I’m not a great fan of air travel, however whenever I fly I’m reminded of a lot of security and personal safety lessons that can be applied to everyday life. Having just returned from training/teaching in Israel, I thought I’d share some of these in this article. I’m not referring just to specific security issues, but to more general ones as well, that effect our day-to-day safety.
Firstly, planning and preparation is everything. When I fly and need to make connecting flights, I try to cut the layover time, so I’m not stuck in an airport for many hours waiting for my next flight; I don’t enjoy the process of travelling, and the shorter the time I spend engaged in it the better. At the same time, I don’t want to cut the time down so much that if my initial flight is delayed, I miss my connection. This means that I want to know the gate where I land, and the gate, where my connecting flight departs from, along with the gate that my plane lands at. Most airports present this information online, and in most cases, the flight numbers and the gates they depart from, etc. are the same day-to-day. This allows you to have a fairly good idea of where your plane will land, and the gate from which your connecting flight will take off; using the airport map, which can also be found online, you can have an idea of the route you will have to take, along with the time it will take you to make your connecting flight – I’ll also note bathrooms along the way, restaurants, shops, etc., in case I need any of these along the way. I’ll also, once landed, check on my phone that the gate hasn’t been “changed”, so that I’m not working with out-of-date information. This may seem a little over the top, but the 5 minutes it takes me to do this can cut down on a lot of anxiety when trying to make a connecting flight, if your initial flight was delayed.
Most airlines will allow you to check-in online before you fly; this speeds up the check-in process, and also allows you to select your seats. A 2011 study, based on 100 air crashes, (by Ed Galea of the University of Greenwich, London, UK), found that those passengers seated within 5 rows of an exit stood the best chance of surviving a crash. The study also showed that most people survive the initial impact of a crash, but if they don’t get off the plane in the first 90 seconds, their survival chances decrease significantly – being decisive, and starting to move as soon as the plane comes to rest (rather than waiting for cabin staff to instruct you), is your best survival option. It is also worth counting the seats to your nearest exit, so if the cabin is filled with smoke, you will be able to “feel” your way to safety. Another important choice to make involves footwear; you don’t want to be trying to walk across burning aviation fuel in your flip-flops. Also, think about and practice undoing your seatbelt – under stress and duress, we resort to normal actions/behaviors, and the seatbelts in our cars are released by pressing a button; this is something that many people do when involved in an air-crash, rather than pulling the clip to release the belt.
There are also lessons from air-travel that we can take and use in our day-to-day lives. When taking off or landing at night, the lights in the cabin will be dimmed. The reason for this is that if the plane crashes or was forced to make an emergency landing, etc., and passengers need to exit, they wouldn’t be subjected to night-blindness; something that would happen if they were moving from a well-lit, bright environment to a dark one, etc. This is something that you should note when leaving/exiting your car at night. If you have been driving with your headlights on, your eyes will take time to adjust when you park and switch them off. Waiting in your car for 10-15 seconds, with the central locking on, and checking your mirrors to get an understanding of what your environment looks like – and who may be in it – will give your eyes time to adjust, before leaving the relative safety of your vehicle.
The recent fire at the Grenfell Tower in White City (London, UK), served as a stark reminder that if you’re above a certain height, neither ladders or fire hoses will be able to reach you. You may like to stay on the upper floors of hotels to enjoy the views, but if you are too high, you risk your safety in the event of a fire. In developing countries, there may not even be a nearby fire service, or their equipment may be substandard. Because of this, you may want to make sure that your room is one that is closer to the ground than if you were staying in a Western hotel. It is also worth noting that the estimated time it takes to evacuate a floor may be woefully inadequate. On 9/11, it took nearly 2 hours for some people to evacuate the buildings – if you were on one of the higher floors, there were so many people on the floors below attempting to evacuate that the time to clear each level increased dramatically, the higher up you were. When staying in a hotel, make sure that you are not so high up that your ability to evacuate would be compromised. You may also want to consider taking a smoke escape mask/hood with you when you travel. Such an item may seem over the top, however in the event of a fire, this will give you about 25 minutes’ protection from smoke, and chemicals such as Hydrogen Cyanide (80% of people who die in fires do so from smoke and chemical inhalation).
Travelling can give us a good reminder of how to improve our safety precautions in other areas of our life, whether that is in improving our planning and preparation, or being reminded about the importance of fire-safety, etc.
