July 11, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Examining the Dallas Attack

• The July 7 ambush attack on police officers in Dallas, Texas is yet another manifestation of a mass shooting with radiating consequences 

• Investigators believe the gunman acted alone, but are working to determine if this attack, like Islamic State attacks, was inspired or directed by militant groups

• As in the June 2015 mass shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina church, the Dallas gunman clearly stated his race-based motives behind the attack

• The detonation of a robotic, remote-controlled bomb to end the standoff appears to be the first such case and may usher in new concerns about the use of the tactic.


Confusion surrounded the mass shooting in Dallas, Texas on July 7 that killed five police officers; initial reports suggested that up to four gunmen were using triangulation, concealment, and high-ground in what was believed to be a sophisticated and coordinated sniper attack. As is often the case in chaotic situations, initial reports were mistaken. The facts that have since emerged strongly suggest that one gunman used assault-style tactics to ambush and kill five police officers and wound seven more—and that the attack was racially motivated. 

As was the case in the June 2015 mass shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina church by a white supremacist, the Dallas gunman was reportedly quite clear about his motivation and intent: the desire to kill white police officers. The Dallas attack, like the worst terrorist attacks, will exacerbate existing tensions, eroding nuance from a complex public debate.

The assault-style nature of the attack demonstrates the lethality a proficient gunman is capable of with a semi-automatic rifle and a supply of ammunition. Initial reports focused on whether the gunman was well-trained; in this case, he was a U.S. Army veteran, though not of a combat occupation. Relying on the element of surprise and a modicum of knowledge regarding weapons handling and tactics, a single gunman can mimic a small unit attack on civilian police forces. 

Dallas police ended the hours-long standoff with the gunman by deploying a remote-controlled bomb-disposal device to deliver and detonate a pound of C4 explosives to kill the suspect. Police officials defended the unprecedented use of this tactic, pointing to the suspect’s hardened position, demonstrated capability, and stated willingness to kill as many police officers as possible. Fears of autonomous robots making lethal law enforcement decisions remain unfounded—the decision went through normal chain-of-command protocols—but the decision to use a robotic device to explode ordnance in order to kill a suspect will have ripple effects. Further use of this tactic may generate controversy.

Contributing to the erroneous reports of multiple gunmen was the presence of several people—either spectators or participants in the peaceful protest that preceded the attack—who were openly carrying rifles, as permitted under Texas law. Police had no way of clearly identifying friend from foe. A heavily armed society adds another layer of confusion as police race to respond to calls of shots fired and officers down. Given the seemingly overwhelming nature of the ambush, it is fortunate that police did not exchange fire with those legally carrying weapons who were uninvolved in the attack.

Echoing responses to recent attacks by the so-called Islamic State, police are trying to determine if the Dallas shooter was inspired or directed to commit his attack. He had reportedly mentioned online several violent groups but the extent—if any—of his association with these groups remains unknown. He had also declared to police that he was acting alone. Investigators will delve through his Internet history, looking for evidence of online radicalization by violent black nationalist groups—as they have in cases such as San Bernardino and Orlando. In all these cases, the attackers made clear their intentions and motivations, regardless of their group affiliation. The availability of high-powered weapons and ammunition continues to blur the line between amateur and coordinated attacks.


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