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Orlando shooting highlights lone-wolf terror threat

Posted On: Jun. 19, 2016 12:00 AM CST

The Orlando, Florida, nightclub shootings are likely to result in increased security and risk management efforts among publicly accessible businesses, but so-called “lone-wolf” attacks remain a major part of today's terrorist threat.

Law enforcement officials said that Omar Mateen, 29, shot and killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at Pulse, a gay nightclub, before he was killed by police. During the attack, the shooter called 911 and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group.

Relatives of Mr. Mateen said he objected to gays; patrons of the nightclub said Mr. Mateen had been at the business several times previously, according to reports.

Since the June 12 attack, “my phone's been ringing off the hook,” said Chris McGoey, president of Murrieta, California-based McGoey Security Consulting. “Every business will be talking about this. Anyplace open to the public is going to have discussions and meetings.”

Mr. McGoey noted that Pulse had stronger security measures than many such venues, including an off-duty police officer stationed outside the club.

“Pulse took steps beyond what the normal club would take by employing that officer to be outside. So that's a good thing. From the liability standpoint, that's an argument in your favor, that you ... made a business decision to hire this off-duty officer just in the exercise of extra caution,” he said.

“People are going to start seeing a heightened sense of security” overall, said Brad Moody, executive vice president of operations at Lowers & Associates, a risk management firm in Purcellville, Virginia.

Mr. Moody said nightclub owners have a challenge in that they want patrons to be safe, but they also want them to be comfortable.

“You don't want them to feel they're not safe by going in because there's metal detectors or turnstiles,” he said. “There's something psychological that happens when someone needs to enter a location and they feel like they're being evaluated or looked at differently.” People would think, “"I don't look like a thug, so why am I being treated like a thug?' And that's the problem.”

Harry Rhulen, CEO and co-founder of Firestorm Solutions L.L.C., an Atlanta-based crisis management firm, said the substantial increase in mass shootings in the past 10 years means “there's an expectation that companies be at least aware of their workplace violence exposure and are doing what they can to mitigate or eliminate as much of that exposure as possible.”

“So that's where the liability ultimately is going to come from,” said Mr. Rhulen. “A nightclub is a workplace for the bouncer, for the people working at the bar, and those are usually the people who get injured first. But if you look historically, nightclubs around the world have been the scenes of shootings and terrorism on a fairly frequent basis. So it is not uncommon to see violence in nightclubs.”

For example, the 2002 bombings at a Bali nightclub killed more than 200 people, while a 2001 suicide bombing outside a disco in Tel Aviv, Israel, killed more than 20 people.

Gordon Woo, London-based catastrophe-risk expert at Risk Management Solutions Inc., said in a statement that lone-wolf attacks “have a comparatively small chance of being detected and stopped by counterterrorist agencies monitoring communications. That said, while terrorist attacks seem random, there are patterns, which mean that the risk can be modeled.”

While the threat can be reduced, “such crimes will always happen,” Mr. Woo said in an email. “Draconian surveillance would be needed to suppress the lone-wolf threat significantly. From an insurance perspective, their impact is minimal.”

Mr. Woo added that today's terrorist seems to be shifting to off-the-shelf military weapons, which are more reliable than improvised explosive devices.

Robert Pape, director of the University of Chicago Project on Security & Terrorism, said the Islamic State itself is encouraging followers to use assault rifles because “they fire a large number of shots in a small period of time.”

“It's just that basic,” Mr. Pape said. “There's nothing more complicated. They're saying they're readily available, go buy them, practice, and go do it.”

But he also said companies and institutions are investing more in efforts to reduce risks for so-called “soft targets,” generally public places where large groups of people gather.

“There is no 100% security against anything. And the way security works is with people layering kinds of security, and that's also true with soft targets,” he said. “What we're seeing here is a pattern of trying to kill large numbers of people. And you can't defend every party and every place there'll be 20 or 30 people; however, it is going to make sense to invest some more in particularly large places.”

Roughly 300 people were inside Pulse at the time of the shooting, just before the nightclub was to close.

Mr. Pape added that soft targets can be protected, but that “it costs money, and businesses simply don't want to invest the money here unless it's necessary — but it's becoming necessary.”

He said the Islamic State has stepped up attacks on the West as it has lost ground to the U.S. and other countries in Iraq and Syria. “They're not operating out of strength,” he said. “They're operating out of desperation, and they're desperate like a cornered animal.”

But none of the experts expect people to entirely avoid nightclubs or other publicly accessible places.

“In order to get out of bed in the morning,” Mr. Rhulen said, “we all have to exercise a certain amount of denial. We have to believe that nothing is going to go wrong and nothing is going to happen to us. We've become desensitized because we see this kind of thing every day on the news, and as long as it didn't happen to us, as long as it's not our crisis, it really becomes part of the general media buzz that we've become immune to.”