Raised Terror Threat; What Should I Do?

Oslo bomb, 2011

Oslo bomb, 2011

So, we’ve raised our security alert status to the blindingly obvious but with no apparent intelligence on specific threats or advice to what it means for and to individuals. Meanwhile in France, the security alert states has been raised from run to hide. There remains some way to go though, their alert states are graded Run, Hide, Capitulate, Collaborate. 

On a serious note, the threat of terrorism both from organised groups and “lone wolves,” is omnipresent in every society. I have quoted a former director of special forces several times over recent years who stated in a very matter of fact way that security forces expect an attack using WMD in a European city in the next few years. Threats are as varied as is the imagination and sophistication of the terrorist and range from “dirty bombs,” the so called “mubtakkar devices,” (typically lethal gas devices released in subways / metro’s), chemical attacks, attacks on the food chain, infrastructure attacks, assassinations, attacks on the public using bombs or individual weapons, (guns, knives etc) to kidnappings. It’s not an exclusive list of course but does give an idea of the broad scope of threat faced by our security services. It’s easy to allow fear and paranoia to take grip and lose perspective. It’s just as easy to be phlegmatic and discount all risks to zero by assuming a fatalistic view of the world. There is a middle path for the individual though and it’s all about awareness.

If a threat exists to a specific individual there is a world of heightened precautions and actions to be taken but in the context of the government’s general warning on Friday, I’ll keep this fairly general and it is in fact an update to a piece I did a couple of years ago.

Its perhaps surprising that apart from the Lee Rigby murder, the UK has not been hit by a terrorist strike since the tube bombings of 2005. More people face a daily threat to their peaceful existence from common criminals than they do from the terrorist. Individuals though, should nevertheless have a constantly updating contingency plan in their minds should a bad thing happen.

When disaster hits things happen very quickly. Typically, belief is suspended for a short time before panic erupts and people attempt to flee the scene. Smoke, fire and noise can disorientate and feed the frenzy. Injuries can be multiplied as a result of trampling and smoke inhalation. Power is often lost as a result of damage or cut for safety and lifts will be reserved for emergency crews. Bridges, tunnels, tubes and important transport nodes are frequently closed or just jammed. Telephone usage soars and mobile networks are often overloaded as news ripples out.

It is important to always maintain an awareness of your surroundings and to be in a mind-set which is alert to potential threats. Denial, ignorance and complacency consist of one well practised approach and indeed, our government particularly like to invoke the “blitz spirit, business as usual,”  mantra whenever a busload of citizens are blown up. Of course they have to, there is no other option for a government but there is for the individual. Personal security is a personal responsibility.

Equally, if we went about our daily business looking for a bad guy in black behind every corner we would be a nervous wreck by lunchtime. It’s important to emphasise that a relaxed state of vigilance and alertness is possible because it becomes a way of thinking that can be ratcheted up rather than a mindset one steps into when the alarms go off. Simple plans and awareness of the local environment go a long way to aiding preparedness.

Terrorist attacks incidentally are rarely spontaneous. They usually go through a distinct six stage attack cycle which includes planning and reconnaissance. Appropriate awareness of your environment can help citizens spot terrorist surveillance with things or people that are out of place, suspicious and which may represent a threat. This also represents an obvious vulnerability to the terrorist.