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On 6th June 2017, a hired van plowed into pedestrians on London Bridge, before the three attackers it carried debussed and ran down to Borough Market, where they engaged in a stabbing spree in several pubs and restaurants. Less than 3 months earlier (March 22nd), 52-year old Khalid Masood drove a car along the pavement of Westminster Bridge, killing 4 and injuring 50, before crashing his car into the perimeter fence of the Palace grounds (where the British Parliament sits), and fatally stabbing an unarmed police officer. Both sets of terrorists, were eventually shot by armed police. Both of these incidents are examples of “Vehicle-Ramming” attacks; where a car, van, or similar is used to ram crowds, buildings, or checkpoints, etc., to kill, injure and/or gain access to an area/environment. Although currently in vogue with terrorists, it was common in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the UK for criminal elements to use “vehicle ramming” tactics to smash through shop fronts, and steal merchandise; these ram-raiders would use estate cars/station wagons to reverse into shop windows, breaking the glass, and then would access the shop through the rear door and load the vehicle with merchandise/products before the police could respond to the shop’s alarm system. Although ram-raiding a shop, and driving a car into a group of pedestrians as part of a terror attack, may seem very, very different events, vehicle-ramming, in a broad sense, is not a new phenomenon in the UK.
In terms of terrorist attacks, it is likely that the use of cars and vans to run down groups of pedestrians is going to increase. Whilst we get better at securing our perimeters, and preventing explosive devices from getting into buildings – the suicide bomber at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, targeted those leaving the concert, and didn’t try to get past security – terrorists will look for ways and means to cause death and destruction where no such security exists. This means the targeting of civilians in unprotected areas. The terror effect of this is also greater, as it effects everyday life, rather than just specific events; something that the IRA understood all too well, in the pub/bar bombings it carried out in the UK during the 1970’s and 80’s. Disrupting the way a city operates on a day-to-day basis, forces people to think about terrorists and their goals, more frequently than attacks that target specific events, etc. Vehicle ramming takes little to no training, and requires no specialist equipment e.g. any car, van or lorry will do, and possibly a valid driver’s license, if the individual(s) is attempting to hire a vehicle. As has been seen in both Nice (86 people killed, in a Lorry attack in July 2016), and the latest attack in London where 8 people were killed and 48 injured, the casualty rate can be both high, and largely guaranteed – there are many factors which may limit the effects of an explosive device, and there are always complexities in the design that may cause it to fail to detonate, etc. Driving a vehicle into a crowd is simple, direct, and the results are pretty much predictable and guaranteed.
Whilst there is little we can do to stop a car/van that is attempting to ram us, if we can understand some of the environmental factors that are required for such a terrorist attack to be successful, then we will know when we must be more aware of our surroundings, and can heighten our vigilance accordingly. Firstly, if a terrorist is looking to use their vehicle to ram people/crowds, they will be looking for the highest kill-rate possible; the more people dead, the greater the success of the mission. In both London attacks, the terrorists chose times and locations when there would be relatively large numbers of people present. In the March attack, Khalid Masood targeted Westminster Bridge, mid-afternoon; a time and location where there would be many people sight-seeing, etc. In the June attack, the terrorists chose a location, day, and a time, when they knew there would be a lot of people out socializing; a Saturday night around 10 pm (whilst it would seem that part of their target selection involved those who they thought were living an impure lifestyle – they were heard to shout “stop living this life” – the Jihadist/Islamist viewpoint sees every non-believer as being impure). The timing was also important in that there wouldn’t be heavy traffic. To use a vehicle successfully in such an attack requires it to be able to hit people with enough speed, that it will knock them out of the way, allowing them access to a greater number of potential victims. Both locations were chosen because there was enough space/room to get up to/maintain a decent speed. In the June attack, the terrorists had intended to use a heavier vehicle – a 7.5 ton truck – but weren’t able to provide the necessary payment details, and so had to hire a smaller van. The heavier the vehicle, the more room to pick up and maintain speed (in the March attack, Masood managed to get his car up to 76 mph), the higher the kill-rate. Heavy traffic, narrow roads, parked cars, and tight corners are not conducive to vehicle-ramming attacks that target crowds.
