When is a death threat a real threat? Targeted attacks and the case of ‘The Black Panther of Oxford’ Sasha Johnson

Philip Grindell
Written by Philip Grindell
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The recent shooting of Sasha Johnson a leading BLM activist, dubbed ‘The Black Panther of Oxford’ has stirred up emotions. Questions of trust in the police investigation are already emerging with suggestions that the police haven’t taken the threats seriously.

The friends and family of Johnson have been vocal that she had been subjected to death threats, believed to be via social media and email. They believe that her attack was directly linked to the death threats that she had received. The police disagree, stating that they don’t believe this was a targeted attack, and that she is the victim of a ‘drive by shooting’.

The truth is yet to be established, but statistically it is unlikely that anyone sending the death threats is directly responsible for the attack.

The research:
In 1997 the US Secret Service published The Exceptional Case Study Project (ECSP). This report was detailed study conducted by Bryan Vossekuil and Robert Fein (now a Special Advisor to Defuse). In essence the ECSP, with full access to the US Secret Service files, examined all attacks on prominent persons of a public status over a 50 year period to analyse the thinking and behaviours of the assailants.

One of the key findings of the study was that the person carrying out an attack rarely, if ever , made a direct threat to their intended target. Statistically less that 7% of the attackers made a direct threat. It is important to understand that that doesn’t mean that threats weren’t made, very often threats were leaked, just not made directly.

This research has been repeated several times with similar results.

Hunters and Howlers:
In Calhoun and Weston’s study titled ‘Perspectives on Threat Management’ they further discussed this finding coining the phrase ‘Hunters and Howlers’. This concept went further to compare the finding to wolves hunting their prey. When wolves howl, they are not hunting, they are communicating. When they hunt, they are quiet.

Hunters intend to commit an act of violence against their target. They intentionally proceed along what is called “the path to intended violence”,

The Pathway to Intended Violence:
This pathway in effect follows a process of escalating behaviour. It isn’t an inevitability and can be prevented by understanding the process and recognising the behavioural indicators.

Howlers on the other hand, communicate inappropriately by making threats or improper suggestions or requests, but they rarely advance beyond those inappropriate communications. The farthest howlers get along the path to intended violence is ideation, but the howler’s idea is to disturb or frighten their target.

The published research on this topic is in many ways, logical. Why would someone targeting a public figure warn their target of such an attack? The research suggests that they don’t.

Having discussed this theory with my mentor and friend Dr Robert Fein, I wrote my dissertation, reviewing the theories against the attacks on British MPs this century. The evidence supported the theory. None of the MPs physically targeted and attacked, including Jo Cox. Were directly threatened by the person who ultimately attacked them.

In essence, those who make threats rarely pose threats. The skill is recognising those that do pose a threat.

Commercial Implications:
This is of huge importance because all too often when stories emerge of a public figure being subjected to death threats online, invariably the security ‘experts’ follow the noise and not the science. This has several negative effects.

• Firstly, it wastes resources, which in the commercial sector means the client’s money.

• Secondly, it unnecessarily raises the anxiety of the recipient and in effect helps to achieve the aim of the person communicating the abuse or threat.

• Thirdly, it almost certainly means that that ‘expert’ is unable to recognise and identify a genuine threat.

Without prejudicing the ongoing investigation, it is unlikely that the attack on the ‘Black Panther of Oxford’ Sasha Johnson was a targeted attack. Whilst it is almost certain that she was subjected to threatening communications and some of those may have been threats to her life, the assessment that her attack was the result of a gang related or ‘drive by shooting’ are more likely.

What we do know is that targeted attacks are very often committed by ‘fixated’ people. One of the motivators for this group is proximity. There are key behavioural indicators that help identify those who pose a genuine threat and at the same time, indicators that can also suggest that the person making threats is unlikely to pose a genuine physical threat. That expertise is key for the well-being of those targeted, who can then be reassured that whilst the are receiving hostile communications, they are not in physical danger.

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