September 21, 2019

Bruce Alexander on the Security Problem

Many across the nation, Jew and non-Jew alike, are still coming to grips with what transpired at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Oct. 27. As congregants gathered for a brit milah, death was unleashed. The alleged gunman, Robert Bowers, killed 11 congregants — the deadliest attack on Jews in United States history.

The Journal spoke to Bruce Alexander, a terrorism expert with over 30 years of experience in law enforcement, intelligence and counterterrorism. His work includes stints in the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, where he was involved in analysis of terrorist threats, tactics and operations, suicide bombers and facility protection. 

Jewish Journal: What was your initial response to the Tree of Life mass shooting in Pittsburgh?  

Bruce Alexander: My initial response was two-fold. First, how horrifying that this happened in a place of worship. On the security side, my initial assessment was that, given previous attacks on synagogues, given previous attacks on certain religious groups, places of worship in general, I was leaning towards this being a domestic attacker. This type of attack comes from an agenda driven more by an ideology unique to here in the United States, as opposed to Islamic-inspired, fueled by a particular ideological bent. I also thought, here we go again. This highlights the inherent vulnerability of places of worship that an attacker readily exploits. 

JJ: What is the role of law enforcement at this point? What are they trying to uncover?  

BA: Law enforcement is trying to discover two things: What was this guy’s motive? And then that will drive the second thing, which is, Was this an isolated incident or is there larger, interconnected activity going on? Clearly, based on comments the attacker made during the attack and in the hospital afterwards, this wasn’t just a white nationalist or right-wing attack on something at large. This was directed at the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. Unfortunately, it’s representative of one of the strains coming from these hate groups in general — the strain of nationalist, white supremacist, neo-Nazi rhetoric that manifests in violence. But from a security standpoint, we need to be careful about linking this to an entity that can somehow be attributed to directly influencing or inspiring this person.  

JJ: Much of your expertise is dealing with terrorist threats overseas. How does the threat of domestic terrorism compare to what you’ve seen in other parts of the world? 

BA: The main thing is the sophistication in attacks. You saw in this attack a long gun, which is an unsophisticated attack weapon. He doesn’t have access to a cell that someone in a jihadist area has access to, which includes access to bomb-making or a cell for other forms of support. These attacks that happen in the United States are far more likely to be lone-wolf attacks, compared to an ideology in other parts of world, save for the vehicle attacks, where you’d tend to see group attacks. 

JJ: Is this type of problem getting worse here in the U.S.? 

BA: That’s difficult to answer and here’s why. The lone-wolf attack succeeds, often, because the ability to detect threat indicators doesn’t exist in the same way as with a group attack. The chances of someone else talking or behaviors giving something away or someone getting cold feet and going to authorities, don’t exist. We don’t know the extent to which this ideology is out there. We can’t penetrate cells, so it’s difficult to assess. However, therein lies the danger. You look at the church in South Carolina, this guy who sent out pipe bombs in the mail, Parkland, the church in Texas — these are single, isolated incidents. Consequently, you see that there are a lot of individuals who have ability to do these kinds of things. 

JJ: What about the targeting of places of worship? Do you and others in the security and counterterrorism communities view that as an increasing threat?  

BA: I would always say they are likely to remain attractive targets. I’m not going to say attacks on them are on the rise. Clearly, the inspiration behind these attacks remains steady, as the increase of the virulent rhetoric is higher — and that’s not just coming from me. That’s any individual source. For example, on social media the manifestation of anti-Semitism put towards the Jewish community is significantly higher than ever before. In terms of the target attractiveness of places of worship, I think that’s commensurate with the rise of this type of rhetoric. Attackers look at vulnerability, and that’s a particular problem in places of worship

JJ: Why are they vulnerable? 

BA: What’s a synagogue? It’s supposed to be a sanctuary, a welcoming place. The doors are open. That’s what happened in Squirrel Hill. The outer doors were open. Why? That’s the nature of a place of worship. We don’t want to build physical barriers and the attacker exploits that. When you look at a synagogue, it’s generally not built to have defensive measures. 

JJ: In this shooting, was there anything that made the congregation particularly vulnerable? 

BA: My wife’s from Pittsburgh, so I know this area well. I was reading an interview with a rabbi from a neighboring synagogue. He said, “This could’ve been us.” He’s right. This attack could’ve taken place at any of the synagogues within five or six miles from where I live now. It’s the availability of these types of targets that makes this attractive to an assailant. And that’s in many cities. If it’s not that one, it’ll be another one, a more available target. 

JJ: How can institutions prevent these types of attacks? Are there actionable measures they can adopt? 

BA: We have to acknowledge and accept there is no cure-all for this. I’d call for concentric rings of defense. On the outermost ring, we have identifying threats to religious institutions from as far away as possible. That includes social media monitoring, since that’s often a commonality between many of these attacks. It requires a community-based approach. It’s not something synagogues can do by themselves, but it requires law enforcement and public safety officials working in concert too. At the middle ring is hardening the facility itself. Ideally, a synagogue would be built and designed for security, and in the future we’ll see a lot more of that, unfortunately. At the innermost core, at the congregant level within, in the same way our kids have lockdown drills the congregation also has to accept that that needs to be the new normal. In the event of an incident, this is what you do: take cover, find the nearest exist.

JJ: What about armed guards? Is that going to be the new norm? 

BA: It’s not sufficient to just to say we have armed guards. That’s a shortsighted answer. Think about the bombing in the Birmingham church. That guy didn’t go in with guns. He used an explosive device. An armed guard may be a good response in some cases. I’m not ruling that out. But at the innermost core, the actionable steps, policies and procedures that make everyone aware of threats faced on a continual basis is where it all comes together. But it can’t be something that we say and forget. We can’t just talk about it now because it’s in the news. You pick up the paper and there’s this notice that says synagogues around nation are boosting security. That’s valid. But where will we be in a month? A year? We can’t only be reacting post-event.