In our recent series on the terrorist attack cycle, we noted that terrorist and criminal operatives planning an attack are most vulnerable while conducting pre-operational
surveillance. Once the operation progresses to the attack phase
, it generally is too late to stop it. Terrorists will have seen the target's security measures during their surveillance and will have factored them into their operational planning. If they are unable to develop a tactic to counter the target's protective security measures — or deploy enough firepower to overwhelm the measures — they simply will choose an easier target. By the attack phase, the attackers have identified the time and place in which their intended target is most vulnerable, and have gathered the personnel and weapons required for the strike. In other words, they now have the luxury of choosing the precise time, place and method of attack — giving them the element of tactical surprise. They also will have prepared overwhelming firepower, such as a large improvised explosive device (IED), if the operation calls for it. With such advantages, only a few factors can prevent a successful attack. The first is simple human error, often due to inexperience. On Dec. 22, 2001, Richard Reid was able to achieve tactical surprise by sneaking a shoe filled with explosives onto American Airlines flight 63. Between Paris and Miami Reid attempted to light his shoe with a match, but an alert flight attendant intervened in time. Reid's inexperience in quickly and properly lighting a piece of safety fuse — and his failure to carry out his task in a locked restroom — saved the flight. Equipment malfunction also can work against the terrorists. On Jan. 19, 2001, two Iraqi intelligence officers prepared to place an IED at the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center in Manila, Philippines. Teams of intelligence officers had been dispatched from Baghdad to several parts of the world using consecutively numbered Iraqi passports. Their explosives were shipped via the diplomatic pouch and their operations coordinated by Iraqi embassies in their respective countries. By attacking the U.S. government in the Philippines instead of in some expected place such as Istanbul, Turkey, or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the Iraqis achieved tactical surprise. Unfortunately for the officers, as they pushed the button to activate the timer, the device cooked off instantaneously, killing one of them and severely wounding the other. An identical device placed at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Jakarta, Indonesia, failed to detonate. The third factor is the target's plain luck. On March 15, 1985, the vehicle driven by Terry Anderson, who at the time was The Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon, was nearly blocked by a car that pulled in front of it. Due to a number of traffic factors, Anderson was able to avoid what he thought was an automobile accident and continue on his way. The next day, Anderson's luck ran out as the same vehicle successfully blocked his vehicle in the same spot. Anderson was pulled from his vehicle at gunpoint — and held hostage for six years and nine months. Although intended targets have almost no control over the abovementioned factors, they do not have to resign themselves to being "sitting ducks" — if they employ attack recognition. The most vital aspect of attack recognition is the target's mental mindset. If a target remains unaware of the surroundings and oblivious to the fact that he is a potential target, his chances of recognizing the attack and taking countermeasures — and thus surviving — are very slim. A target in the it-will-never-happen-to-me frame of mind usually will go into shock — and freeze — as the attack begins. This is not to encourage paranoia. One cannot function for long in that mental state, as extreme situational awareness and fear lead to a quick burnout. However, potential targets, such as U.S. businesspeople in a critical terrorism or crime environment, must maintain a heightened state of situational awareness. Only by paying attention to the people and events in the vicinity — whether one is walking, driving, or riding a subway or in a chauffeur-driven car — can one begin to take evasive measures in time to possibly prevent an attack. Victims of abductions and attempted assassinations many times are able to describe in detail — and in retrospect — how they were surveilled. They also acknowledge having had indications that they were about to be attacked, such as bad feelings about particular people or situations. Because of their mindset at they time, however, they failed to heed the warning signs and take action. Not all of these indications will be as blatant as the failed abduction attempt against Anderson, but certain signs can indicate that something is afoot. One such sign is an operational signal. Quite often the attack team will employ a spotter to positively identify the target and alert the team that the target is entering the attack site. This signaling can be done by hand, with vehicle headlights or radios. Cell phones can be used but are not fast enough in many situations. Another sign could be a broken down vehicle or some other event or person who seems out of place. Also, it is important in successful attack recognition to analyze (or self-analyze) the potential target to determine where vulnerabilities exist. This analysis should look at schedules and routes to determine predictable patterns. It also should identify potential choke points — places along a normal travel route that give the hostile elements the ability to control the target, provide cover for their actions and escape. Particular attention should then be paid to people, objects and events in and around the choke points and other possible attack sites. This often is where hostile surveillance or elements of an impending attack can be detected before the hostiles can spring their trap. Of course recognizing that something is amiss is just the first step. The second — critical — step is action. This can be as simple as following one's instincts. If something "feels" wrong to the target, even if he or she cannot articulate the problem, some action should be taken — even if it means simply turning off the road and avoiding a choke point. More important, if the potential target senses an attack coming, or actually is attacked — they must not let themselves slip into shock, freeze and panic. We call this "getting off the X." The attackers already have selected the ideal attack site — the X — and the target cannot just sit on it. The target must fight back. Many government and private training courses are available that teach tactical driving techniques and personal defense skills for "getting off the X." No amount of training, however, can save even highly trained targets if they freeze up in an attack situation. It also is important to realize that solutions to every problem cannot be taught. Classrooms and practical exercises can only simulate a limited number of scenarios. When confronted in the real world by a life-or-death scenario, improvisation often is necessary. The same principles also apply to IED attacks. Certainly the flight attendant on Reid's flight realized what was going on and quickly rallied the passengers to restrain him and prevent him from lighting his device. Recognizing that a possible IED attack is in progress and avoiding the attack zone by driving, running, ducking or diving for cover is vital. In several of its statements, al Qaeda has appropriated an old Islamic saying, stating that the jihadists love death the way others love life. Having the proper mindset, recognizing the attack — and taking action — can make the difference between life and death.