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How to Respond to Terrorism Threats and Warnings

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By Scott Stewart

In this week's Geopolitical Weekly, George Friedman wrote that recent warnings by the U.S. government of possible terrorist attacks in Europe illustrate the fact that jihadist terrorism is a threat the world will have to live with for the foreseeable future. Certainly, every effort should be made to disrupt terrorist groups and independent cells, or lone wolves, and to prevent attacks. In practical terms, however, it is impossible to destroy the phenomenon of terrorism. At this very moment, jihadists in various parts of the world are seeking ways to carry out attacks against targets in the United States and Europe and, inevitably, some of these plots will succeed. George also noted that, all too often, governments raise the alert level regarding a potential terrorist attack without giving the public any actionable intelligence, which leaves people without any sense of what to do about the threat.

The world is a dangerous place, and violence and threats of violence have always been a part of the human condition. Hadrian's Wall was built for a reason, and there is a reason we all have to take our shoes off at the airport today. While there is danger in the world, that does not mean people have to hide under their beds and wait for something tragic to happen. Nor should people count on the government to save them from every potential threat. Even very effective military, counterterrorism, law enforcement and homeland security efforts (and their synthesis — no small challenge itself) cannot succeed in eliminating the threat because the universe of potential actors is simply too large and dispersed. There are, however, common-sense security measures that people should take regardless of the threat level.

Situational Awareness

The foundation upon which all personal security measures are built is situational awareness. Before any measures can be taken, one must first recognize that threats exist. Ignorance or denial of a threat and paying no attention to one's surroundings make a person's chances of quickly recognizing a threat and then reacting in time to avoid it quite remote. Only pure luck or the attacker's incompetence can save such a person. Apathy, denial and complacency, therefore, can be (and often are) deadly. A second important element is recognizing the need to take responsibility for one's own security. The resources of any government are finite and the authorities simply cannot be everywhere and stop every terrorist act.

As we've mentioned previously, terrorist attacks do not magically materialize. They are part of a deliberate process consisting of several distinct steps. And there are many points in that process where the plotters are vulnerable to detection. People practicing situational awareness can often spot this planning process as it unfolds and take appropriate steps to avoid the dangerous situation or prevent it from happening altogether. But situational awareness can transcend the individual. When it is exercised by a large number of people, situational awareness can also be an important facet of national security. The citizens of a nation have far more capability to notice suspicious behavior than the intelligence services and police, and this type of grassroots defense is growing more important as the terrorist threat becomes increasingly diffuse and as attackers focus more and more on soft targets. This is something we noted in last week's Security Weekly when we discussed the motives behind warnings issued by the chief of France's Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence regarding the terrorist threat France faces.

It is important to emphasize that practicing situational awareness does not mean living in a state of constant fear and paranoia. Fear and paranoia are in fact counterproductive to good personal security. Now, there are times when it is prudent to be in a heightened state of awareness, but people are simply not designed to operate in that state for prolonged periods. Rather, situational awareness is best practiced in what we refer to as a state of relaxed awareness. Relaxed awareness allows one to move into a higher state of alert as the situation requires, a transition that is very difficult if one is not paying any attention at all. This state of awareness permits people to go through life attentively, but in a relaxed, sustainable and less-stressful manner. (A detailed primer on how to effectively exercise situational awareness can be found here.)

Preparedness

In the immediate wake of a terrorist attack or some other disaster, disorder and confusion are often widespread as a number of things happen simultaneously. Frequently, panic erupts as people attempt to flee the immediate scene of the attack. At the same time, police, fire and emergency medical units all attempt to respond to the scene, so there can be terrible traffic and pedestrian crowd-control problems. This effect can be magnified by smoke and fire, which can impair vision, affect breathing and increase the sense of panic. Indeed, frequently many of the injuries produced by terrorist bombings are not a direct result of the blast or even shrapnel but are caused by smoke inhalation and trampling.

In many instances, an attack will damage electrical lines or electricity will be cut off as a precautionary measure. Elevators also can be reserved for firefighters. This means people are frequently trapped in subway tunnels or high-rises and might be forced to escape through smoke-filled tunnels or stairwells. Depending on the incident, bridges, tunnels, subway lines and airports can be closed, or merely jammed to a standstill. For those driving, this gridlock could be exacerbated if the power is out to traffic signals.

In the midst of the confusion and panic, telephone and cell phone usage will soar. Even if the main trunk lines and cell towers have not been damaged by the attack or taken down by the loss of electricity, a huge spike in activity will quickly overload the exchanges and cell networks. This causes ripples of chaos and disruption to roll outward from the scene as people outside the immediate vicinity of the attack zone hear about the incident and wonder what has become of loved ones who were near the attack site.

Those caught in the vicinity of an attack have the best chance of escaping and reconnecting with loved ones if they have a personal contingency plan. Such plans should be in place for each regular location — home, work and school — that each member of the family frequents and should cover what that person will do and where he or she will go should an evacuation be necessary. Obviously, parents of younger children need to coordinate more closely with their children's schools than parents of older children. Contingency plans need to establish meeting points for family members who might be split up — and backup points in case the first or second point is also affected by the disaster.

