Andy Neal discusses situational awareness and how to stay clear of danger during a vehicle-based terrorist attack.

By its very nature — and indeed by its design —terrorism, in which attackers operate alone or in small cells against largely unprotected targets using simple tactics and available weapons, is difficult to counter.

While a good number of plots have been stopped, security agencies simply cannot catch them all — and inevitably some succeed. Such attackers are often armed with simple weapons such as knives, vehicles and crude bombs.

This strategy has not only given authorities headaches, but it also poses a danger to ordinary people who may become victims of these types attacks. Victims in most of these cases have not been specifically targeted, they just happen to be in a targeted location when an attack is launched. Traditionally, we advise people to exercise good situational awareness in the hope that they can detect terrorist behaviors. This remains excellent advice when the terrorists are planning an attack.

This is because their surveillance is conducted against the targeted area and not on the passers-by who might be present when the attack is executed.

A pedestrian who is going to walk across London Bridge tomorrow simply has no way of seeing the would-be attacker watching the bridge today, unless they have an awareness of behaviors. It’s often the members of the public acting on intuition or gut instinct that can be the key to stopping preparations for an attack.

Situational Awareness

Here are some things you can look out for:

  • Prior to any terrorist attack or major crime, the suspects will usually carry out what is known as ‘hostile reconnaissance’. This is when members of the terrorist cell or criminal gang will check out and possibly test security measures or the structure of the building, etc. This is to help them to plan their attack/crime for maximum effect.
  • Be vigilant for people taking photos or videos of the building and the surroundings.
  • What does their behavior look like in the setting?
  • Is there vision fixed on any one area or subject?
  • Keep an eye out for any items such as bags that look unusually heavy, or any marks on the bags.
  • What is their pace like when walking, fast or slow?

The Right Mind-Set

Developing and maintaining the proper mind-set or plan of action is a critical in an attack. Accepting that simple attacks with vehicles, knives and guns are possible, and being mentally prepared to respond will help counter the threat. With the proper mind-set, people can develop the discipline wherever they go to make mental notes of exits and potential places to seek shelter or items to use as cover if trouble breaks out.

One problem that can delay a person’s reaction to an attack is the difficulty of seeing an active attacker through a crowd. If a crowd is thick enough, it could even be hard to spot a vehicle being used in an assault. Because of this, it is important to pay attention to crowd dynamics — especially since the crowd itself can amplify the effects of an attack. A crowd stampede can cause injuries and even fatalities. In fact, several of the injuries in the September 15th London bombing attempt were caused when people fleeing the scene trampled others. An incident in a crowd tends to create an effect much like a pebble thrown into a pond, with the ripples flowing away from the initial cause and creating a cascading human stampede. Being aware of crowd dynamics applies pretty much any time you find yourself in an area crowed by people.

Sometimes the squeal of tires, or the sound of an explosion, screams or shots fired will give you a pretty clear indication that trouble is brewing. At other times, a clue could be something as subtle as a nudge, a jostle or even a push in a crowd. If you sense a sudden change in a crowd that potentially could develop into a stampede, it is important to keep moving toward the crowd’s edge and the moment that you should move quickly to the exit, shelter or cover you have previously identified.

Even after one attack has begun, there is always the danger that another will follow or that the initial attack was a tactic used to guide groups of people into the kill zone of a secondary assault.

That’s what happened in the 2016 Brussels airport bombing, the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing and in many other soft-target attacks. Because of this, it is important to not just blindly run with the crowd. You should always be moving toward safety and protection while carefully watching for secondary attackers.

Surviving is possible, even in the heart of an incident, by keeping your wits about you and having a plan to respond already in mind. These guidelines apply whether you are dealing with vehicular assaults, edged weapons attacks, active shooter situations or other types of attacks.

Actions on Vehicle-Based Attacks

Vehicular attacks can be deadly, but they are not an ideal method of attack, and with the right precautions, they can be stopped.

The following information has been developed to advise you on some of the tactics I would recommend you use if a situation develops:

Most public spaces have vehicle-based deterrents already installed in the entrances and exits; these will be in the form of large concrete posts and concrete flower tubs as well as street furniture. However, older streets and shopping areas do not have the infrastructure for modern security measures like vehicle mitigation defenses.

Access to older buildings is often only ever by the main entrances located in the same streets as pedestrians.

When entering a location with your family, or yourself, have a look at the vehicle mitigation measures. This could include being in areas with bollards or large plant pots; even statues are designed as vehicle-based stopping points. Ask yourself this question, could you drive a vehicle directly down the road? The answer will probably be “yes.”

If the area you are in is open and has vehicle access consider adopting these tactics:

  • Try and walk against the flow of traffic.
  • Keep close to the building line and not immediately next to the road.
  • Watch for the movement of people and sounds.
  • Run at a right angle away from the vehicle and try to put objects such as buildings, trees, lampposts, fire hydrants and garbage bins between yourself and the attacker.

If you hear shouts and screams, you must immediately react by looking for a place of cover – something that would stop a vehicle from moving through it. Look immediately for concrete structures and robust base furniture that offers you impact protection and cover from sight. A waste paper bin is not a safe area nor will a bench stop a car.

Do Not:

  • Run in straight lines, run at angles – think to yourself how quickly can you clear the front of a vehicle if you run or dive?
  • Do not run with a crowd. People in critical situations act like sheep and all follow each other; this increases your risk extensively. Make a decision and act on it, not what the crowd are doing.
  • Do not sit in a café or restaurant with your back to the road or area. Always sit facing the road, so that you can have maximum vision – remember if you hear anything unusual, do not dismiss it, actively look and establish the risk.
  • Do not wear headphones in public places.
  • Also, consider your footwear. Is it necessary to wear high heels while shopping? If you do wear high heels, consider carrying some flat shoes for your journey.
  • Keep up with local and national media and keep an eye out for indicators from the security services about the likelihood of attacks.
  • Look for the presence of extra security such as heavily armed police. This is a reassurance measure, but should also indicate to you that you should plan a suitable seating area and look for roadside furniture that offers you protection.
  • Formulate a plan in your head – “If this happens I’m going in that direction to that location.”
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