It’s rare, if not unprecedented, for a U.S. retailer like Target Corp. to be the focus of a potentially violent plot like the one revealed by the U.S. Department of Justice last week, and while stores should be on guard, experts said more threats like this are not imminent.
Although retail security and domestic terror experts were disturbed by the recently foiled plans of Mark Burnett to plant explosives in 10 Target locations in New York, Virginia and Florida, with the aim of forcing a drop in the company’s stock price so he could buy up cheap shares, the perceived rarity of the conspiracy left them unconcerned about a nascent trend.
Richard C. Hollinger, a sociology and criminology professor with the University of Florida, Gainesville, who specializes in retail crime, said this is the first time he’s ever heard a stock drop as motivation for a crime against a retailer and that he simply views Burnett’s plan “as an isolated and rare event.”
Seth Jones, director of international security and defense policy at Rand Corp., echoed that sentiment, but admitted attacks of this nature, whether or not they are carried out, are generally against restaurants and other, more public and populated locales like airports and hotels, including in instances of domestic terrorism.
“Retail is generally not a target and it doesn’t come up a lot in intelligence reporting,” Jones added. “There may be some modest exceptions…[but] the vast majority of attacks, hands down, are going to target infrastructure and transportation.”
As for whether Burnett’s plan could be considered an act of domestic terrorism, Jones said that unless a political motivation is uncovered by the DOJ, the case will maintain its current criminal charge of possession of a destructive device affecting commerce.
“It could be religion or ideology from those in the right or left wing, but [terrorism] has to be politically motivated under most standard definitions,” he added.
Burnett, a register sex offender who was on probation for other felony offenses before being arrested last week, disguised 10 explosive devices in food packaging like stuffing mix and breakfast bars and handed them off to an unnamed source, who had agreed to plant the explosives for $10,000.
As of now, Burnett’s only known goal was to make money off the stock market, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, which revealed the arrest, but that’s not comforting to everyone.
Bob Moraca, vice president of loss prevention with the National Retail Federation, compared Burnett’s conspiracy to the “Chicago Tylenol murders” of 1982, which saw a string of people die after taking potassium cyanide-laced Tylenol and led a suspect to try and extort Johnson & Johnson to the tune of $1 million.
“This is the same type of case because you have a demented individual willing to kill innocent humans for a financial reward,” Moraca said. “Usually people have some kind of ideology, but this is for pure greed and profit. It’s bizarre.”
He added that the retail industry knows it’s considered a “soft target” for a plan like Burnett’s, which would have seen the DOJ’s unidentified source walk into Target stores and simply place an explosive on a shelf, but said retailers defend themselves best when they work with law enforcement and their patrons.
“See something, say something is so important.”
While Burnett’s plot was only interrupted because his intended accomplice went to the authorities, something that can’t be expected to happen, Moraca characterized Burnett’s plot as “such a one-off” and said “sometimes a little bit of luck goes a long way.”
Nevertheless, Moraca expects to be analyzing and discussing the incident with NRF colleagues and retailers to see “what we can do better.
“It can happen to anyone, but no retailer wants to be the one it happens to.”