Terrorists watch and they learn from each other. In the Westminster Bridge attack (March 2017), the media reported that pedestrians were knocked off the bridge and into the water. A bridge acts as a funnel, that forces people into a denser group, and restricts their movement. Terrorists and criminals, understand and make use of funnels all the time e.g. pickpockets like targeting individuals at the top and bottom of escalators, where people bunch together and slow down. Understanding when you are entering a funnel is part of good situational awareness, whether it is a bridge, the top/bottom of an escalator, or a doorway, etc. These are the times to be aware of who and what is around you. Awareness is not just a visual skill, it is an auditory one as well – hearing a car engine, which is louder than it should be, along with shouts and screams, should help alert you to the presence of danger. If you couple this with walking on the side of the road where you can see oncoming traffic, you will increase your reaction/response time; a car could cross over from the other lane, behind you, however it will need time and space to do this, that can’t necessarily be guaranteed.
There are things that the authorities can do to restrict vehicle ramming attacks, such as putting up bollards. In the 2007 Glasgow airport attack, security bollards stopped a car packed with explosives, from entering the terminal. Obviously bollards are going to be completely effective in all situations, especially where the vehicle size is of a significant weight and there is enough time and distance for it to pick up sufficient speed, etc., but even in these instances where the vehicle may continue through/past the bollards, they will have slowed it down somewhat, potentially reducing the casualty rates. In both of the recent London attacks, bollards on the bridge, and the approach to it, would have likely prevented such an attack from being successful. However, if these targets had been hardened in this way, it is likely that another location would have been chosen, which is why understanding when and where such attacks are likely to take place (along with where they are not), and raising our awareness accordingly is our best chance of surviving such attacks.
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Why would somebody attack you with a knife? An attack is very different to a threat, in that the person attacking you wants to cause you harm, rather than get you to acquiesce to a demand, such as handing over your wallet, etc. So why would somebody want to stab or slash you? Most of the time, when practicing defenses against knife attacks, we don’t consider or think about the attacker’s motive, we just practice the technique(s) – because if we were to be attacked, the assailant’s motive wouldn’t be relevant, we’d just be forced to defend ourselves. In the moment, I agree that understanding motive isn’t the most important concern; blocking the knife and nullifying the attacker/attack jump to the top of the queue. However, when we train knife attacks, we should think about the motive of the attacker, because it may give us a better understanding of how real-life attacks occur, the context of such attacks, and whether the training scenarios we create and/or drill are realistic.
If somebody decides to attack you with a knife, there must be a reason. It doesn’t have to be a good reason, but there has to be one. If you look at the people in your life: friends, family members, associates, work colleagues, people you know, etc., do anyone of them have a reason to attack – not threaten, but attack - you with a knife? If you are an adult, interacting with other adults, the answer is probably no. Most of us are not engaged in serious or important enough disputes, either in real-life or on social media, that someone would think about attacking us with a knife - this doesn’t mean that it’s not possible, or doesn’t/won’t happen, just that it’s a big step for someone to take. Most people have too much to lose and not enough to gain, from engaging in such acts of extreme violence. A teenager’s reality may be different to this, and they may be at risk from peers who do feel slighted and disrespected by things that are said, and written about them, and feel justified to cause harm with a knife, etc., but once the ego of youth is left behind, most of us understand the seriousness of attacking somebody with a blade. So in what situations might you face a knife attack?
There are several scenarios in which you may end up dealing with a knife attack. One obvious one would be when you get in to a disagreement/argument with somebody, who ends up pulling a knife at some point during the confrontation; it might be at the beginning, but it could also be in the “middle” of the fight. In either case, the knife has to be drawn, the fight doesn’t start with it out. This is why training to spoil a draw from a multitude of positions should be a key part of our training. We should also train against an assailant who is attempting to intimidate us with the knife, rather than simply attack us e.g. there are those individuals who carry a knife because they are scared of confrontations, but have the type of ego that gets them involved in them – these individuals will often show/display a knife in the hope of getting the person they are dealing with to back-off, not realizing that once drawn, their ego will not let them put it away, without using it. This is why scenario-based training is so important, as it allows us to recreate these social interactions, so that we have the proper contexts for our training e.g. students can practice having an argument, where a knife gets drawn at some point. Unfortunately, most training involving knives focuses on the knife being out and on the attack – often with good distance between the attacker and their target. If you drill from the position of two individuals arguing/talking, you will get to train at the correct range and distance for these types of assault.
