It’s called “splash-and-grab,” and it’s a new way to rob convenience stores. Two guys walk into a store, and one comes up to the counter with a cup of hot coffee or cocoa. He pays for it, and when the clerk opens the cash drawer, he throws the coffee in the clerk’s face. The other one grabs the cash drawer, and they both run.
Crimes never change, but tactics do. This tactic is new; someone just invented it. But now that it’s in the news, copycats are repeating the trick. There have been at least 19 such robberies in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. (Some arrests have been made since then.)
Here’s another example: On Nov. 24, 1971, someone with the alias Dan Cooper invented a new way to hijack an aircraft. Claiming he had a bomb, he forced a plane to land and then exchanged the passengers and flight attendants for $200,000 and four parachutes. (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to explain why asking for more than one parachute is critical to the plan’s success.) Taking off again, he told the pilots to fly to 10,000 feet. He then lowered the plane’s back stairs and parachuted away. He was never caught, and the FBI still doesn’t know who he is or whether he survived.
After this story hit the press, there was an epidemic of copycat attacks. In 31 hijackings the following year, half of the hijackers demanded parachutes. It got so bad that the FAA required Boeing to install a special latch — the Cooper Vane — on the back staircases of its 727s so they couldn’t be lowered in the air.
The internet is filled with copycats. Green-card lawyers invented spam; now everyone does it. Other people invented phishing, pharming, spear phishing. The virus, the worm, the Trojan: It’s hard to believe that these ubiquitous internet attack tactics were, until comparatively recently, tactics that no one had thought of.
Most attackers are copycats. They aren’t clever enough to invent a new way to rob a convenience store, use the web to steal money, or hijack an airplane. They try the same attacks again and again, or read about a new attack in the newspaper and decide they can try it, too.
In combating threats, it makes sense to focus on copycats when there is a population of people already willing to commit the crime, who will migrate to a new tactic once it has been demonstrated to be successful. In instances where there aren’t many attacks or attackers, and they’re smarter — al-Qaida-style terrorism comes to mind — focusing on copycats is less effective because the bad guys will respond by modifying their attacks accordingly.
Compare that to suicide bombings in Israel, which are mostly copycat attacks. The authorities basically know what a suicide bombing looks like, and do a pretty good job defending against the particular tactics they tend to see again and again. It’s still an arms race, but there is a lot of security gained by defending against copycats.
But even so, it’s important to understand which aspect of the crime will be adopted by copycats. Splash-and-grab crimes have nothing to do with convenience stores; copycats can target any store where hot coffee is easily available and there is only one clerk on duty. And the tactic doesn’t necessarily need coffee; one copycat used bleach. The new idea is to throw something painful and damaging in a clerk’s face, grab the valuables and run.
Similarly, when a suicide bomber blows up a restaurant in Israel, the authorities don’t automatically assume the copycats will attack other restaurants. They focus on the particulars of the bomb, the triggering mechanism and the way the bomber arrived at his target. Those are the tactics that copycats will repeat. The next target may be a theater or a hotel or any other crowded location.
The lesson for counterterrorism in America: Stay flexible. We’re not threatened by a bunch of copycats, so we’re best off expending effort on security measures that will work regardless of the tactics or the targets: intelligence, investigation and emergency response. By focusing too much on specifics — what the terrorists did last time — we’re wasting valuable resources that could be used to keep us safer.
This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.