What If You’re in the Middle of a Terrorist Attack?Adam Smith
The recent declassification of documents seized during the Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, revealed some alarming information about future attacks al-Qaeda was planning on U.S. soil. Strategies included bombing trains as well as chartering aircraft for suicide missions, rather than hijacking them. This is only a fraction of what’s been publicly disclosed about a single terrorist group’s intentions. When it comes to protecting your family from such catastrophes, keep in mind that if you can imagine it happening, someone else is likely trying to pull it off.
In order to understand what you might be up against, you’ll need to develop what security researchers call an “adversarial mindset.” As uncomfortable as it may be, try to imagine you’re a terrorist seeking to maximize destruction — what would you target? From interrupting cashflow to paralyzing critical industries to causing mass casualties in crowded locations, assume an attack will be designed to generate a great deal of panic and confusion. If all you have to worry about is being one of the millions glued to a TV set when something happens, consider yourself lucky. But if you someday find yourself in the path of a terrorist attack, do you have a plan for how you’ll react if you’re fortunate enough to survive?
The Terrorist Attack Scenario
Possible terrorist attack
You and your family
A large retail center
Warm; high 97 degrees F, low 63 degrees F
Whether it’s the World Trade Center, Boston Marathon, Centennial Olympic Park bombing, or the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, no one knows when terrorist events will happen or on what scale they’ll occur. Those in proximity to the origin of the attack who are lucky enough to survive an explosion may fall victim to the panic that ensues. The aftermath involves terrified crowds of people running to escape, which may lead to trampling of other innocent bystanders. Damage from the explosion may lead to fire or structural collapse, and there’s often a possibility of secondary attacks. These terrorist events are meant to spread fear and confusion before authorities can regain control of the situation. Imagine you were at the epicenter of such an attack. In the chaotic moments after a detonation, how would you determine its cause and the likelihood of follow-up attacks?
During a vacation, you decide to take your spouse and 5-year-old daughter to see one of the largest shopping centers in the country. Because of its size, importance as a transit hub, and immense popularity, it’s tough for newcomers to know their way around. As with many crowded, high-profile venues, it has also been a known target for terrorist groups. The location has a large security force, but violent crimes can still happen. After spending about 30 minutes at this retail hub with your family looking at different shops, you and your spouse decide to find a place to sit down for lunch.
About 75 yards ahead of you is a movie theater, which looks crowded due to a popular film that recently premiered. As you approach it, a major explosion rocks the inside of the theater and drops you to the ground. Your ears are ringing and you’re all incredibly startled, but you haven’t sustained any injuries. People in the immediate vicinity of the blast have clearly been wounded and many appear to be dead or unconscious. Some onlookers scream and start to run, while others stand frozen in shock. The likelihood this is some sort of industrial accident is very low, but you still have no way of knowing exactly what just happened. There could potentially be more explosions or other forms of mass violence in the vicinity. Do you attempt to help the injured, or find some cover? Do you try to get away from this location as quickly as possible and risk getting caught up in crowded escape routes? What if there’s another bombing or an attacker waiting to ambush fleeing people at the exits? What if the location goes into lockdown and you’re unable to escape?
Self-Defense Instructor Melody Lauer’s Approach
It’s impossible to ever be fully prepared for a terrorist attack, as they’re unpredictable and unexpected by design. However, that doesn’t mean we throw our hands up and do nothing. We may not be able to prepare for every eventuality, but we can prepare for what we are likely to experience during and immediately following these events. Attacks featuring explosives are particularly attractive to terrorists given that they accomplish the goal of achieving the highest body count possible, as quickly as possible, with the fewest resources expended.
This also makes large venues with lots of traffic a particularly attractive target. So, while there are no certainties, when preparing a trip to such a place, I might consider planning the trip during a time when crowds are likely to be thinnest.
