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Threats, Situational Awareness and Perspective

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

In last week's Terrorism Intelligence Report, we said U.S. counterterrorism sources remain concerned an attack will occur on U.S. soil in the next few weeks. Although we are skeptical of these reports, al Qaeda and other jihadists do retain the ability — and the burning desire — to conduct tactical strikes within the United States. One thing we did not say last week, however, was that we publish such reports not to frighten readers, but to impress upon them the need for preparedness, which does not mean paranoia.

Fear and paranoia, in fact, are counterproductive to good personal and national security. As such, we have attempted over the past few years to place what we consider hyped threats into the proper perspective. To this end, we have addressed threats such as al Qaeda's chemical and biological weapons capabilities, reports of a looming "American Hiroshima" nuclear attack against the United States, the dirty bomb threat, the smoky bomb threat, and the threat of so-called "mubtakkar devices", among others.

Though some threats are indeed hyped, the world nonetheless remains a dangerous place. Undoubtedly, at this very moment some people are seeking ways to carry out attacks against targets in the United States. Moreover, terrorism attacks are not the only threat — far more people are victimized by common criminals. Does this reality mean that people need to live in constant fear and paranoia? Not at all. If people do live that way, those who seek to terrorize them have won. However, by taking a few relatively simple precautions and adjusting their mindsets, people can live less-stressful lives during these uncertain times. One of the keys to personal preparedness and protection is to have a contingency plan in place in the event of an attack or other major emergency. The second element is practicing situational awareness.

The Proper State of Mind

Situational awareness is the process of recognizing a threat at an early stage and taking measures to avoid it. Being observant of one's surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations is more of an attitude or mindset than it is a hard skill. Because of this, situational awareness is not just a process that can be practiced by highly trained government agents or specialized corporate security countersurveillance teams — it can be adopted and employed by anyone.

An important element of this mindset is first coming to the realization that a threat exists. Ignorance or denial of a threat — or completely tuning out to one's surroundings while in a public place — makes a person's chances of quickly recognizing the threat and avoiding it slim to none. This is why apathy, denial and complacency are so deadly.

An example is the case of Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief in Lebanon who was kidnapped March 16, 1985. The day before his abduction, Anderson was driving in Beirut traffic when a car pulled in front of his and nearly blocked him in. Due to the traffic situation, and undoubtedly a bit of luck, Anderson was able to avoid what he thought was an automobile accident — even though events like these can be hallmarks of pre-operational planning. 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.

Clearly, few of us are living in the type of civil war conditions that Anderson faced in 1985 Beirut. Nonetheless, average citizens face all kinds of threats today — from common thieves and assailants to criminals and mentally disturbed individuals who aim to conduct violent acts in the school, mall or workplace, to militants wanting to carry out large-scale attacks. Should an attack occur, then, a person with a complacent or apathetic mindset will be taken completely by surprise and could freeze up in shock and denial as their minds are forced to quickly adjust to a newly recognized and unforeseen situational reality. That person is in no condition to react, flee or resist.

Denial and complacency, however, are not the only hazardous states of mind. As mentioned above, paranoia and obsessive concern about one's safety and security can be just as dangerous. There are times when it is important to be on heightened alert — a woman walking alone in a dark parking lot is one example — but people are simply not designed to operate in a state of heightened awareness for extended periods of time. The body's "flight or fight" response is helpful in a sudden emergency, but a constant stream of adrenalin and stress leads to mental and physical burnout. It is very hard for people to be aware of their surroundings when they are completely fried.

Situational awareness, then, is best practiced at a balanced level referred to as "relaxed awareness," a state of mind that can be maintained indefinitely without all the stress associated with being on constant alert. Relaxed awareness is not tiring, and allows people to enjoy life while paying attention to their surroundings.

When people are in a state of relaxed awareness, it is far easier to make the transition to a state of heightened awareness than it is to jump all the way from complacency to heightened awareness. So, if something out of the ordinary occurs, those practicing relaxed awareness can heighten their awareness while they attempt to determine whether the anomaly is indeed a threat. If it is, they can take action to avoid it; if it is not, they can stand down and return to a state of relaxed awareness.

The Telltale Signs

What are we looking for while we are in a state of relaxed awareness? Essentially the same things we discussed when we described what bad surveillance looks like. It is important to remember that almost every criminal act, from a purse-snatching to a terrorist bombing, involves some degree of pre-operational surveillance and that criminals are vulnerable to detection during that time. This is because criminals, even militants planning terrorist attacks, often are quite sloppy when they are casing their intended targets. They have been able to get away with their sloppy practices for so long because most people simply do not look for them. On the positive side, however, that also means that people who are looking can spot them fairly easily.

The U.S. government uses the acronym TEDD to illustrate the principles one can use to identify surveillance, but these same principles also can be used to identify criminal threats. TEDD stands for Time, Environment, Distance and Demeanor. In other words, if a person sees someone repeatedly over time, in different environments and over distance, or one who displays poor demeanor, then that person can assume he or she is under surveillance. If a person is the specific target of a planned attack, he or she might be exposed to the time, environment and distance elements of TEDD, but if the subway car the person is riding in or the building where the person works is the target, he or she might only have the element of demeanor to key on. This also is true in the case of criminals who behave like "ambush predators" and lurk in an area waiting for a victim. Because their attack cycle is extremely condensed, the most important element to watch for is demeanor.

By poor demeanor, we simply mean a person is acting unnaturally. This behavior can look blatantly suspicious, such as someone who is lurking and/or has no reason for being where he is or for doing what he is doing. Sometimes, however, poor demeanor can be more subtle, encompassing almost imperceptible behaviors that the target senses more than observes. Other giveaways include moving when the target moves, communicating when the target moves, avoiding eye contact with the target, making sudden turns or stops, or even using hand signals to communicate with other members of a surveillance team.

In the terrorism realm, exhibiting poor demeanor also can include wearing unseasonably warm clothing, such as trench coats in the summer; displaying odd bulges under clothing or wires protruding from clothing; unnaturally sweating, mumbling or fidgeting; or attempting to avoid security personnel. In addition, according to some reports, suicide bombers often exhibit an intense stare as they approach the final stages of their mission. They seem to have tunnel vision, being able to focus only on their intended target.

Perspective

We have seen no hard intelligence that supports the assertions that a jihadist attack will occur in the next few weeks and are somewhat skeptical about such reports. Regardless of whether our U.S. counterterrorism sources are correct this time, though, the world remains a dangerous place. Al Qaeda, grassroots jihadists and domestic militants of several different political persuasions have the desire and capability to conduct attacks. Meanwhile, criminals and mentally disturbed individuals, such as the Virginia Tech shooter, appear to be getting more violent every day.

In the big picture, violence and terrorism have always been a part of the human condition. The Chinese built the Great Wall for a reason other than tourism. Today's "terrorists" are far less dangerous to society as a whole than were the Viking berserkers and barbarian tribes who terrorized Europe for centuries, and the ragtag collection of men who have sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden pose far less of a threat to Western civilization than the large, battle-hardened army Abdul Rahman al-Ghafiqi led into the heart of France in 732.

Terrorist attacks are designed to have a psychological impact that far outweighs the actual physical damage caused by the attack itself. Denying the perpetrators this multiplication effect — as the British did after the July 2005 subway bombings — prevents them from accomplishing their greater goals. Therefore, people should prepare, plan and practice relaxed awareness — and not let paranoia and the fear of terrorism and crime rob them of the joy of life.

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