How to Counter Armed Assaults

MIN READDec 3, 2015 | 08:00 GMT

Governments and ordinary citizens can take certain steps to protect themselves during terrorist attacks.

In the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris and the Nov. 20 attack against the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, I have been fielding a lot of press queries about countering the armed assault tactics used in both attacks. Since there seems to be so much interest in the topic, it seemed worthwhile to discuss both government and personal responses to armed assaults in this week's Security Weekly.

A Long History

First, it is important to realize that armed assaults employing small arms and grenades have long been a staple of modern terrorism. Such assaults have been employed in many famous terrorist attacks conducted by a wide array of groups, such as the Black September operation against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; the December 1975 seizure of OPEC headquarters in Vienna, Austria, led by Carlos the Jackal; the December 1985 simultaneous attacks against the airports in Rome and Vienna by the Abu Nidal Organization; and even the December 2001 attack against the Indian parliament building in New Delhi led by Kashmiri militants.

In a particularly brutal assault, Chechen militants stormed a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in September 2004, taking more than 1,000 hostages and booby-trapping the school with mines and improvised explosive devices. The attack, standoff and eventual storming of the school by Russian authorities after a three-day siege resulted in the deaths of more than 320 people, half of them children.

More recently, we saw armed assaults used in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks; the October 2014 attack against the Canadian National War Memorial and Parliament in Ottawa, Canada; the January 2015 Paris attacks against Charlie Hebdo and a kosher deli; and the July 2015 attack against an armed forces recruitment center and a Navy reserve center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In some instances, such as the December 1996 seizure of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru, by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the objective of the armed assault is to take and intentionally hold hostages for a long period. In other instances, such as the May 1972 assault on Lod Airport by members of the Japanese Red Army, the armed assault is a suicide attack designed to kill as many victims as possible before the assailants themselves are killed or incapacitated.

Many recent jihadist attacks have been the latter, and as such they more closely resemble domestic active shooter situations than a barricade or traditional hostage situation. Because of this, they must be responded to differently.

Dealing With Armed Assaults

The long history of armed assaults in modern terrorism has compelled many countries to develop specialized and highly trained forces to combat heavily armed terrorists. For example, it was the failed rescue attempt of the Israeli athletes in Munich that motivated the German government to create the elite Grenzschutzgruppe 9 (GSG 9), which would become one of the best counterterrorism forces in the world. The activities of the Provisional Irish Republican Army likewise helped shape the British Special Air Service into its role as an elite counterterrorism force. Beyond national-level assets, the threat of heavily armed criminals and terrorists has also contributed to the development and widespread adoption of highly trained police, SWAT and counterassault teams by many cities, states and other subnational governments across the globe.

In traditional barricade or hostage situations, the most common tactical response is for the first officers responding to the scene to establish a perimeter to contain the incident. They then wait for hostage negotiators and SWAT or other hostage rescue teams to arrive to handle the crisis. This response is effective for a prolonged hostage situation. However, in the second type of armed assault, it permits the attackers free rein to find and kill many more victims inside the established perimeter. Many times, the attackers are also suicidal and are not planning on surviving the incident.

In the United States, the April 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, was a watershed event that changed the way authorities responded to the second type of armed assault. In the aftermath of Columbine, officials learned that while the police established the perimeter and waited, the two attackers continued to kill students inside the school. Clearly while a shooter was actively killing people, the police could not just sit back and wait for specialty forces to respond to the scene. Moreover, since it often takes time for the specialized units to mobilize and respond, such a delay can prove deadly.

Consequently, so-called active shooter protocols, which called for first responding officers to quickly form a team and then engage and neutralize the shooter as quickly as possible to save lives, were developed and adopted. Active shooter protocols have required police officers to undergo additional training and many police departments are now issuing officers rifles or shotguns so that they do not have to face an active shooter situation with a firepower disadvantage.

Stratfor has long said that ordinary police on patrol are an often overlooked but critical facet of national counterterrorism defenses. While spotting unusual behavior and conducting traffic stops are important, nowhere is the role of regular police officers more important than in responding to active shooter situations. Not only are street cops the most likely force to make first contact with attackers, but in many cases they are also the primary force called upon to stop them.

