Should US armed forces recruiting centers be more heavily defended? Defense Department officials have debated that question for years but it’s gained new relevance in the wake of Thursday’s deadly attack on military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a Kuwait-born man from Hixson, Tenn., unleashed a barrage of shots at a recruiting office for all branches of the military on Chattanooga’s Old Lee Highway at around 10:30 A.M. Those inside the office immediately dropped to the floor and took up defensive positions, according to witnesses. The gunman peppered the location with 30 to 50 rounds but never left his car.
The location of the office was a typical suburban strip mall, between an Italian restaurant and a cell phone business. It had no special security arrangements, according to a spokesman for the US Army Recruiting Command.
The gunman then drove off to another location, the Navy Operational Support Center and Marine Corps Reserve Center. Located in an industrial area of the city, this is a fenced-off installation. It has two entrances with unmanned gates and concrete barriers that force entering cars to slow down, according to an Associated Press report.
He then exited his car and resumed firing. Witnesses described a chaotic scene, with bullet sounds popping for 20 minutes or so. Meanwhile, emergency response vehicles rushed to the Center. Authorities said the four Marines killed in the incident all died at the support and reserve installation.
Federal authorities said they did not yet know why the shooter targeted military sites. FBI officials said they were treating the case as one of suspected domestic terrorism. Mr. Abdulazeez was not in federal terror watch databases, though authorities said his father had been investigated in the past on suspicion of giving money to groups with terrorist associations.
Still, the scene was distressing familiar to Americans. Military bases on US soil have long been a target for the distraught, the disaffected, and terrorist sympathizers.
There have been at least eight major attacks on military sites since 2009, according to data compiled by Stars & Stripes. They range from the 2009 attack at Fort Hood by Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, which killed 13 and was labeled terrorism by many, to the 2013 attack by civilian contractor Aaron Alexis at the Washington Navy Yard, where 12 people died.
Officials have moved to tighten security at all US installations in the wake of these attacks. As a recent General Accountability Office report notes, Fort Hood has provided security personnel with body armor and more weapons, as well as training, in an attempt to guard against further active shooter situations. The Navy Yard has upgraded internal communications systems to try and provide first responders with a more accurate picture of security breaches.
In this context, recruitment stations are something of an outlier. By definition, they need to be welcoming and open. The job of a recruiter is literally to be an entry point into the military – though for those interested in serving. Barbed wire, concrete barriers, and other physical manifestations of security would likely interfere with this mission.
“We can’t have barricaded centers. We can’t have places where we recruit young men and women that look like a fortress. We have to have a connection to the American people,” Brian Lepley, a spokesman for US Army Recruiting Command, told the Army Times.
Other officials pointed out that the centers had defensive plans in place, and they worked. The fatalities occurred at the fenced in Support and Reserve Center.
Still, that could have been the result of fortune as much as design, say critics. The gunman did not directly enter the recruiting facility. And there have been fatal attacks on recruiters: In 2009 Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a US citizen and convert to Islam, killed one soldier and wounded another outside an Army recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark. Mr. Muhammad is now serving a sentence of life in prison.
Other incidents stretch back to the Vietnam era. In 1973, Army and Navy recruitment centers in Portland, Ore., were seriously damaged by bomb attacks, later found to be the work of Frank Stearns Giese, a professor and radical sympathizer.
Recruitment isn’t a task for which members of the military are cleared to carry service weapons. That’s governed by executive orders. Military officials aren’t currently looking to change that, according to Army Times.
Some critics say they should be. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California, a retired Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is drawing up legislation aimed at arming recruitment centers.
Representative Hunter’s bill would authorize recruiters to carry weapons, or in lieu of that, give the Pentagon the option of hiring armed outside security for the sites, the lawmaker said in an interview with Politico Morning Defense.
“Until we get our hands wrapped around this, we have to allow the people who represent the United States military to defend themselves, at the least,” Hunter told Politico’s Jeremy Herb.
Army officials say they’ll study the Chattanooga shootings to determine if any defensive upgrades are warranted. The Pentagon will want to figure out exactly what happened and weigh whether arming recruiters would actually have made a difference in this situation, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Pentagon reporters Friday.
“We will conduct an assessment once we get more information on what happened and we’ll see if there’s anything else we need to do in order to better secure our young men and women who are serving,” said General Odierno.