The individual pulling the knife at the beginning of the fight to intimidate you may not have a motive to kill you, however that may change as the fight progresses. They may have initially drawn to intimidate you and dissuade you from getting physical with them, and then made a few slashes to try to cut/injure you, but as you keep defending yourself, and attacking them back, they start to realize the pressure they are under, and their own survival instinct takes over. They will move to an emotional place, and start to make stabbing actions – this is when they have emotionally crossed over into kill mode, and they have one goal, which is to put you out of commission. This is one way, in which somebody who only ever thought about using their knife for “self-defense”, ends up using it to kill someone.
Knife attacks are also committed by predatory individuals, usually in pairs or groups, who are actively, or tacitly looking for victims, so that they can feel good about themselves – and gain some respect from each other. Often, their attacks are used to display to the others in the group, that they are tough and not to be messed with. These attacks may be preceded by some form of dialogue, or they may be conducted more as an ambush, with the initial assailant moving in close to the target/victim, before grabbing, and repeatedly stabbing them. They may decide not to approach their target head-on, where eye-contact could be made, and their victim could engage them in dialogue, but instead approach or sidle up, at an oblique angle, which makes it difficult for the target to identify if the attacker’s movement is related to their own. In any case, they will probably try to control them with their non-weapon hand, either grabbing the head to pull them in, pushing and pulling them with a lapel grab, or driving them back with the forearm against the throat, etc. However they try to control/latch-on to their victim, they will be trying to move them and disrupt their balance – this may mean that the only initial defense that can be made is to block/defend yourself, as you try to get stable (there are many ways to do this – but until you do, striking and/or getting control of the weapon arm will be largely ineffective). Knife attacks are dynamic, frenzied affairs that involve movement, and will often see you taken by surprise; this is why it is so important to understand and be able to identify the pre-violence indicators so that you can exit a situation – or at worst, prepare for it – before the initial attack is made. A big question though, is how often do we train knife against multiple assailants?
Situations can change. What started out as a simple mugging scenario, where a knife was used to threaten and force a target to hand over their possessions, can change to an attack when they refuse, or if they try to resist. A mugger with a knife is not simply going to walk away, if you resist or refuse to hand over your wallet – they will use their weapon against you, it’s as simple as that. This is why it’s always best to comply with a demand for resources. If, after complying, the mugger hasn’t walked away, they’re no longer behaving like a mugger, and you are dealing with a different motive. This is where you need to go on the offensive and defend yourself. It is worth noting that anytime you attempt a physical solution to a knife threat, you have immediately elevated the situation to a knife attack, as the mugger will now be forced to use the knife to “defend” themselves with.
Knife attacks don’t just happen in a vacuum, they happen in a variety of situations, with different situational components. If we only train against an attacker who shows you a weapon, and comes at you from distance, we’re not training for reality. We need to think about “why” somebody would attack us, and because of this “why”, what their attack would actually look like.
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There are a lot of things to learn from the recent terror attack in Manchester at the Ariana Grande show, and I would like to use this blog article to draw attention to some of them, so that we can all better understand the nature of this type of threat.
There are few actual lone wolves. Terrorist organizations such as ISIS, can inspire, enable and even directly orchestrate and engage in acts of terror. They can provide the motivation and encouragement to commit terrorist acts, and help enable them, such as providing an “inspired” individual, with access to a bomb maker, who can provide them with a suicide vest/backpack, or an education in bomb-making (as seems to be the case with this attack). They may also help them determine an appropriate target, and keep them reassured and motivated to engage in the act, when they have doubts and concerns. We may like to think of religious zealots as never questioning whether what they are doing is warranted or justified, however someone who is planning to kill themselves and others will have moments of reflection and questioning; regardless of their commitment to the cause. One of the four main tactics for dealing with terrorism is referred to as “Civic Action”, which focuses on trying to provide appealing societal alternatives to terrorist actions, both in those who are planning to commit such acts, and the communities that support them – if individuals don’t feel disenfranchised and disrespected, they will be less motivated to become supporters of terrorism. These are both things that terrorist organizations need to overcome to keep their operatives on track.
Salman Abedi, was banned from a Mosque, after criticizing an Iman (he accused him of “talking bollocks”), whose sermon criticized the Islamic State. Already feeling disenfranchised as UK citizen, he was now facing non-acceptance from the Muslim community around him. A key message that ISIS, keeps telling its recruits, is to stay away from the Mosques; it doesn’t want them to be subjected to any message other than theirs. It is also important to note that the elders at the Mosque reported him to the authorities, for the extremist views he expressed. This was one of several warning signs that Abedi gave, showing that he was harboring extremist sentiments.