Other preparations for the trip might also include collecting information via the internet or a local friend regarding nearby trauma centers, response times, and maps of the area and facility. While I do normally carry a gun, knife, tourniquet, flashlight, and pepper spray, when out with my family I’ll add an additional tourniquet for each family member. I keep chest seals, compressed gauze (both regular and QuikClot), triangular bandages, and a multi-tool in a bag in my car that’s easy to grab when going into crowds. In larger venues, I also choose to carry a firearm equipped with a weapon-mounted light and a red dot sight, as well as throwing a spare magazine or two in my bag. Additionally, my children also have rechargeable flashlights they carry on their persons when we’re on outings.
In every terrorist attack in the last decade, it has been the quick action of those with medical training who have saved the most lives — this makes becoming an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) the single most important thing I’ve ever done to prepare for any terrorist attack.
It’s not uncommon for terrorists to stage a preliminary accident or small-scale attack that’s large enough to draw emergency personnel and law enforcement away from the site of what’s intended to be the primary target. Monitoring for reports of anything along these lines is important; if I become aware of an incident, I’d probably cut our trip short or postpone it for another day.
Once in the mall, I head to the nearest directory and take a picture of the map. I share it with anyone in the party who has a cell phone, and we go over the plan. Where are we going? How long are we staying? Where are we meeting if we get separated? What do we do in the event someone misses the rendezvous? Answers to these questions can provide a starting point for good decision making even if the plan cannot be followed as expected.
When evaluating an environment for a potential threat, the first place to start is gathering baseline sensory data. Is it noisy or quiet? Are people rushing or sauntering? How are people dressed? This information can help alert you to sudden changes indicating danger. No matter how vigilant one attempts to be, however, it’s entirely possible that the first indication you’ll get that you’re in a violent encounter is getting caught in the middle of it.
If you didn’t lose consciousness during the blast, that’s a good sign you may have avoided substantial head trauma, though internal injuries are still likely. However, if you find yourself regaining consciousness and struggle to remember much before the explosion, it’s almost certain you’ve suffered head trauma that could negatively affect your cognitive and physical abilities. It’s also possible you have limited time to act before you fall unconscious again, perhaps permanently.
While gunfire and secondary detonations would eliminate all doubt, it may not be immediately clear if an explosion was an attack or an accident. Injuries such as multiple penetrating injuries in victims up to hundreds of yards from the blast; traumatic amputations of arms, hands, legs, or feet; a significant number of eye injuries caused by rapidly expanding gases, particles, and debris; victims bleeding from one or both ears; and debris peppered with odd materials such as ball bearings are indications of an explosive device instead of an accident. Accident or not, however, any explosion should be treated as the first in a series of life-threatening dangers that are best avoided by getting far away as quickly as possible.
Every second you stay in the building decreases the chance of survival for everyone in the situation. Running is the best option, but that doesn’t mean merely running from danger. The most obvious avenue of escape may not be the safest. Main exits may be the target of secondary attacks, as well as emergency lanes and parking lots where larger explosives can be hidden in cars or trucks. By law, public buildings may not have doors prohibiting the exit of people within, but that doesn’t stop terrorists and active killers from barring or blocking them to prevent escape and causing people to pool in one location for a follow-up attack.
If there’s an obvious exit nearby, orient yourself toward it, but don’t rush to it. Pause briefly to look around the exit. Are there any odd packages? Do people seem able to move freely through it? Are there any individuals standing near or around the exit who don’t seem particularly alarmed or dazed by what’s happening and don’t seem concerned with escaping? Answers to these questions may help you decide whether to continue or look for an alternate path.
In our family, we’ve determined that should we be in a violent encounter, my husband is responsible for collecting and moving the children while I provide security. While we’re both accomplished shooters, he’s stronger and faster than I am. He can carry all of our kids at once. I cannot. While each family must do what works best for them, it’s important not to allow gender roles and ideologies to blind you to options better suited to everyone’s capabilities.
After a quick assessment to rule out any immediate and obvious life-threatening injuries, our first priority is moving toward safety. It takes precedence over treating the wounded, calling for help, or helping others. People have attempted to hide and wait to be rescued in almost every terrorist or active-shooter event. While this has worked for some, there are many more who have been executed, died of injuries, or were killed in subsequent disasters because they didn’t escape.
