Multi-method terrorist attacks – like the attacks in Paris on the night of Friday 13th November 2015 – are becoming more frequent and deadly, while official authorities are struggling to protect their residents, so how can we protect ourselves?
Terrorism is still extremely rare compared to other crimes, but terrorism risk is increasing, and terrorism tends to be more consequential than other crimes, particularly “new terrorism” – defined by religious motivations and networked structures. Moreover, our exposure is widening under the pressures of globalization – more open borders, easier travel, urbanization, more connectivity, and the diffusion of technologies, ideologies, and malicious skills. We are all exposed, so we should not reproach ourselves for thinking of sensible precautions, most of which are applicable in any emergency, not just terrorism.
- Exposure: Chances are that you are not important enough for a terrorist to target you personally, or that you will ever coincide with a terrorist target, but if you still worry about your exposure, then avoid poorly protected, crowded sites with political, economic, or religious significance. New terrorists are seeking to maximize lethality inside the most significant sites, in order to terrorize people where they feel most comfortable. At the same time, the most significant sites tend to be well protected, such as a parliament, financial institution, an international sport game, or a national concert hall. Terrorists adapt by targeting sites of medium value – those that are not as well protected, but still with capacity for hundreds of people, and with some local political or economic significance, such as local judicial buildings, town halls, schools, theaters, or shopping and dining centers. You can minimize your exposure by spending less time in significant sites, just the same as you can minimize your exposure to road traffic accidents by spending less time on the roads.
- Exits: As you enter crowded spaces, identify your exits, particularly the nearest, quickest, widest, non-electrical exit. Identify these exits as you enter, so that you don’t need to search for them during any emergency. Don’t use the elevator or escalator, which tends to be a chokepoint, and may lose electrical power. Use fixed steps. If you have a choice of stairs, use the building’s main staircase, rather than the narrower stairways that are more frequently and conveniently located.
- Practice: If you visit a site repeatedly, practice entering and exiting by the safest route, so that you train yourself to it. If you must flee, don’t get sucked into fleeing the way you came in just because it’s the way you came in, or get sucked in the direction that the crowd is moving – comply with your prior evaluation of the safest exit, unless a threat gets in the way.
- Act decisively: Once you’ve identified a threat, flee immediately, and don’t consider any other action. In other words, don’t think about it, just react; don’t take time to consider what happened. Some people will do nothing – they may be cognitively overloaded. Some people will question what is happening. Some people will panic without completing a single choice. If you’re confident of an emergency, act immediately, stick to your emergency plan, and get out via the best exit as soon as possible. You’re helping everybody else by removing your body from the crowded space, after which you can consider helping others.
- Shield: If you can’t flee, then lay down behind the hardest cover available – ideally reinforced concrete or masonry. Forget everything you’ve seen in the movies. Don’t rely on tables, cars, chipboard/pasteboard walls, appliances, or furniture – except to hide from view or to shield you from falling objects. Don’t err towards metals: most metals in buildings and automobiles are thin sheets of soft aluminum or mild steel, which are easily perforated by bullets and blown into secondary projectiles by blast. Get out of the way of windows, which are easily blown into hundreds of projectiles. Bullet-proof walls are 7-8 inches (15-20 cm) of reinforced masonry or concrete; most load bearing walls in that material are only 6 inches thick; most non-load bearing walls are of thinner, inferior materials. Be aware that even if the material is bullet-proof, bullets can flow through joints in masonry or paneling, bounce around corners, and even bounce backwards with enough energy to kill, while objects overhead can be dislodged by blast, so don’t be complacent about the many directions in which you need protection. Stay prone on the ground: a standing target offers more surface area to projectiles travelling horizontally; blast tends to travel upwards; and collapsing structures can be held up by objects around you.
- Hide: If you can’t find hard cover, at least hide from the attackers’ line of sight. If you find a good hiding place, barricade yourself in, wirelessly communicate with officials if safe to do so, be patient in waiting for official help, and be wary of threats that pretend to be official helpers. Popular culture tends to describe modern multi-method attacks as “simultaneous” or “coordinated” as if they finish in seconds to minutes, but in fact they are consecutive over minutes to hours, as terrorists strike at different responders in the same location or move to different locations. At the Stade de France, the second bomber blew up around 20 minutes after the first; the third bomber blew up nearly 60 minutes after the first; the gunmen in central Paris were still fighting about 200 minutes after the first bomber; accomplices escaped overnight; and some remained at large days later.
- Escape: If, while hiding, you realise an exit, take it as soon as the threats are distracted or reloading. To be discovered or taken hostage by a new terrorist is usually fatal. If you’re confronted by official personnel as they approach to rescue you or to confront the threats, keep your hands open, up, and away from your body. If you can, point out the threats with an open hand and verbally identify the threats. Obey official instructions to get out of the way and exit.
- Separate: Once you’ve exited, follow any official instructions to a safe area, or keep putting distance between you and the threats, or put taller buildings between you and the threats. Don’t just stop in the open. Blast, blown objects, and bullets can travel more than a kilometer (1,000 yards) with enough energy to kill. Be mindful that terrorists sometimes prepare a second attack on the route by which survivors are likely to flee the first attack. Get away from any further chokepoints or confined spaces until you find official help, then calmly describe to the officials what you observed – your accurate observations could save lives. Don’t embellish, assume, exaggerate, conflate, or imagine – inaccurate observations could waste time or misdirect resources.
- Remain safe: Don’t be tempted to leave a safe area in order to see what is happening at the attack site, and don’t go back to help unless you are sure that security personnel have made the site safe and will not mistake you for a threat.
- Fight: If you are confronted with an unavoidable threat without an exit or cover, fight with everything available, and encourage the crowd to overwhelm the attackers – some may die, but eventually the majority must triumph.