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Navy Yard: Could it have been prevented?

Expert: Truck bombs and conspiracies are easier to stop; lone wolfs harder

Joseph Trevithick | Special to CNN | 9/17/2013, 9:16 a.m.
Aaron Alexis,34, is the contractor the FBI has identified as a suspect in the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard Sept. 16, 2013. FBI.gov

— While significant details about the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday remain obscure, as with every such incident, the first question that people want answered is this: Could something have been done to save those innocent lives?

Unfortunately, terrorism and similar acts of violence are bound only by the creativity of those responsible. The burden is always on those tasked with protecting us to prepare for such events. Some categories of attack are easier to prepare for than others.

Major truck bombing incidents, for example, such as the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983 or the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, prompted significant changes in the security landscape.

This was because a truck bomb could be whittled down into a distinct and useful set of parameters. How big would a truck likely be? How close would it have to be to the building to be dangerous? What sort of security measures would be most difficult to defeat for a determined driver?

Similarly, the greater the number of people involved in a conspiracy, the more difficult it is to conceal. Once more than one person is involved, the chances of discovery go up exponentially. In the past few years, Americans have seen many potential terrorist plots foiled because of the work of undercover operations.

With the help of controversial surveillance programs initiated after the events of September 11, 2001, federal law enforcement agencies have been able to rapidly pounce on anyone who has shown the slightest indication of committing such an attack. Undercover law enforcement agents have even been the ones providing fake explosive devices in some instances.

An individual seeking the counsel or assistance of others in preparation for an attack can be fit into a scenario or reasonable set of scenarios that law enforcement can guard against with a relatively high degree of certainty. But lone wolf attackers -- and it is not yet clear if that is the case in the Navy Yard siege -- are less easy to pigeonhole. For instance, they generally use individual firearms, which are readily concealable, rather than large explosive devices or more exotic weapons, such as man-portable rockets and missiles, or weapons of mass destruction.

More importantly, studies have consistently shown that there is no single dispositional profile for individuals who commit lone wolf attacks. If anything, the unifying factor is that the people who commit these crimes are driven to do so by a complicated combination of personal ideology, grievances and other individual factors.

These often hyperspecific details, as well as the subject's isolation, make it difficult, if not impossible, to protect against them as a category of potential attackers. It would be unreasonable to attempt to tailor proactive security measures to the infinite number of detailed scenarios that could occur. What this has meant is that much of what has been developed in response to what are now being referred to as "active shooter" scenarios is reactive rather than proactive.