August 10, 2003: Sniper shootings in US

Shawn Lester was found guilty of three sniper murders in West Virginia in August 2003 in what was seen as a copy of the 2002 Beltway murders.

Not all terrorists or criminals come up with original ideas.

They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. They also say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ And ‘keep it simple stupid’. ‘They’ say a lot of things, don’t they.

When something works very well and gets a lot of attention to boot it tends to be copied. Think of all the products that come out parroting successful ones and which show no originality of thought. I’d guess that making a lot of money trumps imagination.

When it comes to violence we occasionally see what are called ‘copy cat’ crimes. The problem is so serious at times that police and authorities elect not to release too many details of the first offence for fear of inspiring others.

One such type of crime seems to be mass shootings. In the US in particular, which seems to be inundated with events like these more than other countries, there are many instances on which an initial massacre leads to others. For some, these are terrorist incidents, although it is far from clear that they are ideologically motivated, which are the hallmark of terrorism.

Just after 9/11 a curious set of incidents unfolded in the greater Washington DC area over a three week period (October 2002) in what became known as the “Beltway Sniper“. Ten people in all were killed in the midst of everyday activities. Two individuals were eventually arrested and one, John Allen Muhammad, was eventually executed. No clear terrorism motive was ever proven.

On this day in 2003

In August 2003, beginning on the 10th, a sniper began to carry out similar shootings in West Virginia. Shawn Lester was convicted of three murders in what was compared to the Beltway shootings. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

It is of course far from certain that the West Virginia shootings were terrorist in nature any more than the Beltway ones were. Causing terror is not enough of a reason to call something terrorism. Some may disagree.

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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