Here then are some points to note for the individual,

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  • Learn to be a people watcher. It’s actually a very interesting hobby and helps pass the time wherever you are. Learn to evaluate people from their dress, mannerisms, pace, mood, eye movements, gestures and so on. Most people, especially the British, do this subconsciously. Make it a conscious process though and you’ll surprise yourself with what you can learn about those around you.
  •  Difficult to do as a commuter but best to avoid or at the least don’t linger in congested areas, queues (especially outside high visibility targets), crowds, international hotel lobby areas and so on. If by the way, you happen to be staying in a hotel always avoid booking a ground floor room or a room at the front of the hotel but not one that is too high for fire ladders to reach.
  • If you happen to be close to a cordoned off area resulting from a bomb scare / warning then leave the area immediately. The default position these days seems to be for everyone to take out their mobile phone and start filming ready to upload their five minutes of fame to YouTube. Don’t bother; get away. If you can see the bomb, the bomb can see you. That is, if you have line of sight to a device then you are likely to be hit if it detonates. Police cordons are hardly ever large enough in these situations; (there can be barely a policeman still serving who has been at the scene of a terrorist device detonating).
  •  My instructors always used to talk about the “hairs on the back of your neck.” That is, your intuition kicking in when perhaps your subconscious notices subtle changes in the local environment or behaviour patterns. Never ignore a “sixth sense,” or premonition. One part of the brain may simply be processing something the other isn’t accepting or not catching up on. There may be nothing other worldly or spooky about it and everyone has some personal or family story to back it up the syndrome; I know I do.
  • Always have a Personal Contingency Plan. Wherever you are, in your own office, at a meeting, shopping, commuting; ask, “what if?” “What is my escape route, where will I go to, how will I communicate.
  • If out in a family group always have an emergency rendezvous point for family members. “If we get split up, meet here,” and have a back up RV in case the first is affected by the bad thing.
  •  Contact is important, especially for those outside the disaster area. Remember, mobile networks may be down but often text messages still get through as might emails.
  • When a bad thing happens people can quickly become disorientated. The shock of the event, possible injury, deafness, limited visibility can leave them wandering aimlessly not knowing what to do. Having a predetermined plan, however simple, gives the individual something to grasp and work around and in doing so shakes of denial and or shock and increases the chance of survival. An example here would be the Clapham rail disaster. Many casualties were caused not by the crash but by a passing train afterward; people were simply overcome with shock and stopped thinking.
  • Note, it may take time for emergency services to be on scene. The aftermath of a device detonating in a built up area is particularly dangerous. Not only is the survivor at risk from injuries sustained from crowds but also from falling masonry,  glass, (especially glass that does not have protective ballistic film). In fact, immediately following a detonation get under cover and stay there for at least two minutes.
  •  If inside a building avoid anything electrical and stay away from windows, mirrors, glass partitions and so on. If outside, avoid the pavements; glass will continue to fall from high rise buildings for a long time. Do not shout, unless as a last resort, you will inhale potentially damaging or lethal dust. Cover your mouth and nose with any fabric to hand rather than nothing.
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  •  If caught up in a bad thing, you must constantly evaluate and maintain flexibility. Do you know which streets the fire exits in your building exit into? What is the quickest route away from your area and out of line-of-sight? Might is be safer to stay put? It wasn’t on 9/11 but the terrorist will often plant secondary devices along the most likely escape routes or the point where the emergency services are most likely to set up their command post, (Warrenpoint).
  •  Think about what you would do in an active shooter scenario or knife wielding mass murderer. Sounds like something out of an X Box game doesn’t it but it’s been an all too frequent reality in recent years for citizens from Norway, the US and China in the very recent past.
  •  After a terrorist strike you must be prepared to help yourself. The authorities will be overwhelmed with the seriously injured, containing the incident and preparing for follow up attacks. If you are lucky enough to be unharmed or walking wounded follow your escape plan and don’t stop thinking. The crowd are no more likely to flee in the direction of safety than they are into further danger. Moreover, don’t expect emergency services newly arrived on the scene to know much more than do you.
  •   If you are slightly hurt, head to the hospital furthest away that you can reach. The closest ones will be mobbed.
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  • Any survival instructor will tell you that survival is all about the will to live, not skills and not kit. The pyramid above is the one my instructors constantly referred to and its applicable to any situation. There are though some obvious bits of kit that one might contemplate carrying in a briefcase, bag or keeping in a desk drawer that would be of significant help in a “situation.” The most obvious is a smoke hood, with it a high powered small torch, some paracord and cash. Most people sitting at their desks reading this would be slightly embarrassed at the thought of ordering a smoke hood, carrying a torch, and always having a spare cash clip on their person. I am too but the thing is, who else exactly is going to help you at the moment of crisis? The problem with the hood of course is not buying or carrying it but using it when you are at risk of other panicking survivors ripping it off. It’s not coincidence that most survivors from plane crashes are young males aged between 18 and 30. As with everything, individuals have to make their own plans and decisions. Most do nothing.

The terrorist threat will not evaporate if the jihadists go away. We have lived with terror threats for the last 44 years and the Islamists will simply be replaced, displaced or augmented by others. The universe of potential threats is simply too large and dispersed for it to be anything other way. As I said at the beginning, individuals are most likely to be at risk from fire or “grab and run” common criminals than they are from terrorist strikes, (the risks from street crime of course can be eased with similar street awareness and changes to dress and behaviour). A little bit of forethought, planning and awareness though can further mitigate more serious risk.

In summary,

  • Have a dynamic plan, (in the sense of constantly updating to suit your changing environment)
  •  Try and develop a sense of relaxed awareness as a way of life
  • Always ask “what if?”
  • Minimise and mitigate risk
  • Be very aware of post incident risks; eg crowds, falling debris, secondary devices

Just common sense really,