The lack of ability to communicate with loved ones because of circuit overload or other phone-service problems can greatly enhance the sense of panic during a crisis. Perhaps the most value derived from having personal and family contingency plans is a reduction in the stress that results from not being able to immediately contact a loved one. Knowing that everyone is following the plan frees each person to concentrate on the more pressing issue of evacuation. Additionally, someone who waits until he or she has contacted all loved ones before evacuating might not make it out. Contingency planning should also include a communication plan that provides alternate means of communication in case the telephone networks go down.

People who work or live in high-rises, frequently travel or take subways should consider purchasing and carrying a couple of pieces of equipment that can greatly assist their ability to evacuate such locations. One of these is a smoke hood, a protective device that fits over the head and provides protection from smoke inhalation. The second piece of equipment is a flashlight small enough to fit in a pocket, purse or briefcase. Such a light could prove invaluable in a crisis situation at night or when the power goes out in a large building or subway. Some of the small aluminum flashlights also double as a handy self-defense weapon.

It is also prudent to maintain a small "fly-away" kit containing clothes, water, a first aid kit, nutritional bars, medications and toiletry items for you and your family in your home or office. Items such as a battery- or hand-powered radio, a multitool knife and duct tape can also prove quite handy in an emergency. The kit should be kept in convenient place, ready to grab on the way out.

Contingency planning is important because, when confronted with a dire emergency, many people simply do not know what to do. Not having determined their options in advance — and in shock over the events of the day — they are unable to think clearly enough to establish a logical plan and instead wander aimlessly around, or simply freeze in panic.

The problems are magnified when there are large numbers of people caught unprepared, trying to find solutions, and scrambling for the same emergency materials you are. Having an established plan in place gives even a person who is in shock or denial and unable to think clearly a framework to lean on and a path to follow. It also allows them to get a step ahead of everybody else and make positive progress toward more advanced stages of self-protection or evacuation rather than milling around among the dazed and confused. (A detailed primer on contingency planning can be found here.)

Travel Security

Of course, not all emergencies occur close to home, and the current U.S. government warning was issued for citizens traveling in Europe, so a discussion here of travel security is certainly worthwhile. Obviously, the need to practice situational awareness applies during travel as much as it does anywhere else. There are, however, other small steps that can be taken to help keep one safe from criminals and terrorists when away from home.

In recent years, terrorists have frequently targeted hotels, which became attractive soft targets when embassies and other diplomatic missions began hardening their security. This means that travelers should not only look at the cost of a hotel room but also carefully consider the level of security provided by a hotel before they make a choice. In past attacks, such as the November 2005 hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, the attackers surveilled a number of facilities and selected those they felt were the most vulnerable. Location is also a critical consideration. Hotels that are close to significant landmarks or hotels that are themselves landmarks should be considered carefully.

Travelers should also request rooms that are somewhere above the ground floor to prevent a potential attacker from easily entering the room but not more than several stories up so that a fire department extension ladder can reach them in an emergency. Rooms near the front of the hotel or facing the street should be avoided when possible; attacks against hotels typically target the foyer or lobby at the front of the building. Hotel guests should also learn where the emergency exits are and physically walk the route to ensure it is free from obstruction. It is not unusual to find emergency exits blocked or chained and locked in Third World countries. And it is prudent to avoid lingering in high-risk areas such as hotel lobbies, the front desk and entrance areas and bars. Western diplomats, business people and journalists who frequently congregate in these areas have been attacked or otherwise targeted on numerous occasions in many different parts of the world.

There are also a number of practical steps than can be taken to stay safe at foreign airports, aboard public transportation and while on aircraft; more information on that topic can be found here.

Perspective

Finally, it is important to keep the terrorist threat in perspective. As noted above, threats of violence have always existed, and the threat posed to Europe by jihadist terrorists today is not much different from that posed by Marxist or Palestinian terrorists in the 1970s. It is also far less of a threat than the people of Europe experienced from the army of the Umayyad Caliphate at Tours in 732, or when the Ottoman Empire attacked Vienna in 1683. Indeed, far more people (including tourists) will be affected by crime than terrorism in Europe this year, and more people will be killed in European car accidents than terrorist attacks.

If people live their lives in a constant state of fear, those who seek to terrorize them have won. Terror attacks are a tactic used by a variety of militant groups for a variety of ends. As the name implies, terrorism is intended to produce a psychological impact that far outweighs the actual physical damage caused by the attack itself. Denying would-be terrorists this multiplication effect, as the British largely did after the July 2005 subway bombings, prevents them from accomplishing their greater goals. Terror can be countered when people assume the proper mindset and then take basic security measures and practice relaxed awareness. These elements work together to dispel paranoia and to prevent the fear of terrorism from robbing people of the joy of life.

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