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Counterterrorism Expert On Finding Patterns In Mass Shootings


We have limited information about the two suspects in the San Bernardino shootings. We have a lot of information about suspects in past mass shootings. John Cohen has spent much of his career trying to find the patterns. He was the counterterrorism coordinator at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security until a few months ago. He's now a professor at Rutgers University. He's been researching why people carry out mass attacks, and he's on the line. Welcome to the program, John.

JOHN COHEN: Good morning, Linda and Steve.

INSKEEP: What kinds of patterns have you found?

COHEN: Well, as we've looked at past attacks and put aside, for the purposes of the research, the motive behind the attack, what we found is that whether the attacker's inspired by extremist ideology, whether the attacker is acting on behalf of some other perceived grievance, there seems to be a common psychological or life experience profile.

INSKEEP: What is it?

COHEN: They seem to be people who come from dysfunctional families, who feel disconnected from the community, who have suffered a series of life failures. They may have some criminal history or some history of mental health issues. But more - most importantly, they are in search for some sense of meaning, whether it is by gravitating towards some ideology - and recently we've seen a number of people gravitating towards the ideology of groups like ISIS or some other type of gravitating towards some group. But they're looking for something to give their life cause. And unfortunately, what we have seen, in particular, over the past several years, is they seem - more and more people seem to be focusing on conducting mass casualty attacks as that mechanism for bringing purpose to their life.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that what comes first is the personal problems, and those ultimately may be more important than whatever political motive the shooter assigns to their actions later on?

COHEN: Exactly. The progression is this - a person lives a large part of their life - up into their late teens, early 20s - feeling lost. They then find resonance from some grievance or ideology. They become increasingly extreme. And then something occurs. It could be something in the workplace. It could be some other type of life event which serves as the catalyst for them becoming violent. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombers, the investigation has shown that exact type of profile for Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The event that seemed to put him over the edge and put him into attack mode was when he was denied - or he was notified that his naturalization was being placed on hold, pending further review of a domestic violence case.

INSKEEP: Are extremist groups as aware of this personality type as you are?

COHEN: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, there are many in law enforcement who believe that this incredibly sophisticated social media campaign used by ISIS, which has successfully served to inspire thousands of people in Europe, United States and Canada, to - and drawn people to their cause - is specifically targeted towards that subset of the population that I described.

INSKEEP: OK, so now we've been talking in general terms here about a wide variety of mass shooting incidents and evidence from past cases. We haven't been talking about this specific case. Let's now bring in the evidence from that case and see what we can make of it. We've got two individuals here, 28 and 27 years old - Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. We are told by associates of the family that they were married, that they had a 6-month-old daughter that they left with a grandmother before going off to what police say was this rampage. One was born in the United States, both were of Pakistani descent. And that's what we've got. What, if anything, can you make of that?

COHEN: Well, as you pointed out earlier, the investigation is underway. But what investigators will be looking at are issues such as, you know, were there factors, such as the ones that I described earlier, related to either of these two individuals? You know, you had a guest earlier who spoke about the male and the family and talked about him being, you know, born in America but being first generation. We've seen in other communities such as Minneapolis, particularly in the Somali community, where those first generation youth really have a - feel disconnected, both from their cultural identity and from the American culture. Even though they may seem, you know, Americanized and normal, they're happy - they seem happy - inside, they're deeply troubled. Inside, they don't feel a connection with where their family came from and they don't feel a connection with the American community they're living in.

INSKEEP: John Cohen, stay with us. We're going to bring another voice into this conversation.


Paul Barrett, he's a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. He's also the author of the book GLOCK: The Rise Of American's - Of America's Gun. Paul, what do you think about that - the - that a psychological profile?

PAUL BARRETT: Well, I think it's certainly worth doing the kind of research that Mr. Cohen is doing and trying to come up with these sorts of patterns. But of course, for every pattern, there are exceptions or, at least, footnotes. You knoq, in this situation, from what we've learned so far, the male suspect, Farook, you know had a job that he was reportedly satisfied with. So it's difficult to say. I would also add into the mix one other motivation, which is suicide. In a number of the mass shootings we've seen in this country, where we have a different demographic template from the one you see in San Bernardino, where you see a young, very disconnected man, frequently someone who does not have a criminal record of any substance, the desire to destroy themselves is joined with their rage and whatever motivation causes them to kill other people as well.

INSKEEP: John Cohen is still with us. People are asking, is this a workplace issue? Is it terrorism? Is that a big distinction to you, John?

COHEN: No, not really because what we've seen is that these incidents, particularly in the United States and particularly over the last several years, don't fit into neat little boxes. I would not be surprised at all - based on past situations such as the Fort Hood shooting, such as the beheading that took place in a meatpacking plant - that you would see convergence, an individual who, for a variety of reasons, is becoming more extreme, more radicalized based on what they're seeing on social media and at the same time, experiences a workplace situation which serves as the - that - the catalyst or the trigger for them becoming violent. I think the other thing over thing I just would point out based on what Paul was saying is, yes, there are some, you know, variations in the characteristics of individuals. But, you know, I spent my night life in law enforcement. And if we're going to build prevention models that we can use to stop these types of attacks, we need to understand the attacker and not be so worried about labeling them a workplace violence person or a terrorist.

INSKEEP: OK, John Cohen, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

COHEN: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's at Rutgers University. And Paul Barrett of Bloomberg is also with us this morning as we continue trying to find the facts and, to the extent we fairly can, the meaning of yesterday's shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., 14 people killed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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