8 more casualties every minute, the casualty count climbs very swiftly during the critical gap when seconds count, but police are minutes away.

The only practical solution is to have armed individuals – the NRA’s “good guys with guns,” or what we eponymously call “Distributed Security” – on scene and able to respond swiftly. Fears of over-reaction, indiscipline, or poor marksmanship resulting in more deaths and injuries have no foundation in fact. Historically, citizens legally carrying firearms tend to be judicious, restrained, and effective in their reaction to violence; and what could be worse, in any case, than to let a deranged criminal mind, or a committed jihadist, continue his massacre unimpeded?

2004 attack by Chechen Islamic extremists on Beslan School #1

2004 attack by Chechen Islamic extremists on Beslan School #1

While Senate Bill 0584 addresses many venues other than schools, in light of the latest ISIS threat against our children, we must focus on school shootings as a horrible subset of mass shootings in general. In the past, most school shootings have been the work of one or two mentally disturbed individuals, who target schools that are legally “gun free zones,” because however disturbed they may be, these people are not generally stupid. Schools are largely unprotected, and the perpetrators usually plan their attacks carefully, and study those who have preceded them, to learn from their successes and failures, and to try to eclipse them with higher body counts and more lasting fame for themselves. As bad as this is, the past may not be prologue.

Whether in planned, coordinated actions like those foretold in William R. Forstchen’s cautionary 2014 novella Dies Irae: Day of Wrath or in “lone wolf” attacks by one or a handful of self-organized jihadists, this threat to our schools is real, and may be considerably more serious than that posed by the unpredictable actions of mentally and emotionally disturbed individuals, because terrorists engage in even more careful and deliberate planning and preparation.

Deterrence, Detection – and Defense

Counterterrorism depends upon a strategic continuum of goals: we seek first and foremost to deter or detect the enemy in his planning and preparation phases; convincing him, before he ever initiates his attack, that his chances of success do not justify the risk the effort entails. We’ve been fairly successful in this, in America these last 30 years. Every success we achieve (and they are seldom publicized) serves to discourage other potential attackers from trying, making their efforts more and more expensive, risky, and complicated.

However, there will always be ‘leakers’ – those not detected or deterred. We have to be ready to defend ourselves – and there is no potential target more important to us than our children, as ISIS clearly understands.  Of course we are not concerned only about the children, as every gathering, from marathons to sports events to concerts and art fairs, of free citizens in a free society presents an array of attractive targets. Some venues and events are more easily guarded than others; some cannot rely on police presence, overwatch, or swift response. Among the many cautionary examples to consider is the jihadist rampage in Paris in November, 2015. How different the outcome might have been if even a few citizens on the streets or in the clubs had been legally, discreetly armed and able to resist rather than flee or hide under tables.

Well trained staff is part of the answer.

Well trained staff is part of the answer.

When detection and deterrence fail – as they must inevitably, eventually – those who attack our civil society could be disrupted or defeated in the first moments of their effort with the same cool heads and trained skills that are commonplace among armed citizens today. But the defenders have to be there, on site, ready to act; the law must not discourage them, as they are overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens.

The mere presence – presumed or actual – of armed defenders serves to discourage attack. Not to make light, but the cliché about criminals not holding up cop bars and gun shops has, like most clichés, a kernel of truth at its core. Deterrence is the first, and maybe the most important result of replacing “Gun Free Zone” signs with an assumption that any adult on scene might be armed and prepared to resist. Such locations are very seldom struck with criminal or terrorist violence. Sun Tzu wrote, thousands of years ago, that to win before the battle opens is best; but he also said, “In death ground, fight.” We must be prepared to fight, or who have we become as a people, a civilization?

The answer to distributed threats is distributed security. Support well-crafted legislation that closes the real “loopholes” in public safety, the prohibition on armed defense of self and others in many attractive target areas. Arm yourself, train, and where appropriate, work with others to make the most valuable targets the hardest targets.

Bill Tallen is Executive Vice President – Tactical Operations for Distributed Security, Inc. Prior to joining the enterprise he had a 20 year career with the Department of Energy, where he served as a Federal Agent, team leader, unit commander, training instructor, and manager in the agency which provides secure transportation of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials within CONUS. He helped to found DOE’s Special Response Force program, developing and teaching urban and close quarter battle techniques to Federal Agents charged with recovery of lost assets. He has designed and conducted a variety of wargaming efforts in support of vulnerability assessments, security system design, and leadership training, and has taught a variety of crisis decision making models. Bill holds the degree of Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College. 

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