Make no mistake about it — you’ll never be safe until you’re out. Every action you take should be toward accomplishing that goal. But that doesn’t mean that you cannot or should not take an opportunity to take stock of your options, stabilize your wounded, make a call for help, and gather intelligence if it’s safe to do so.
An ideal temporary hiding place is one that’s out of sight of would-be attackers, has more than one exit, can be secured against entry, and allows some form of protection from gunfire and shrapnel (although no place is impervious to a well-placed explosive).
Cell services are often overloaded in emergencies, though Wi-Fi and internet services may remain active for longer. If you can reach emergency personnel, tell them your name and location, then let them know your injuries and what you look like. It’s also a good idea to let them know if you’re armed. It won’t guarantee you won’t be mistaken for a terrorist, but it’s a start. If you do have a weapon on your person and it’s not in use, the best place for it to be is accessible, in a quality holster, and out of sight.
Whether with a firearm or some other means, if you choose or are forced to fight terrorists, it’s not likely you’ll survive. While there may be times I’d willingly go on the offensive, I won’t volunteer my children for that fight. As long as I’m responsible for getting them to safety, I’ll try to avoid confronting anyone unless they impede our escape. In that case, it’s my job to stand and fight, and my husband’s job to save our children.
Former Scout/Sniper Alexander Crown’s Approach
Being on vacation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared. Your everyday-carry items shouldn’t be relaxed; if anything, you’re now in an unfamiliar environment and you should beef them up. Traveling to a large shopping complex isn’t ideal due to its potential as a target for active shooters, lowly thugs, and possible terrorists, but I’d be lying if I said my last vacation didn’t involve going to a mall to walk around, get ice cream, and buy T-shirts.
Prior to visiting malls, parks, or any large venues, I like to go online and see if they have a map. This helps me understand the layout, what stores may be best for us to visit, and I get a general idea of exit locations, bathrooms, AEDs, directories, and security offices. This could be considered your map recon, which is the bare minimum that should occur during mission planning. Some larger places have entire trip planners where you can map out your route and save it to your phone. If nothing else, I may screen shot the directory on my phone to reference later, even without cell service.
Also, prior planning would be ensuring proper clothing and footwear are being worn. This is a big place and will mean a lot of walking, so flip-flops are a no-go. Comfortable shoes for walking should also mean the ability to run in them. Reacting to an event means there’s a decent chance of having to run. Clothing-wise, it’s summertime and very hot, so dress accordingly. Pants or shorts with pockets for your everyday-carry gear is a must. These principles also apply to my wife and children. They need to be able to walk or run as needed and stay as comfortable as they can.
Your everyday carry is a personal choice and should reflect your level of training. I carry a Sig Sauer P365X with RomeoZero red dot and Streamlight TLR-7 Sub weapon light every day, no matter what. This would of course be with me. My other everyday-carry items include a SpyderCo Endura 4 knife, iPhone, wallet (with cash), Swiss Army Knife, mini BIC lighter, Fisher Space Pen, SureFire Stiletto flashlight, bandana, and a SWAT-T tourniquet/North American Rescue S-rolled gauze, held together with a rubber band. These items all fit comfortably in my pockets and come with me everywhere I go. They are a baseline, and when traveling or going to a large space, I’ll add items.
Usually, medical items are the priority. A proper tourniquet or two, like the Combat Application Tourniquet (C-A-T), more pressure dressings, and chest seals get stuffed into a highly functional and fashionable fanny sack from Spiritus Systems. I’ll also keep a small snack, like energy chews, on hand as well as about 20 feet of tarred bank line, small shears, and a foldable N95 mask.
Another important piece of preparation is the training you have prior to the emergency. Shooting classes are fun and being proficient with your handgun is vital, but it’s also important to have medical training. In my opinion, a prepared and responsible citizen should have at minimum Red Cross First aid training, CPR/AED training, and Stop the Bleed. These three courses are usually free and local to you, so there’s no excuse to not have attended them. The skills from those courses will benefit you in a mass casualty event, a car accident, and even situations within the home. Advanced medical training would also be beneficial.
