The Attack on a Maryland Newspaper Shows the Need for Vigilance
By: Scott Stewart | Stratfor.comJuly 3, 2018
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The Attack on a Maryland Newspaper Shows the Need for Vigilance
  • The attack on a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, showed many of the characteristics seen in other mass public assaults.
  • Since 2011 the suspect had made threats on social media against the newspaper and several employees, who no longer worked there at the time of the attack.
  • The case highlights the challenges of monitoring persistent threats and the obligation of companies to warn employees and prepare them in the event of an attack.

At just after 2:30 p.m. on June 28, a man armed with a shotgun blasted through the glass front door to the newsroom at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. Stepping through the shattered door, he began to methodically shoot the newspaper's employees, pausing only to reload. He killed five and seriously wounded two others before police arrived and he surrendered. Without the quick police response — the first unit on the scene reportedly arrived within a minute — he probably would have killed many more. 

The suspect (who I am intentionally refusing to name) is a 38-year-old man who had made threats against the newspaper for several years. The assault shows many of the characteristics of other mass public attacks, including warning signs on social media. His long history of taunts and threats also show that companies must stay vigilant and design plans to help employees survive such deadly attacks.

Grievances and Early Warning Signs

While the investigation is in its early stages, there were more than a few red flags. For the Capital Gazette, the trouble began after reporter Eric Hartley wrote an article about the suspect's conviction in 2011 for criminal harassment; the case involved a former female high school classmate the suspect had contacted on Facebook. He sued the newspaper for defamation in 2012, and the lawsuit was dismissed in 2013. He appealed, but an appellate court eventually upheld the dismissal in 2015. He also filed lawsuits against the county judge who ruled against him in the newspaper case and the woman he pleaded guilty to harassing.  

In 2011 the suspect had opened a Twitter account — @EricHartleyFrnd — using the reporter's name and demonstrating his early fixation with the newspaper, its staff and people tied to his court case. He had made a number of veiled threats on the account until June 2016 and was silent except for one brief, vulgar Tweet shortly before he launched his attack. That Tweet pointed to another account — @JudgeMoylanFrnd — which also appears to have been set up by the suspect and likely refers to appellate Judge Charles Moylan Jr., who presided over his case. Given the timing of this post, the Moylan account appears to have been a sort of "legacy token" prepared beforehand to memorialize and claim credit for his attack. 

Several photos on the Twitter accounts show Moylan, Hartley and former Capital Gazette Editor Thomas Marquardt with a threatening symbol superimposed on their foreheads. One of my Twitter followers helped me identify the symbol as the "brand of sacrifice" from a Japanese dark manga series called "Berserk." A wiki on the series says, "The lives of those who bear the Brand, from the last drop of blood, to the last moment of your agonizing death, will feed life to the new Child of Darkness." The Moylan account also has a photo of Hartley with a gun pointed to his face and a picture showing the phrase "But don't forget the grief" written on Marquardt's hand.

Marquardt kept a file on the suspect's threats and behavior, and in a June 28 Los Angeles Times interview, he said, "I said during that time, 'This guy is crazy enough to come in and blow us all away.'" Clearly the suspect's animus toward the newspaper continued after he stopped posting on the Hartley account.

It is quite clear that — as in most active shooter cases — there were numerous signs that in retrospect point to the attacker's intent to do harm. Indeed, media interviews with Marquardt and statements by the woman who was stalked indicate that they were fearful of the suspect and made those fears known to local law enforcement.

The Attack in Context

In this assault, the motivation was a personal grievance — the most common motive for mass public attacks — and not some sort of ideological or racial motive. Also, the attacker and the assault exhibit many of the features of this type of attack, as does the public and media reaction to it.

A chart shows statistics on mass shootings and public perceptions of them.

Among these mass-public-shooting characteristics are indications of mental health problem. The suspect, in this case, demonstrated obsessive behavior by stalking and harassing a former classmate, and through his court case and taunts against the Capital Gazette. This behavior was combined with an elevated sense of being wronged. A second feature of the attack was the site; the assault occurred at a business, the most common location for a mass public attack. Third, the suspect clearly communicated his violent intent on many occasions. Aside from the one vulgar Tweet, there is no indication yet that he leaked his intent to others immediately before the attack, but that could change as more evidence is uncovered. Finally, while there is no indication yet that the suspect had experienced a significant life stressor ahead of the attack, investigators are almost certain to find one, if not more.

As for the suspect himself, he matches the typical demographic profile for a mass shooter. He is male, which about 94 percent of mass shooters are, and is white, which 64 percent of such shooters are. An FBI study on the pre-attack behaviors of active shooters in the United States from 2000 to 2013 found that 40 percent of attackers used firearms they purchased legally, and in this case the suspect reportedly purchased his pump-action shotgun about a year ago. His stalking conviction was a misdemeanor, so did not preclude him from purchasing a firearm, and neither did the fact that the court ordered him to undergo counseling as part of his sentence. Incidentally, the FBI study also found that 62 percent of active shooters have a history of acting in an abusive, oppressive or harassing way. 

Questions and Corporate Responsibility

At this point, many things about this attack aren't publicly known, but numerous questions about it need answering. First, did Marquardt pass on his file on the suspect to the current management of the newspaper when he left? Were the suspect and his communications ever analyzed by a forensic psychologist or a psycholinguistics specialist? The content and tenor of the private communications to the newspaper could be revealing. Finally, were the authorities and newspaper management aware of the meaning of the "brand of sacrifice" symbol placed on the photos of the people he was angry with?

Also, the suspect would have been bound to the attack cycle, meaning he would have conducted certain activities before he could launch his attack. The most obvious of these steps is the pre-operational surveillance of the Capital Gazette's offices. In his assault, he knew about the construction and configuration of the front doors and had a plan to defeat them, which could have come only through direct observation. And before approaching the front doors, he had barricaded the newsroom back door.

Companies have a legal "duty of care" responsibility to warn employees about potential threats.

Did anyone see the suspect near the building in the days and months ahead of the attack? He has a fairly recognizable face and wears his long hair in a ponytail. Such attackers also frequently possess an awkward or hostile demeanor. Reports are likely to eventually surface showing that employees had noticed him outside the building and could even include closed-circuit TV footage of him. Were Capital Gazette employees warned about him? Or if they had been at one point, had such warnings been updated? Educating employees about potential threats is an important practice. Corporate security is a companywide responsibility, and the employees have far more eyes than the security staff does.

Furthermore, not all attacks manifest themselves immediately after a threat is made. Some are months or even years in the making. The FBI study suggests that in 56 percent of mass shootings, people observe concerning behaviors at least 25 months before the attack. Maintaining awareness of longtime threats and tracking their communications for increasing aggression or worsening mental stability can be tedious and time-consuming. Unfortunately, many organizations discard the communications from known troublemakers without monitoring them for signs of escalation or deterioration — especially if a considerable time has lapsed without the person taking action.

Companies have a legal "duty of care" responsibility to warn employees about potential threats. They also have a responsibility to continue monitoring communications from potential attackers. These important protective intelligence roles can be ignored, but companies do so at their peril.  

In an age of increasing mass public attacks, it is incumbent upon company leadership to design plans to help mitigate such threats. A preventive plan is not complete without providing employees with active shooter training that includes some practical exercises in the office so they know what to do in their specific workspace location. And such training must include information on what to do when a possible exit is blocked.

The Attack on a Maryland Newspaper Shows the Need for Vigilance is republished with permission from Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical intelligence platform.

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