The terrorism threat is currently elevated across most of the globe, and the rapid expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has created a new propaganda front to radicalise potential attackers. As the war in the Middle East continues to go badly for the Islamic State, it is likely that the group will continue to try to conduct attacks elsewhere in order to ensure their resilience as a traditional terror organisation after the fall of their territory in the Levant. Recently, the world has seen a shift in terrorist tactics away from bombings towards “active threat” attackers. Here, we examine what you should do in the (thankfully still unlikely) event that you are caught in the middle of an attack.


Disclaimer

The information provided by How Safe Is My Trip Ltd (England & Wales registered company number 10953024) is intended to help you navigate a dangerous world, but is not intended to replace common sense or entirely remove the risks associated with travelling. Unforeseen circumstances are an inevitability with travel and as a result not everything can be planned for. While we endeavour to provide you with the most accurate and up-to-date information, we live in a rapidly changing world where not all risks can be predicted or mitigated against. By making use of the information provided to you by How Safe Is My Trip Ltd, you acknowledge that any dangers you are exposed to by travelling are faced at your own risk. The information provided by How Safe Is My Trip Ltd should not be considered a recommendation in favour of any particular destination. As an England & Wales registered company, interaction between How Safe Is My Trip Ltd, the general public, and clients will be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the England & Wales and shall be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England & Wales.


What is an “Active Threat” terror attack?

While traditionally, terror attacks typically revolved around bombings and other high-intensity, high-complexity tactics. The increasing capabilities of global police forces to prevent these attacks, combined with fewer resources and planning time available to terror groups has led to a new type of attack. These attacks are typically less sophisticated, but remain deadly and impactful. An “Active Threat” situation involves attackers roaming throughout an area attempting to kill or harm as many people as possible, either with firearms, portable explosives, knives or more recently, vehicles. Attackers will typically attempt to cause as much chaos as possible quickly, before security forces arrive on the scene.

These attacks can take place anywhere, at any time, although typically target crowded venues. They are also not always linked to Jihadi-terrorism, and can involve disgruntled employees or deranged individuals.


What should I do in an “Active Threat” terror attack?

Several governments have issued advisories around this topic, however the advice is not always the same. The United States government advice revolves around “Run, Hide, Fight“, and urges those caught in an attack to act in that order. The United Kingdom’s government advice is “Run, Hide, Tell“, and is similar to other EU government advice, such as France’s “Run, Hide, Alert strategy. Here, we will break down this advice along with some of our own:

Run

It can be tempting to investigate further when hearing a disturbance. Gunfire may sound like fireworks, and panic can often sound like celebration from a distance. In previous terror attacks, several of those injured reported having stopped to film the incident with their phones, having misjudged their distance from the attack. It is therefore extremely important that on hearing an attack break out, you move quickly to safety. While it may be tempting to wait to confirm that an attack really is taking place, this confirmation will often come too late. It can also be tempting for some people to try to help, however by approaching the attack you are likely to be compounding the problem. The best thing to do is to run for safety, and encourage others to do the same.

Several things are important to keep in mind when running to safety. Firstly, any police responders are unlikely to have identified the attackers at this stage. This makes it extremely important to indentify yourself to the police as a civilian, and not a threat. Keep your hands open and above your head when approaching police during an attack, and if you are wearing a hood or anything that covers your face, you should remove it. If you are carrying anything that could be misidentified as a weapon such as a handbag or camera, leave it behind. You should also be mindful that the security forces have an important situation to deal with; avoid obstructing them as much as possible. It is critically important that you avoid inadvertently revealing police movements through posts, photos or videos on social media; terrorist groups have been known to monitor networks during attacks in order to outmaneuver the police.

Where you run to should also be an important consideration. It is always advisable to take a quick note of the nearest two exits to any location (for fire safety purposes too). You should be aware that attackers may be attempting to herd people into a secondary attack, such as a bomb or second gunman. With this in mind, if possible try to find an escape route away from crowds and be wary of choke points such as narrow entrances. You should also consider how visible you will be while running; will you be in greater danger by trying to run? If you are shot at, running crouched over and in a zig-zag pattern will make you a harder target.