Before you can consider and fantasize about an extreme act of violence, you must first recognize it as acceptable and justified. This often becomes evident, when individuals express acceptance and possible admiration for the violent/terrorist acts of others, e.g. a disgruntled employee who isn’t appalled at mass shooting at another workplace, and instead remarks that management got what they deserved, etc. This is one of the first indicators that somebody may be considering an act of extreme violence – and it is significant enough to take note of, and not be dismissed or discounted as “just talk”. Abedi, told family members and friends (who informed the authorities), that he thought being a suicide bomber was “okay”. It is not clear, whether he said this before he was recruited and had a plan in place, or after, however when somebody expresses that acts of terrorism by others are acceptable, then they are also expressing that they have passed a moral boundary that could potentially see them engage in such an act.
The US Secret Service found that in 81% of School Shootings, the shooters told somebody of their plans; whether that is somebody who they deem sympathetic to their plan, or not. It seems that acts of terrorism are no different. We know for sure that Salman told his brother, Hashim Ramadan Abu Qassem al-Abedi, about the plan, and it is probable that he told others. There are many personal motivations as to why somebody engages in a suicide bombing apart from wanting to do something for the cause, and some of these can only be satisfied before dying e.g. if you want to experience the admiration, or even the fear, of others, you need to do this before you die, and this involves communicating what you are about to do. You may also have concerns and doubts, that you don’t want to let the organization you are part of know about, for fear of losing respect, etc. We often talk about and simplify the character of terrorists as being simply barbaric animals, however it is their human nature, and the need to be recognized socially that can give us the warning signs of their intent.
One of the glaring questions that people are asking in the wake of the Manchester attack, is: despite all the warning signs that were there, and the reports to the authorities, etc., how was Salman Abedi able to carry out this terrorist act? There is probably a myriad of reasons that compiled would give an answer, but one that seems apparent is the lack of police manpower in the UK, due to the recent cuts and downsizing of the police force. There need to be enough people who can join the dots, to create a full picture. There need to be people “on the ground” who are aware of what is going on in the community. I remember driving through Herzliya, Israel with Dr Dennis Hanover, and remarking about all the new construction that was going on. He pointed out that if Israel didn’t have to worry about security to the point it did, and devote the massive amounts of resources to it that it does, there would be even greater growth and expansion. In the age that we live in, security is one of our most valuable commodities, and it is not one that we should skimp on.
What can we as individuals do? One thing is to give blood. There will always be those who get through the net, however much security there is. Abedi didn’t cross any security perimeters; just like Mohammad Daleel, who detonated a backpack he was wearing at the entrance to the Ansbach Open Music Festival, in July 2016. As security tightens, the perimeters become more vulnerable, and open to attack. Terrorism is a question of “when” not “if”, and we can help limit the casualty rate by making sure there is an adequate supply of blood, in our blood banks – as an individual you don’t necessarily have to prevent a shooting or stop a bomber to save a life; you may do so by giving blood. Learn first-aid. Learn how to properly tourniquet. Carry a first-aid kit. You’re going to need something a bit more than your boy scout or girl guide’s first aid course, but tactical first-aid courses are available and out there. You may be the first one at the scene who can help, and cutting the time, when people receive assistance, cuts fatalities – one of the reasons that the death rate was so high in the Orlando Nightclub Shooting in June 2016 (49 fatalities), was because it was over three hours before medical services could get to those shot.
We don’t want to get nervous around anyone who is wearing a backpack, but there are places where someone with a backpack is going to look out of place - e.g. outside a concert, outside a football ground, etc. Abedi demonstrated that you don’t have to get into a venue to make an attack, you can target the crowd outside. Play it safe, and don’t arrive or leave with the crowd. Don’t be afraid to report your suspicions – anyone who turns up to a crowded event wearing a backpack, needs to understand that they will be a cause for concern. Remember, the more assumptions you have to make about something, the less likely you are to be right about it e.g. is someone walking towards a concert that’s ending, wearing a backpack, just picking someone up to go on late night camping expedition? We may not want to come to the conclusion that we, or others, may be in danger, but if we find ourselves coming up with unlikely reasons to explain something away, we probably are, and need to act.
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