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10 critical lessons from the Garland terrorist attack

With advances in communication, transportation and information technology, terrorist attacks don't have to be focused on major cities for visibility and effect


For lessons from Officer Greg Stevens, who shot the terrorists in Garland, click here.

On May 3, 2015, a pair of terrorists launched the first ISIS-inspired terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the city of Garland, Texas.

Arriving outside the Curtis Culwell Center, the site of a controversial "Draw the Prophet" contest, the terrorists sprung from their vehicle with rifles in hand and began shooting. Moments later, both lay dead. Fortunately, none of the event participants were harmed, and the only law enforcement injury was non-life threatening.

The rapid, professional and successful conclusion to this attack was not the result of chance, but rather of intensive planning, proper training and good police work. At the 2016 California Association of Tactical Officers conference, Lieutenant Dan Colasanto of the Garland (Tex.) Police Department described those preparations in detail and presented valuable lessons about how police departments can prepare for similar incidents. 

In this May 4, 2015 file photo, FBI crime scene investigators document evidence outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)
In this May 4, 2015 file photo, FBI crime scene investigators document evidence outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)

Some of the many lessons included the following:

1. "Local is Global"

Few people could have envisioned that Garland, Texas, would become the site of the next battle in the war on terror, but the world has changed. Thanks to advances in communication, transportation and information technology, distance is no buffer, and terrorist attacks don't have to be focused on major cities for visibility and effect.

The contest in Garland drew the attention of people around the world, inspired threats from across the globe and motivated two attackers to drive across several states to launch their assault. The Garland attack fit neatly into a global narrative that included the prior killing of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris, and the prior killing of a terrorist (who also planned to assault cartoonists that had lampooned Mohammed) by Dutch police. No city is too small or too remote to avoid becoming the next target of terrorism.

2. Consider OPSEC

The same information technologies that alerted the world to a small, local contest also placed the security of the event at risk. When the controversial organizer of the contest arrived on site, pictures with geotags were immediately broadcast on social media. When participants were evacuated to a secondary safe site after the attack, the location was compromised by social media as well. Media with powerful camera lenses and helicopter-mounted cameras broadcast images of the scene that could have provided valuable intelligence to other attackers, and their monitoring of police radio frequencies was another potential risk to operational security.

3. Don't Get Tunnel Vision

It would have been easy for the Garland Police Department to limit its attention and resources to the immediate site of the contest, but the department was wise to step back and take a broader view. A tall hotel across the street was identified as a potential sniper hide, a possible secondary target and also a valuable observation post for the police. The perimeter around the contest site had to be evaluated, secured and monitored. The possibility of a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) forced police to consider a theoretical blast radius that encompassed a six-lane highway and a busy shopping complex with several large anchor stores, including a Walmart, which would have to be notified and evacuated as conditions warranted. The scope of Garland's preparations extended far beyond the contest site, leaving them better prepared to manage potential threats.

4. Collect Intelligence about suspicious activity

In the days prior to the event, the police became aware of the theft of 40 propane tanks from a nearby store, as well as the theft of several trucks. These ordinary crimes could have been easily overlooked, but the potential for a VBIED attack during the contest gave them new significance. Collecting and synthesizing information to create actionable intelligence is resource intensive process, but a vital part of preparing for a possible terrorist attack.

5. Planning is Vital

Garland police had to notify area hospitals about the event so they would be ready for a possible mass casualty response. Emergency medical resources were reserved and properly staged. A fleet of buses was prepped for possible evacuation needs, and protocols established for suspicious packages, VBIEDs, person-borne IEDs and highway traffic detours. Parking at the event was carefully planned, and observation and command posts established. Hotel maps were obtained and charges to breach doors readied. Electronic key fobs for electrically-locked doors had to be obtained and distributed to breaching teams. Emergency vehicles were staged where they were needed, and located in ways that would interrupt a sniper's line of fire. The scope of required preplanning activities for an event like this is exhaustive and broad, and requires dedicated effort far in advance.

6. The Value of Training

The Garland police officer who initially engaged and downed the terrorists had recently attended agency firearms training, where he was required to engage multiple targets with multiple shots. He put those skills to good use shortly thereafter, when he shot the pair of rifle-armed and body-armored attackers with his handgun, starting at 15 yards and working in to 7 yards. Tactical team members also put their training into action, firing additional shots that killed the pair when they refused to follow commands and stop reaching for their weapons. This event demonstrated that dynamic and realistic training is vital to preparing officers to perform under the stress of combat.

7. The Danger of Self-Deployed Responders during a terrorist attack

As in similar incidents, such as the one in San Bernardino, an army of self-deployed individuals responded to the attack after the initial shots were fired. Some of these resources were welcome, but many were unnecessary, and they complicated the situation by jamming radio communications and crowding the scene with extra vehicles and personnel. A "blue-on-blue" shooting was narrowly avoided when responders who self-deployed began searching the woods on the perimeter without coordination. Agencies should focus training efforts on the need for self-deploying officers to use good communications discipline, and to immediately check in with command post functions to avoid creating additional problems.

8. Mutual Aid

An offsite safe location for evacuees was secured and staffed by a neighboring agency, and used to good effect after the attack. Allied explosive ordnance disposal teams also contributed to the mutual aid effort, with their impact amplified by the fact that all of their equipment was interoperable. This commonality was exceptionally helpful when robots broke down or batteries died and needed to be replaced. Even the largest agencies can benefit from the assistance neighboring agencies can provide in a crisis, but this requires coordination beforehand.

9. Communications

Garland police made a decision before the event to put all players on a single frequency for better coordination. During the attack, the frequency quickly became cluttered and sometimes unusable. As such, they advise it is wise for tactical teams to retain their own team-specific frequency for intra-team communications.

10. Resource Availability

Garland's experience indicates that if critical resources aren't already on site at the start of an attack, they probably won't get there in time to be useful. It takes time for offsite resources to respond, and their arrival can easily be delayed by the degrading traffic situation in the proximity of the attack, and the crush of responding emergency vehicles.

Similarly, equipment left behind in a vehicle can quickly become inaccessible if the area where the car is parked becomes a hot zone, or is within the evacuation radius for a bomb. As such, Garland recommends keeping critical individual equipment (weapons, batteries, hydration, protective garments, chemical masks, etc.) close at hand, and ensuring that required resources (fire, EMS, buses, etc.) are staged reasonably close to the site.

Lieutenant Colasanto had many more valuable insights to share with the CATO audience, as did other presenters at the conference. I'd like to extend a personal thanks to "Lieutenant Dan" and the Garland Police Department for their efforts at keeping fellow officers safe and ready to confront the threat.

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