If running is not an option:

Hide

Seek shelter and keep quiet. Try to blockade your place of hiding by locking doors or creating furniture barricades with furniture and other items. Attackers may try to shoot through doors, so keep out of sight and try to place a solid object such as a thick wall between you and the attackers. Bullets can pass through wood, glass and even bricks and metal, so choose your position carefully. Silence your cell phone, as family and friends will likely call you to confirm your safety. Remain hidden until you are absolutely sure that the situation has been resolved or you see a clear chance to escape, and don’t be tempted to “peek out” to check the scene: even if things are quiet. If you believe it is safe to do so, consider calling the emergency services and confirming whether your location is now safe.

Upon leaving your hiding place be mindful of the advice relating to approaching the police in the section above, as they may still be clearing the area and will need to confirm that you are a civilian rather than another attacker. Keep your hands up, empty and open, and avoid sudden movements. Before leaving your hiding place, if possible call the emergency services and tell them where you are, how many of you there are, and follow their instructions.

If hiding is not an option:

Fight

This should only be considered as an absolute last resort, for example if you are cornered and have no chance of escape. Attackers may not be expecting resistance, which gives you a chance of defending yourself. In this situation, don’t fight fair: you are facing an armed individual who is attempting to kill unarmed civilians. Throw objects, improvise a weapon, act with overwhelming aggression and attempt to incapacitate the attacker as quickly as possible. If the attacker has a firearm and is in an open space, it is even more dangerous to attempt to reach them. If at any point you get a chance to run, do it. If you manage to take control of the attacker’s weapon, be mindful that police responders may misidentify you as the attacker. Put the weapon in a safe place once the attacker is incapacitated, and drop it immediately if police arrive on the scene. If the attacker appears to be wearing a suicide vest, while it may be fake, treat it as real and retreat to safety as quickly as possible.

Once you are sure that you are safe:

Tell

At this stage, once your personal safety is confirmed, call the emergency services. Although you may think that someone else has already called, this may not be the case. Additionally, emergency services may treat a single call as a hoax, whereas multiple callers reporting the same event will elicit an immediate and serious response. Any intelligence you can provide could help to save lives; what do the attackers look like? What were they wearing? What weapons did they have? How many of them are there? How many civilians are at the scene? How many people were injured? If you are unsure of the answer, make sure you say so.

Phone networks might be cut off as the police attempt to prevent bombs from being detonated by telephone, or simply because too many people are trying to use nearby cell towers. Emergency services may still be reachable, even if your phone is showing no signal and if you have no call credit left. SMS messages may also continue to work in an overwhelmed network, so consider sending a message to someone else with information for them to relay to the emergency services. Many emergency services also provide an SMS option for crisis situations.

While it will be tempting to post to social media or call family members to tell them that you are safe, this should only be done once you are sure that you are safe, and you have alerted the security forces.

Other considerations

Mentally, being caught in a terror attack will likely be the most taxing thing most people could experience. Military survival schools teach the importance of staying positive and calm in a crisis situation, as panic and negative thinking will lead to poor decision-making. Keep reminding yourself that you know what to do, and how to stay safe. Decisiveness is critical, and hesitation can be fatal. Think and react quickly, and if in doubt, Run, Hide, Fight, Tell.


The author of this article is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific in a variety of geopolitical intelligence, travel security and corporate security roles.


Disclaimer

The information provided by How Safe Is My Trip Ltd (England & Wales registered company number 10953024) is intended to help you navigate a dangerous world, but is not intended to replace common sense or entirely remove the risks associated with travelling. Unforeseen circumstances are an inevitability with travel and as a result not everything can be planned for. While we endeavour to provide you with the most accurate and up-to-date information, we live in a rapidly changing world where not all risks can be predicted or mitigated against. By making use of the information provided to you by How Safe Is My Trip Ltd, you acknowledge that any dangers you are exposed to by travelling are faced at your own risk. The information provided by How Safe Is My Trip Ltd should not be considered a recommendation in favour of any particular destination. As an England & Wales registered company, interaction between How Safe Is My Trip Ltd, the general public, and clients will be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the England & Wales and shall be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England & Wales.