October 2, 2002: Sniper attacks in Washington

Ten people died and three were critically wounded in a series of sniper attacks that began on October 2, 2002 and went on for three weeks.

Living through one terrorist attack is bad enough: imagine three weeks of them.

WASHINGTON, DC — In the late 1970s the US company Heinz came out with a commercial set to the Carly Simon song ‘Anticipation’. The ketchup it was seeking to promote was thick and came out of the bottle slowly, but was so good it was worth waiting for. Or so they said.

Anticipation can be a good thing, or a bad thing. As we continue to live through COVID-19 the daily wait to see how many new cases is excruciating as is the uncertainty over when the pandemic will subside and we can all get back to ‘normal’.

Imagine, then, a series of attacks that appear to be completely random and are occurring against unpredictable targets in unpredictable cities. This is what terrorised Washington, DC beginning on this day in 2002 and continuing for three weeks.

An apparent sniper shot people in very ordinary situations: putting gas in a car, working behind a store counter, arriving at school, etc. In all, ten victims died from their wounds and another three were critically injured.

Finally, on October 24 two men found sleeping in a car off an interstate highway were arrested and charged with weapons offences. John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, were discovered to be the ones behind the shootings. One drove the car while the other shot from a modified trunk accessible from the back seat.

Muhammad, with his sniper team partner, Malvo, randomly selected innocent victims. With calculation, extensive planning, premeditation and ruthless disregard for life, Muhammad carried out his cruel scheme of terror.

Virginia Supreme Court Justice Donald Lemons

Muhammad was executed by lethal injection on November 10, 2009. Malvo is serving multiple life sentences in a supermax in Virginia. A motive was never conclusively determined: Muhammad’s jail cell statements about Al Qaeda and jihad were dismissed as post facto ravings.

The attacks were as cheap as one can do (the gun was stolen and aside from gas for the car there were no significant costs). On the other hand the damage to the DC area economy was probably incalculable (cancelled reservations, frightened tourists, etc.). All in all a reminder that terrorism is not usually an expensive act.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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