Like many of you, I have been following the nearly inescapable flood of coverage on the series of sniper killings in the Washington, D.C., area, but with an eye for the details. The major question before us is whether terrorists or simply a deranged criminal has perpetrated the shootings.
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What follows is a dispassionate look at what has been released, analyzed from a different the point of view. This is not to say that the investigative team has not already put this together as well, but rather to dispel some of the partisan rhetoric in the media based on fractional information.
- It has been stated in the media that: A terrorist connection is largely discounted by many simply because it is atypical of what has been done in the past.
These kinds of paradigms are especially useful tactically when they can blind an opponent to what lies right before them. Just as an airliner had not previously been used directly as a weapon in and of itself before the WTC attack, so this shooter's modus may be another example of "thinking outside the box" that is the very essence of unconventional (i.e., terrorist) warfare. As a tactic to inflict maximum disruption in the populace, it is clearly effective in making fear very personal and close to home.
- The media and investigators have released a variety of vehicle types and the quick post-shooting disappearances.
This information speaks to possible funding and preplanning. It also tends to raise the questions of safe houses or pre-planned hides. The existence of hides tends to be the fruit of an organization's efforts rather than that of an individual as rented but unoccupied/unused structures or areas would stand out for an investigator. The frequency of the shootings suggest that these are done in areas already scouted, and therefore against an ad-lib approach.
Given the introduction of military UAVs (unmanned observation aircraft), further consistent evasion from observation could be inductively reasoned to point to the use of safe houses or predetermined hides and a strong potential for an organization.
As speed is of the essence in making a successful retreat and the firing of a center-fire rifle from inside a vehicle would require additional set-up time, a second person is likely working with the shooter.
- The eyewitness accounts cannot be combined into a facial composite.
While there are usually discrepancies in the reports of witnesses that could preclude a composite face from being developed, there is an alternate view of the evidence. A composite would also be impossible if there were more than one shooter seen, each with different facial characteristics.
- There has been a lack of consistent reports of muzzle blast, either visual or auditory.
This points toward the inconsistent use of a suppressor, an already-illegal device that is essentially an expansion chamber like a muffler, but with very exacting design requirements. Any .223 diameter center-fire rifle cartridge has a muzzle velocity well in excess of the speed of sound, so therefore it is reasonable to assume that the reason for its use is to suppress muzzle flash and blast only.
Firing a weapon from inside a closed vehicle would provide some additional significant muffling and with the use of a suitable suppressor would reduce the muzzle flash that would light a darkened interior. It has been correctly pointed out that firing a rifle inside a vehicle would require significant hearing protection as the pressure spike inside the vehicle could produce temporary incapacitation from vestibular (inner ear) trauma.
A military wannabe or criminal would likely continue to consistently use this tool as it provides both a feeling of invulnerability and a tactical edge, whereas its inconsistent use would provide for a greater psychological effect for area residents. This enhanced psychological effect is provided by the now ubiquitous media coverage.
These inconsistent reports also speak well against the recently raised speculation that the weapon is a pistol chambered for a center-fire rifle cartridge with a .223 projectile. The pistol called the "Fireball" (and all the other short barreled pistols chambered for rifle cartridges) truly earned that name because of the large quantity of yet unburned propellant expelled that then ignites outside the muzzle creating an extra large yellow-red flash and loud report. A characteristic that is hard to miss and harder to conceal with a suppressor.
The use of a suppressor suggests that the shooter has had access to either specialized military hardware or to individuals with fabrication skills and the machine tools needed to manufacture one. Suppressors for a military-type rifle require very close tolerances and careful design to function reliably and are not easily manufactured without precision tools and machining skills. In many cases, the weapon itself requires modification to effectively suppress the sound of firing.
- The bullets recovered are reported to have been fragmented.
The information concerning the fragmented bullets released by the police suggests that the ammunition used is of a non-military nature. The .223 "Ball" projectiles used in military ammunition are designed not to easily fragment as required by treaty. These cartridges produce injuries from their very high velocities as opposed to fragmentation of the projectile.
However, there are many commercially available hunting projectiles in .223 diameter with thin metal jackets and/or hollow points that are designed to fragment. This aspect speaks to the ammunition being hand loaded. The key evidence to be seen on a bullet beyond the scoring particular to a specific barrel are the number/size of the lands and grooves and their twist (e.g., a twist of 23 to1 indicates a full rotation of the projectile in 23 inches of barrel length). By identifying these two combined characteristics, it is possible to reduce the number of possible weapons types to those normally equipped with that type of barrel.
Again, this speaks to the paradigm of an off-the-rack weapon as opposed to a re-barreled rifle action that could easily be a non-military bolt-action type and not chambered for the expected 5.56 mm NATO (.223 Remington) cartridge. As just a single shot has been fired at each scene, there is no direct evidence that an auto-loading firearm is being used. The single casing reported recovered (along with the Tarot card) could be a red herring left to point investigators away from the kind of arm actually employed.
There are a great many center-fire cartridge-casing designs that use a .223 diameter projectile that would perform accurately within the 150-meter range. If a custom arm, made by or for the shooter, were the type being used in these shootings, it would make the fabrication of a suppressor much easier as most military arms have to be significantly modified to accept a high efficiency suppressor. If specially made for this purpose, the arm could additionally have been made virtually untraceable.
- The media now states that a Soviet-bloc AK-74 was falsely reported to have been used in the last shooting.
If this had actually been the weapon used, then it would have strongly reinforced the notion of terrorists being the shooters. The select fire (fully automatic capable and therefore not legally importable for commercial sale) AK-74 replaced the 7.62 x 39 mm chambered AK-47 as the standard-issue Soviet assault rifle in the mid-1970s. It fires a 5.45 mm cartridge that has its own distinctive case design and case head stamp (used to identify who made the ammunition and sometimes the lot). This weapon was widely used in Afghanistan by Soviet troops and large quantities captured by the Muslim rebels.
The 5.45 mm bullet diameter is sufficiently close to 22 caliber that fragmented pieces could possibly be mistaken for a domestic .223 projectile. However, for a qualified investigator, the 5.45 mm casing could not easily be confused with that of a 5.56 mm (.223 Remington).
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There now seems to be enough in the scant reports to begin to put together a picture of a team of shooters. These do not preclude the shooters being mentally deranged civilians, but seem to point toward a potential terrorist connection. If shooting continues and capture evaded, then the case for the terrorist connection becomes stronger in my view.
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Tom Marzullo is a former Special Forces soldier and a veteran of submarine special operations. He resides in Colorado.