Focus on Crisis Management

Knowing the Adversary

By Vincent A. Dalfonzo

A stock image of a man looking at a laptop.

In crisis management, law enforcement leaders must understand current events, evaluate the world’s shifting environments, and determine how these changes affect their organization’s effectiveness. This can be a constant challenge. Once they make assessments, leaders should devise appropriate strategies in response.

However, many times leaders focus on their goals and not on the position of their adversary, whom they likely dismiss as unstable or purely evil. This myopic approach makes leaders vulnerable to mistakes and can lead to unproductive results.      

Adversaries want to be understood, and they will take great measures — sometimes even risky ones — to express their positions and desires to other people. They do this hoping that others will understand their actions, thoughts, and feelings. Many of their ideas or viewpoints may be distasteful, threatening, and filled with vile language.

But, when facing such an adversary, leaders must clearly understand their position and develop and implement an effective course of action.

Recognizing the Opportunity

Law enforcement leaders must develop a “leadership curiosity” and attempt to learn about an adversary’s motivation. The ability to understand a subject gives leaders unique insights and the chance to develop an appropriate countermeasure or strategy and apply it to an incident. In many events, especially mass shootings, terrorist acts, or other horrific crimes, subjects memorialize their position so they can be understood and possibly inspire others.

For example, after detonating a bomb at the Boston Marathon, killing a police officer, and eluding authorities during a wide manhunt, the surviving subject hid in a boat in Watertown, Massachusetts. While hiding from law enforcement, he wrote a detailed note on the vessel’s inside panel. In it, he justified the bombing and subsequent murder of an officer as retribution for actions taken by the U.S. government.1

In August 2019, shortly before the mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, which killed 23 people, the alleged subject posted a typed, three-page manifesto that detailed his rationale for the shootings.2

“The digital magazine that inspired the Boston Marathon bombers and a growing army of lone wolf terrorists around the world” is Inspire magazine — published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This publication featured a detailed article that outlines methods and strategies to successfully carry out a kidnapping for financial gain and as a public terrorist act.3

Gaining an Understanding

It is not enough for crisis management staff to read, cite, and summarize the writings for their leaders. Such leaders need to prepare themselves by thoroughly reading — in their entirety — the materials and attempt to understand the subject’s perspective. Although perhaps an unpleasant, laborious task, this must occur before an incident has transpired.

By doing so, when confronted with a subject who may reference past manifestos or other literature in their writings, law enforcement leaders will have a baseline understanding of the individual’s views. It is important to seek out the entire writing from a variety of incidents or from extremist groups’ websites.

Being familiar with themes and literature commonly cited by adversaries, such as racist novel The Turner Diaries, the white nationalist Replacement Theory, or Inspire magazine, will enhance the leader’s ability to comprehend the subject’s position.4 Indeed, a policy brief written for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism looks at many common themes of right-wing extremists and argues that law enforcement needs to study these writings more closely.5  

Reading the subject’s message and cited references will provide insights into some of their fundamental motivations and may shed light on the amount of planning they have done. For example, the Boston Marathon bomber did not anticipate hiding in a boat, and he used the time to rationalize his actions. His writing was a spontaneous, unplanned act and revealed the subject’s lack of direction.

“Reading the subject’s message and cited references will provide insights into some of their fundamental motivations and may shed light on the amount of planning they have done.”

In contrast, the alleged El Paso shooter thoroughly prepared for the event by writing a three-page paper and posting it on the Internet just minutes before the shooting. He attempted to justify engaging in a mass shooting and referenced other writings and events that inspired him to act. This was clearly a planned event.6 

How the subject chooses to present the writing may also provide insights into their motivations. In the Boston Marathon bomber’s case, circumstances dictated how he presented his position — he found a pencil and scrawled his justification on the side of a boat panel. Whereas, in the November 2022 Walmart mass shooting in Chesapeake, Virginia, in which six employees were killed, the subject used his cell phone to write what he described as a “death note.” In the note, he described how he was tormented and driven to the point of committing homicide and stated the act was unplanned. The subject also used two emojis to reinforce his emotions and revealed the final act was a suicide.7                 


Leaders must go beyond reviewing someone else’s perspective of the subject’s writing or statements. They need to invest the time in reading the literature themselves. Those leaders who apply leadership curiosity and seek out these writings can learn from them, develop an understanding of the type of incident they are facing, and prepare an appropriate course of action.

Mr. Dalfonzo, a retired FBI supervisory special agent, currently serves as an FBI National Academy instructor with the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He can be reached at


1 For additional information, see Aaron Katersky and Michele McPhee, “What Boston Marathon Bombing Suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Wrote in Blood-Stained Boat,” ABC News, March 10, 2015,,misguide%20A%20(hole)%20bar!.
2 For additional information, see Tim Arango, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, and Katie Benner, “Minutes Before El Paso Killing, Hate-Filled Manifesto Appears Online,” New York Times, August 3, 2019,
3 James Bamford, “Inspire Magazine: The Most Dangerous Download on Earth,” GQ, December 9, 2013,; and “Al Qaeda Guide to Kidnapping,” New York Times, July 29, 2014,
4 For additional information, see Nancy Egan, “The Turner Diaries,” Brittanica, accessed September 25, 2023,; and Brian Duignan, “replacement theory,” Brittanica, accessed September 25, 2023,
5 Jacob Ware, “Testament to Murder: The Violent Far-Right’s Increasing Use of Terrorist Manifestos,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, March 17, 2020,
6 Arango, Bogel-Burroughs, and Benner.
7 For additional information, see Kassidy Hammond, “‘I Was Led by the Satan’: Chesapeake Walmart Mass Shooting Suspect’s ‘Death Note’ Manifesto Revealed,” ABC 8 News, November 25, 2022,