March 15, 2019. Christchurch, New Zealand. Lessons Learned.

Two years.

Two years since 51 murders were gleefully, shamelessly streamed online for the world to see.

Families shattered. Orphans made. Two mosques forever traumatized by the memory of the cowardly act.

It's suffocating for me to do a traditional "Lessons Learned" on this event. Men, Women and Children had their skulls pierced because of one person's hatred. How can I divorce myself from the agony of that day and create an academic guidance?

I do it by believing that, after such tragedy, the only option is to "build back better" so that we ensure future events like this are stopped in their tracks. While we cannot bring back the victims of Christchurch or Pittsburgh or Charleston or Las Vegas or….we can learn.

Based on academic and national security research on the profiles of lone terrorists, we have learned that whatever their particular brand of radicalization, their intention is to cause as much fear as possible. And that they tend to choose unfortified targets without a heavy security presence.

So what can we do to “build back better?

We educate ourselves to be aware of our surrounding environment and to be prepared should someone try to hurt our people.

We report and even record suspicious activity and hate speech. Criminals do their homework well beforehand and analysis of criminal behaviour prior to shooter events typically shows several suspicious "red flags" that were either not reported or simply ignored. This was the case in the Portapique shooting, with multiple signs of suspicious activity preceding the attack. The New Zealand shooter visited one of the mosques three times, dressed in traditional clothing, surveyed the site via drone and compiled information on the floor plans and prayer schedules to choose an approach that maximized damage.

Unfortunately – and particularly in many marginalized communities – suspicious activity is often under-reported due to fears of causing a disturbance. We need to overcome these fears and make a report to authorities: it could be the difference between prevention and tragedy. Report suspicious occurrences to bodies like the local police, RCMP or Crime Stoppers.

We consider additional actions such as instituting crime prevention measures together with security procedures, equipment, and training.

But most important, is knowing that you can make a difference in such a situation. A terrorist is a coward gambling that no one will stand against them. And it’s true that the most natural reaction in active shooter situations like Christchurch is to freeze. But by employing the "Run, Hide, Defend" methodology of decision-making, you can take actions to protect yourself and others. A 2014 report by the FBI finds that from 2000-2013, 21 shootings were stopped by unarmed citizens who successfully restrained the attacker.

  • Abdul Aziz Wahabzadah would have been one of the victims of the massacre in New Zealand. But he told his children to hide and then he picked up a credit card machine and threw it at the attacker, leading to a chase that ended with the shooter leaving the mosque and swiftly apprehended by the police.

  • The shooter in a Baerum, Norway mosque, armed with shotguns and military armour, was stopped before he could kill anyone by a 65-year-old man.

  • The Long Island Rail shooter was tackled by 3 men as he reloaded.

  • A shooter in a Denver, Colorado school was stopped by three students.

As seen with these incidences and many others, most shooters do not have the requisite tactical training or experience to deal with someone fighting back. When you are backed into a corner, take whatever measures you can. Use improvised weapons. Throw things. Confuse the attacker with light and sound. Use heavy objects as barricades. Create a smokescreen with a fire extinguisher. Work together: A shooter is unlikely to be able to take on multiple opponents at once.

Everyone can make a difference, whether they be a soldier or an untrained child. In my experience in the security realm, I have seen small women fend off towering armed attackers and people who took rapid action to prevent harm. On average, emergency services will take 5-6 minutes to respond to any emergency. Until then, YOU are the emergency response. Studies in disaster management show that people on scene at the time of an incident, named “zero responders,” make the biggest difference. Be bold. Take action.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

And I don’t want any of us to learn anymore lessons this way.

Author: Younus Imam Principal Consultant