on security

Prevent, Deny, Defend: A Strategy for Dealing With Mass Public Attacks

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
7 MINS READMay 15, 2018 | 10:00 GMT
In this photograph, French police inspect the scene after a man armed with a knife was shot dead after he killed on person and injured several others in Paris on May, 12, 2018.

Forensic officers and a French policemen inspect the area in Monsigny street in Paris after one person was killed and several injured by a man armed with a knife, who was shot dead by police, in Paris on May 12, 2018. The attack took place near the city's main opera house.

  • Mass public attacks remain a fact of life in the modern world. 
  • While such attacks are not common, they have a big impact on the victims, and on those responsible for site security.
  • The emphasis is on the prevention of attacks because action is always preferable to reaction. But it is also important to be able to deny attackers access to victims and, if that move fails, to be able to defend them. 

Much of the time in this column, I write from the point of view of the individual victim and discuss ways that people can protect themselves and their families from attackers. But this week I want to flip the script a bit and focus on the steps that security managers, business owners and officials at schools and places of worship can take to help safeguard their facilities and the people inside them.

To respond to active shooters, the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Program at Texas State University in San Marcos has developed the concept of "avoid, deny, defend." I prefer this terminology over the widely cited "run, hide, fight," because avoid and deny better describe the proper behavior in such a situation. But if we make "avoid, deny, defend" into "prevent, deny, defend," we create an excellent framework for thinking about how to create security programs to protect public spaces.

The Big Picture

Though soft targets will remain vulnerable to mass public attacks by those using simple means, security managers must take steps to protect these sites. Stratfor suggests using the "prevent, deny, defend" framework to design these security programs.

Prevent, Not Just Avoid

For my purposes, the term "avoid" doesn't work because it is reactive, not active. It is always better to take action to prevent an attack than to react to one in progress. Once the bomb detonates or the bullets start flying, it is far harder to mitigate the impact of an attack. At the heart of prevention lies detection and interruption of the attack planning cycle. All attackers — no matter their motive, target or weapon — must progress through this cycle.

While moving through it, attackers are most vulnerable to detection when they are conducting surveillance of their target. This monitoring occurs during the target selection, planning and even deployment phases of the attack cycle, so those responsible for protecting public spaces should certainly be watching for it.

A chart shows the terrorist attack cycle

Other proactive measures include identifying, investigating and analyzing threats against a public venue or the people there. We frequently learn after an attack that threats had been made and that they were ignored or somehow assessed incorrectly, then discounted. Because of this, I strongly support a protective intelligence approach to security that includes recognizing and evaluating threats.

To spot signs of hostile surveillance and to otherwise see these attacks as they develop, government and law enforcement agencies and businesses need to dedicate assets to watch for emerging threats. Nearly all attacks in workplaces, schools, restaurants, houses of worship and public sites begin off the premises. Two recent examples include the April 2018 shooting at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, and the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. Even when an insider has knowledge of a facility that is used to conduct an attack, the threat almost always emerges from the outside. For example, in June 2017, a disgruntled doctor made an armed assault on the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital in New York, and in February 2018, a former student attacked the students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Seeing an emerging threat and quickly recognizing that an attack is imminent are important early warning signs to launch countermeasures to limit access to the facility. This brings us to the second element of our framework for protecting public spaces — blocking access to victims.

Access Denied

A day after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a teenager with a gun in his hand was caught on closed-circuit video trying to enter the Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia. When he found the door locked, he quickly stuck the gun in his jacket pocket and left. He had been denied access to his intended victims.

Locked doors have proved effective in heading off or limiting attacks. In the YouTube shooting, the attacker was able to get into a courtyard through an unlocked gate from the parking garage, and that is where she began to shoot at employees, but she was unable to get into the offices nearby, limiting the number of potential casualties. But locked interior doors are also an important protective measure. Our research shows that aside from the November 2008 terrorist assault in Mumbai, India, few attackers take the time and effort to breach locked doors; they simply continue searching for victims behind unlocked doors.

Denying access to attackers can also be accomplished with armed security. In May 2015, armed police officers guarding an exhibit in Garland, Texas, that featured cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed prevented an attack by pair of armed grassroots jihadists. But armed security is no guarantee of safety. In the June 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Omar Mateen traded gunfire with an armed off-duty police officer as he launched his assault. The shots fired outside the club provided some warning of danger, but there was no plan to secure the exterior door or to get patrons out other exits. Once Mateen shot his way into the building, he killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in the packed bar.

An illustration shows possible countermeasures to vehicular assault

In recent years, the use of cars and trucks as weapons in attacks on public spaces has grown. Such attacks have proved to be deadly in France, Germany, Spain, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, among others. Authorities can deny attackers access to victims by blocking vehicular access to pedestrian walkways using obvious barriers or tasteful landscaping, architectural features or even substantial pieces of public art. In the wake of the October 2017 truck assault in New York City and the April 2018 van attack in Toronto, Canada, some U.S. police departments are reassessing their policies against firing at moving vehicles. Disabling the driver can cut the attack short and save lives.

Don't Give up Without a Fight

While it is better to prevent an attack or deny an attacker access, sometimes the third leg of the framework — to defend — comes into play. Some states have authorized teachers to carry guns, some businesses have authorized trusted employees to carry firearms, and some have chosen to employ armed private security officers or off-duty police officers. Many houses of worship of various faiths also have security teams.

While armed security can make the difference, a good defense may require going on the offensive. In August 2015, a number of passengers, including three American tourists, disarmed an assailant aboard a French train, and in April 2018 a patron took a rifle away from a gunman in an attack on a Waffle House restaurant in Antioch, Tennessee. In June 2017, patrons at a pub in London forced an attacker armed with a knife to leave after pelting him with pint glasses, beer bottles and barstools, and in February 2016, a jihadist with a machete attacked customers at a Mediterranean restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. An employee wielding a baseball bat and a patron throwing chairs chased him away.

Even in an environment where leaders have decided armed security is not desirable, the concept of "defend" must be incorporated into security planning and the staff should be drilled on it. Though employees might not be permitted to carry personal firearms, numerous improvised weapons can be used if it is impossible to flee or deny the attacker access. These include high-pressure fire hoses, pots of hot coffee or water, and all types of projectiles lying about the office. Fighting is preferable to passively allowing oneself, colleagues and customers to be slaughtered.

However, if an attack has reached the point where defense is the only viable option, something has gone horribly wrong. While defense tends to dominate political debates surrounding mass public attacks, security professionals know that it is far better to prevent an attack before human lives are on the line. By putting more effort into prevention and denial, defense should have to be used only rarely.

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