Simple attacks by grassroots jihadists have become a fact of life in the West. Indeed, we saw three such incidents on Sept. 15: the bombing attempt against a subway train in London, a knife attack against a French soldier at a Paris subway station and a hammer attack against two women in Chalon-sur-Saone, France. These incidents are among the latest in a long string of incidents across the globe that featured attackers armed with simple weapons such as knives, vehicles and crude bombs.
Our tactical analysis team has provided advice to our Threat Lens clients to help executive protection teams adjust to this new reality, but in light of recent events, I think it would be useful to provide some guidance to help people protect themselves from such attacks.
Terrorist Guidance: Keep It Simple, Stupid
Since 2009, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has urged jihadists living in the West to conduct simple attacks near where they live using readily available weapons. This guidance was first furnished in its Arabic-language Sada al-Malahim magazine, but after some initial successes in the United States in 2009 in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Fort Hood, Texas, the group began heavily promoting this model of terrorism via the English-language magazine Inspire, which was launched in July 2010. The al Qaeda core group also embraced this concept in 2010.
While al Qaeda's entreaties inspired a few attacks, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the phenomenon really began to gain momentum after the Islamic State's battlefield successes in Syria and Iraq in 2014 generated excitement that helped the grassroots jihadist movement grow. That surge in interest initially inspired a record number of foreign fighters to travel to the Islamic State's core territory, but after the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State began, then-Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani appealed to grassroots jihadists in September 2014 to attack targets in the West. While al-Adnani essentially just echoed the prior messages of al Qaeda figures, the result was a campaign of simple attacks that has far surpassed those inspired by al Qaeda in terms of scope and numbers.
As the Islamic State has lost territory in its core areas, its messaging to grassroots jihadists has shifted from "come and join the caliphate" to "stay home and conduct simple attacks." With both poles of the jihadist movement calling for more of these types attacks, it is not difficult for us to forecast that the phenomenon will continue and even expand.
The Challenge for Individuals
By its very nature — and indeed by its design — the leaderless resistance form of 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 grassroots plots have been thwarted, security agencies simply cannot catch them all — and inevitably some succeed.
This strategy has not only given authorities headaches, but it also poses a danger to ordinary people who may become incidental victims of these types attacks. Victims in most of these cases had not been specifically targeted — they just happened to be in a targeted location when an attack was launched. Traditionally, we advise people to exercise good situational awareness in hopes that they can detect terrorist surveillance, and this remains excellent advice when they are in a terrorist's crosshairs. But in a case where they become targets only by happenstance by being at wrong place at the wrong time, it is more difficult for them to pick up on the preoperational surveillance and other preparations that makes terrorist operatives vulnerable during the terrorist attack cycle. This is because their surveillance is conducted against the targeted area and not on the passersby 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.
This disconnect allows attackers to seemingly "appear out of nowhere," as some victims have described, and start their attack without warning. However, there is no reason to fatalistically accept this concept at face value. There are things you do to help increase your chances of avoiding or surviving a grassroots attack.
Situational Awareness and Other Solutions
While it is normally not possible for the random victims of a simple attack to see most preoperational surveillance as is it being conducted, it's possible that activity in the moments leading up to an attack will give away the fact that one is imminent. As terrorists move into position to conduct an attack, they are vulnerable to detection. A potential assailant might display abnormal demeanor as he prepares to begin a stabbing rampage, or a driver might position a vehicle in an unusual way as a vehicular assault is nigh. Noticing and recognizing these details can allow a potential victim to quickly get out of range — and hopefully alert the authorities.
In addition to spotting such pre-attack indicators, another key to avoiding or surviving a simple attack is recognition that it is underway — the quicker, the better, as far as the chances of escape are concerned. As I've written elsewhere, the deadliest enemy of situational awareness is denial, a mindset that can also undermine attack recognition. I have interviewed many crime victims who had the chance to avoid a problem but didn't because they could not believe what they saw unfolding and failed to react.
Developing and maintaining the proper mindset is a critical component in attack recognition. Accepting that simple attacks with vehicles, knives and guns are possible, and being mentally prepared to respond will help counter the tendency of denial. With the proper mindset, 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 Sept. 15 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 a throng of 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 not to allow yourself to be overcome by the wave of humanity. This is 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 herd victims 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 a grassroots jihadist attack 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 guidlines apply whether you are dealing with vehicular assaults, edged weapons attacks, active shooter situations or other types of attacks.