Officers employing active shooter protocols stopped attackers in the Chattanooga shootings, and in the October 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. In the Ottawa attack as well as the May 2015 attack against a provocative event in Garland, Texas, security personnel protecting the facility stopped the assailants. The police in Colorado Springs, Colorado, also employed active shooter protocol in the Nov. 27 shooting incident at a Planned Parenthood office. While one police officer was killed and four others were wounded, their rapid response undoubtedly saved lives. 

Active shooter protocols rapidly spread to other First World countries through training literature and conferences. However, as evidenced by the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the September 2013 attack against the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in which security forces did not take active shooter counter actions and attackers were permitted to continue killing, it has taken a bit longer to get to security forces elsewhere. That said, the Malian and French special operations forces' actions during the Bamako attack and the Afghan government's response to several armed assaults in Kabul highlight that the concept is being spread to other governments through training programs such as the U.S. State Department's Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program and its Department of Defense equivalent, as well as through training provided by European and Australian forces.

In the United States, armed off-duty cops and civilians can also make a difference in countering armed assaults. In February 2007, for example, a heavily armed gunman who had killed five people in the Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City, Utah, was confronted by an off-duty police officer, who cornered the shooter and kept him pinned down until other officers could arrive and kill the shooter. The off-duty officer's actions plainly saved many lives that evening.

Individual Responses

But it is not just the authorities that need to respond to armed assaults. Ordinary citizens also need to learn to quickly respond to danger. Properly responding to danger actually begins well before the first shot is fired when people adopt a mindset that recognizes the world is a dangerous place and that they are ultimately responsible for their own safety.

Once a person understands the possibility of being targeted and decides to adopt an appropriate level of situational awareness, he or she will be mentally prepared to quickly realize that an attack is happening, something security professionals refer to as attack recognition.

The earlier a person recognizes that an attack is developing, the better chance he has to avoid it. But even once the attack has begun, a person can still keep it from being a successful one by quickly recognizing what is happening and getting away from the attack site by running or hiding — or fighting back if they cannot run or hide.

However, once a person has recognized that an attack is taking place, a critical step must be taken before he can decide to run, hide or fight: He must determine where the gunfire or threat is coming from. Without doing so, the victim could run blindly from a position of relative safety into danger. I certainly encourage anyone under attack to leave the attack site and run away from the danger, but one must first ascertain if he is in the attack site before taking action. Many times, the source of the threat will be evident and will not take much time to locate. But sometimes, depending on the location — whether in a building or on the street — the sounds of gunfire can echo, and it may take a few seconds to determine the direction it is coming from. In such a scenario, it is prudent to quickly take cover until the direction of the threat can be located. In some instances, there may even be more than one gunman, which can complicate escape plans.

Fortunately, most active shooters are not well trained. They tend to be poor marksmen who lack experience with their weapons. During the July 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, James Holmes managed to kill only 12 people — despite achieving almost total tactical surprise in a fully packed movie theater — because of a combination of poor marksmanship and his inability to clear a jam in his rifle.

This typical lack of marksmanship implies that most people killed in active shooter situations are shot at close range. Thus, it behooves potential victims to move quickly to put as much distance between themselves and the threat. Even the act of moving, especially if moving away at an angle, makes one a much harder target for a poorly trained marksman to hit.

It is also important to think about and distinguish between concealment and cover. Items that conceal, such as a bush, can hide you from the shooter's line of vision but will not protect you from bullets the way a substantial tree trunk will. Likewise, in an office setting, a typical drywall construction interior wall can provide concealment but not cover, meaning a shooter will still be able to fire through the walls and door. Still, if the shooter cannot see his or her target, they will be firing blindly rather than aiming their weapon, reducing the probability of hitting a target.

In any case, those hiding inside a room should attempt to find some sort of additional cover, such as a filing cabinet or heavy desk. It is always better to find cover than concealment, but even partial cover — something that will only deflect or fragment the projectiles — is preferable to no cover at all.

There are many examples from the recent Paris and Bamako armed assaults of people who ran away from the scene of the attacks and survived. In the Bamako attack there were also many people who barricaded themselves inside their hotel rooms and hid until the authorities could rescue them. The August 2015 incident aboard a Paris-bound train provided a good example of potential victims who were trapped aboard a train car and fought back to end an armed assault.

Some people have mocked the simplicity of run, hide, fight. But as these cases demonstrate, all three elements of this mantra can and do save lives.

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