Lone Wolves: Coming to an Airport Near You?

Details continue to emerge about the gunman who opened fire in Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) last fall, killing a security screener and wounding three others. One of the more shocking is the fact that two armed officers assigned to the area allegedly left for breaks right before the shooting without informing a dispatcher as required. Because of their actions, police did not arrive until after an airline contractor reportedly called a police dispatcher who alerted officers over the radio.

The actions of the armed guards, the vulnerability of airport security systems, the arming of TSA agents, and the increasing threat posed by lone wolf terrorists are all things being debated by the media in the aftermath of this horrible tragedy.

Airport Business recently caught up with Jeffrey Simon, an internationally renowned terrorism expert and author of “Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat,” for his insight on lone wolf shooters, airport security, and what needs to happen now.


Why has The LAX shooter been described as a lone wolf terrorist?

A lone wolf terrorist is an individual who is working alone, or sometimes with another person, but is not part of an organized terrorist cell. Because they are not part of a group, they are free to think up a violent scenario then act upon it, that’s what makes them so creative—and dangerous. Some examples of lone wolf terrorists are Nidal Malik Hasan, the shooter at Fort Hood, and the Tsarnaev brothers, who did the Boston bombing. These individuals did not have any connection with extremist groups.

In the LAX attack, there is some debate as to whether to call the shooter a politically motivated terrorist or an emotionally disturbed individual. However, Paul Anthony Ciancia did have a gripe against the TSA and targeted TSA agents. Based on that, I would call it a lone wolf terrorist attack.


Why do lone wolf terrorists take the actions they do?

Normally the definition of terrorism is a violent act committed by two individuals for a political purpose or religious motivation. But in the case of the lone wolf, I don’t believe you always have political or religious motivation. We have seen lone wolves who have these motivations, but sometimes just a criminal motivation can still qualify as a lone wolf attack.


How much of a threat do lone wolf terrorists pose?

I see the lone wolf as a very serious threat because the lone wolf is not accountable to anybody but himself. In groups such as Al-Qaeda, you have a group decision-making process going on. Somebody may come up with an idea and it may be shot down. But with lone wolves, if they feel they are capable of doing something, they will just do it.


Are there airport security issues that remain as they pertain to the lone wolf?

Part of the problem is that lone wolves, because they are not working as a group, can blend in with others and there may be no way to distinguish between them and nonviolent passengers. What the LAX shooting demonstrated is the worst nightmare of all security planners—a violent attack in an unsecured area. Some have suggested that there needs to be security checkpoints as people enter airport lobbies, but in airports, such as Los Angeles, that’s really impractical. You would create tremendous traffic jams going up to the airport’s entry point, and would create vulnerable areas as people wait to check in. Pushing out the security still leaves vulnerable areas for passengers.

CCTV cameras are very important, but then again you have to be able to determine whether or not somebody is walking through the lobby with violent intent. How do you do that? There is research being conducted in order to automate CCTV cameras with smart sensors that are able to pick up unusual activity and can determine when something is suspicious … maybe even using biometrics that perform gait analysis. If somebody is carrying a bomb, do they walk differently? There is a lot of research being done in that area.

In addition to adding improved CCTV cameras and sensors, there should be a greater law enforcement and security presence. Nobody wants to see too many police in an airport, but people also feel more secure when they do. In the LAX attack, Ciancia was able to walk in without anyone noticing anything, walk straight up to the TSA agent, and start shooting. That is something that needs to be addressed.


Do you feel arming TSA agents is a potential solution?

It’s always problematic when you introduce more firearms to security personnel at the airport. A better solution might be adding more uniformed police or undercover agents. If Ciancia had walked in and there had been armed police milling around would he have been deterred from the attack? Would police have gotten suspicious? Nobody really knows how many security personnel you need patrolling an area, but ... the larger the police presence, the more it would help deter would-be violent criminals.


What advice would you give to airports?

Whether it’s a lone wolf or a terrorist group, airport security is a never-ending technological battle. You need to always try to stay one step ahead of the terrorist. As much as you improve your security, there are terrorists trying to think up ways to overcome that. Also, we can’t expect to be 100 percent successful in preventing terrorist attacks at airports or elsewhere but our goal should always be to both reduce uncertainty and reduce the risk to passengers and airport workers by trying to prevent these attacks. Unless you’re going to have a fortress America, unfortunately, there will always be a risk for terrorist attacks, including those at airports.