Establishing a plan is always a good start. In this case, my wife and I would outline stores we want to attend and where we’d like to eat while visiting the shopping center. An informal threat assessment could be done during this phase — we know we don’t need or want to go to large department stores, we’re not going to attend a show or a movie, and we know that we want to eat somewhere better than the food court. All those locations are large gathering places within a large gathering place, and we plan to avoid them.
Our interests are in the smaller boutique stores, which will have smaller crowds in some cases. During the map recon, we noted that on the upper level near the restaurant we plan to go to is a walk-in clinic that can treat minor emergencies and illnesses. This could be an excellent place for a casualty collection point as medical personnel are on site.
Situational awareness is key when in unfamiliar crowded places. These places always make for great people watching, but watching for nefarious activity can be tough with such a large space. Relying on local security teams is never a great plan, but watching them is. They should be on guard for bad actors and a sudden change in their behavior may be your first warning sign if trouble pops up. The bottom line is that you should be on the lookout for things that are out of place — abandoned bags, people not dressed for the weather, people looking agitated or nervous, those with backpacks that appear heavier than what’s common, etc. Your instincts can play a pivotal role in your survival.
The last consideration is on-site communications. My cell phone would be my primary means of communication with the outside world, but those can go down. The main plan would be not to separate from the rest of my family; we’d always be in proximity of each other. I’ve been known to carry a Yaesu FT5D handheld HAM radio with me while on vacation, but realistically I wouldn’t have brought it to a place like this. Part of the plan could be establishing a meeting place if we’re separated. As far as communicating with people or authorities outside, many of these stores will have landlines that’d be unaffected by a power outage and could be used to relay information to 911.
After the initial blast and assessment of my family, the first thought would be to get out of the area or seek cover. We’re on the upper level, so escape routes into the parking garage will be close by, but those could also be a potential target for gunmen or more explosions. That’s not to mention the mass exit of people, which could lead to trampling and crushing of children and the elderly. There’ll also be a crazy amount of traffic leaving and coming into the venue, making driving a no-go for several hours as police cordon and search the area. I think the best approach will be to get my family to a relatively safe place, such as the clinic or in the back of the restaurant. Securing them is the first priority.
At this junction, the decision must be made to either stay with my family or go and attempt to help the injured. Being at the clinic, it’d make sense for others to come here, and I could help render aid or start triage for the actual medical personnel. I’d be very hesitant to leave my family after such an event, and staying in this place with them while potentially being of use seems like the best course of action.
If the area goes into lockdown, which I’d fully expect, I won’t want to be caught in the parking garage. That seems like another likely target and a choke point to prevent emergency services from getting inside. Being able to communicate with local law enforcement and emergency services via the clinic would be the best bet. There’s greater potential for the clinic to have a backup generator in the event of power failure and it’ll have more resources.
In the event of a fire or obvious structural integrity issues, we’d have to leave the area. Being such a large shopping center, any direction has an exit, and I’d attempt to go to the less busy route. This will be very dependent on surroundings, but generally I’d try to avoid smaller exits that’d be a choke point for a crowd rush with a higher potential of being separated. This is a great point for physical fitness — being able to carry your child to help with egress can be critical.
The advice to “run, hide, fight,” isn’t bad, but it’ll help if you know what to run toward, where to hide, and when and how to fight. We may not be able to be fully prepared for terrorist attacks, but we can collect the knowledge, skills, and experience that allows us to take hold of even the most chaotic and tragic of circumstances and move within them. Even if we can’t guarantee our own safety, perhaps we can protect those we love most dearly.
Terror attacks are an ambush and difficult to prepare for. You’ll be in full reaction mode and will only rise to the level of your training and physical ability. Being prepared starts with planning. Use all the resources available to you to be better prepared. In this case, it means doing a map recon to find points of interest and route planning. Talk to your family about potential threats and how you expect to handle them. These principles go beyond indoor shopping centers and can be applied to all forms of gatherings, road trips, and travel abroad.
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