Boulder suspect showed warning signs common in mass shooters, experts say

"When someone makes a threat, it should be taken very seriously"


By Shelly Bradbury
The Denver Post

BOULDER, Colo. — Four years before authorities believe Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa killed 10 people inside a Boulder grocery store, he attacked a high school classmate in a fit of rage.

Alissa, then 18, had a "look of pure anger" on his face when he rushed a classmate at Arvada West High School in 2017 and punched the teen over and over again, his teacher told police at the time, according to an investigative report.

Mourners walk the temporary fence line outside the parking lot of a King Soopers grocery store, the site of a mass shooting in which 10 people died, Friday, March 26, 2021, in Boulder, Colo.
Mourners walk the temporary fence line outside the parking lot of a King Soopers grocery store, the site of a mass shooting in which 10 people died, Friday, March 26, 2021, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The unprovoked attack was one of a few outbursts of anger from Alissa during high school that, when coupled with signs of mental illness and a threat Alissa made to kill people, follow a pattern often seen among perpetrators of mass shootings, three experts said.

"There is often a lifetime of concerning behavior," said Jason Silva, an assistant professor at William Paterson University who specializes in mass shootings. "...We are finding a lot of times there is about a 10-year period where (mass shooters) are having these school problems and work problems, and it's sort of a culmination of events that ultimately builds toward engaging in these attacks."

That years-long buildup presents an opportunity for authorities and family members to intervene and prevent an attack, he said, and there are some key warning signs — some of which Alissa exhibited — that should raise alarm and prompt action.

"When people hear, 'If you see something, say something,' they think about it as, if you see something in a dark alley, or if you are driving by and out your car window you see someone doing something with a gun, then report it. When the reality is far less dramatic than that — it's if you see something in your living room," said Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology at the University of Alabama.

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While many mass shooters exhibit similar characteristics, like participating in anti-social behavior, getting into trouble at work or at school, living with mental illness or struggling to maintain romantic relationships, none of those factors predict who will ultimately turn to violence, the experts said.

Most people who deal with such issues never commit mass violence, and even people who do perpetrate mass violence often take years to arrive at that point.

But, the experts said, observers can prevent some attacks by listening for threats, watching for a gun purchase and monitoring for other concrete escalations toward violence.

Taking threats seriously

Almost half of mass shooters in the United States between 1966 and 2017 made threats before they carried out their attacks, according to a 2019 study published by the Rockefeller Institute of Government's Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium that examined 318 mass shootings.

About 40% of suspects made threats beforehand, and of those, about half went on to do exactly what they'd threatened.

"When someone makes a threat, it should be taken very seriously," said Joel Capellan, an assistant professor at Rowan University and author on that study.

Specific threats, like statements that identify the target or day for the attack, give more cause for concern than vague ones, he said.

Alissa made at least one threat to kill people during high school, his wrestling teammate told The Denver Post following the Boulder shooting. He remembered Alissa, who was upset about a match during his senior year, shouting that he would "kill everybody" in the wrestling room.

The teammate said "nobody did anything about it" and it does not appear the threat was reported to the school or Arvada police.

That's not unusual, Capellan said. Many threats go unreported, particularly when they are made to family and friends, who may not take it seriously or may believe their loved one is not capable of committing mass murder. Family and friends also may fear that reporting the threat could make the situation worse for their loved one, or that their friend or family member might see such a report as a betrayal.

But Capellan's research shows that 40% of threats are made to the suspect's family and friends, making them a key line of defense to identifying potential mass shooters.

"Maybe a threat in and of itself, once, is not a big deal, but if someone has a pattern of making certain kinds of threats, then that becomes really problematic," Capellan said.

When threats are reported, there's no centralized system to track and assess threats for such patterns of alarming behavior, Capellan said. Police departments often don't share information across jurisdictions, and schools or workplaces may only track concerns until the person graduates or takes another job.

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Capellan believes the state should create a centralized system in which information on threats can be entered by a wide variety of organizations, including schools and businesses, and then be analyzed by experts to determine the level of risk and whether a public health intervention is warranted.

"Not to criminalize the person," he said, "but to identify patterns of behavior."

Another approach would be to change the state's 1-year-old extreme risk protection order law so that a broader swath of people can request protection orders, Lankford said.

Under the current red flag law, family members or law enforcement can request that a person's guns be taken from them if they pose an immediate safety threat to themselves or others. The request is granted or denied by a judge, who considers the evidence in a series of hearings.

The process, which is not criminal, allows guns to be removed even if no crime has been committed — a situation in which law enforcement previously could take little or no action.

Lankford argued that anyone should be able to make such a request, not just friends and family of the subject, who are less likely to report a shooter's threats than acquaintances or strangers. School officials and employers also need an avenue to proactively take action outside of their own systems, he said.

The gun purchase

Colorado's red flag law can also prevent a person from purchasing a gun — which is often one of the last steps a mass shooter takes before carrying out the attack.

"Often these individuals are deciding they want to kill before they acquire the firearm," Lankford said. "If they're going to a gun store, they're standing in the store and they've already decided, 'Once you hand me that firearm I am going to use it to kill a large number of people.'"

Alissa bought the weapon police say he used in Boulder just six days before the shooting. Family members saw him with a gun about two days before the killings, according to a Boulder police affidavit, and temporarily took the weapon from him, concerned that he had it inside the family home.

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Alissa's brother told the Daily Beast he knew his brother to be paranoid and dealing with mental illness, and that moment — when family members saw he'd purchased a weapon that looked like a machine gun — was perhaps the clearest opportunity for intervention, experts said, although it's not known whether Alissa's family had any idea of his intentions.

"They had a culmination of these warning signs over time, but a lot of these issues happen throughout many people's lives," Silva said. "...It's in congruence with the leakage of violent intent that oftentimes will be the best strategy for intervening. If you're acting out at work, well, a lot of people act out at work. But if you suggest violent intent, the combination of the two is one of the most useful strategies for considering intervention."

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