SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING: A Laypersons’ Guide to Threat Recognition

Originally posted to LinkedIn, May 25, 2017

In the wake of the latest atrocity to hit our media, the terrible tragedy in Manchester, we are once again in the midst of a sea of talking heads, lamenting in hushed tones, imploring the general public to be more vigilant. Indeed, it seems after ever public attack like this, experts and laypersons alike lament on “what if” someone had pointed out the attacker, “what if” someone had taken them down before they opened fire/detonated their bomb/hijacked that vehicle. In amongst the white noise of tongue-clucking, Facebook display filters, overwhelming grief and anger, and arguments between the left and right; there is a very valid question there – What can the public do to prevent this from happening again, and again, and again?

Clearly our police, military and counter-terrorism forces cannot be everywhere and cannot be watching everyone. Thus the onus of observation falls to the regular security guard and the general public to remain vigilant and report potential threats.

There’s one problem with this. The average person, and even the average security guard, has no idea what they’re actually looking for. Most terrorists are not walking into stadiums wearing balaclavas and tactical vests, waving a black flag. The purpose of this short article is to provide a basic education on threat recognition in a public space. After all, there’s no point telling everyone to SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING if they don’t know what they saw or who to tell.

Signs of a concealed weapon

Even long arms can be concealed.

Most attackers will attempt to keep their weapon hidden until the moment of intended use (unless of course the attack is an overt, military style raid as seen in Paris, 2015.) The need to conceal the weapon and the nervous behaviour associated with carrying it are the two main clues we need to look for. Red flags include:

  • A noticeable weight in the pants or jacket pocket. If the suspect is wearing tight jeans or slacks you may see an outline in the pocket. If they are wearing cargo pockets or a jacket, you may notice a heavy object that sways and moves independently of the rest of the clothing. A loaded pistol, a grenade, a pipe bomb and even a knife all have enough weight to create this effect.
  • Waistband obstructed. Of course, many people prefer to wear their shirts untucked and/or wear jackets, however this can be used to conceal a holstered or tucked weapon. Look out for clothing that appears inconsistent with the climate or event.
  • A constant need to touch and fidget with something in the pocket or waistband. Remember, there’s a good chance our perpetrator is terrified. Unless he is unusually calm, he will feel an instinctive need to feel the weight or texture of the weapon to assure himself it’s still there.
  • An unnatural gait when walking. This can be a sign of either a heavy object in a cargo pocket, or potentially a longer weapon tucked into the pants leg. Even shotguns have been smuggled past security check points in this manner, despite the perpetrator not being able to bend their knee when walking. Pay attention.

Signs of a Suicide Vest, Belt or Backpack

Suicide vest captured by the Israeli Defence Forces (2002)
  • Wearing bulky clothing inconsistent with the setting. As above, be on the lookout for big jackets, oversized hoodies, trenchcoats, raincoats or ponchos.
  • Fidgeting with a pocket. Often this is where the detonator is.
  • Disproportionate build. Do they have skinny legs, skinny neck, skinny face and a bulky torso? Think about what might be concealed under the clothing of someone who has unusual proportions.
  • Moving in such a way that indicates their clothing is heavy or uncomfortable.
  • Are they wearing a backpack in an area that such a bag would be inappropriate? Why would they need a hiking pack for a concert? Are they lurking in the public space before the security check point?
  • A deliberate attempt to obscure their face. Think hat, hoodie, thick glasses, a bushy beard – anything that may temporarily disrupt facial recognition software should the attack be happening in a place with such technology and the suspect is on a watch list.
  • A handler. Shockingly, a lot of people get cold feet about blowing themselves up and committing mass murder. Often a secondary person (who gets to avoid dying) will chaperone the bomber. This person will usually have a remote detonator to ensure the blast is carried out even if the one wearing the vest is apprehended or refuses to go through with the plan. Look for a second person of similar appearance who is keeping a close eye on the suspect, usually from a safe distance.

Signs of an Impending Group Attack

A coordinated or simultaneous attack will normally involve some kind of weapon or explosive, so all of the above indicators are still relevant. However, there are other signs to watch out for as well.

  • If you notice someone who is dressed inappropriately as mentioned above, are there other people in the area dressed in a similar way? Do they appear to be making eye contact or speaking to each other on the phone?
  • Groups of people (generally young males) waiting anxiously for something. Sometimes they are waiting on another member of the group. Sometimes they are waiting for the coordinator to give the command to launch the attack. Or sometimes, as in the Bali bombing of 2002, they are waiting for the first explosion.
  • Is there someone who appears preoccupied with another person across the road, or in a different area of the street. This could be a co-conspirator.
  • Anxious and hushed arguing between the group. Listen for anything that sounds like other members are trying to talk their friend into something. Is someone attempting to walk away but being restrained by their friends?

Psychological indicators

Image result for suicide bomber

Concealed weapons and suicide devices can be difficult to spot visually, especially in a sea of thousands. Thankfully the psychological strain on someone intending to die or commit mass murder in the near future can make them stand out. Consider signs of stress such as:

  • Intense perspiration
  • Constantly licking the lips, indicating dry mouth
  • Fidgeting, bouncing, walking in circles, appearing jittery
  • Avoiding eye contact with any one person or any one object for more than a second
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Rubbing the arms, face or legs (this along with the rocking are primitive self-soothing behaviours that we all exhibit when stressed)
  • Muttering or reciting religious prayers under their breath to steal their resolve

In short, look for someone who appears extremely stressed for no obvious reason.

What to do if you see something?

It is imperative that you notify emergency services immediately and communicate your concerns as calmly as possible. It is preferably to physically speak with a police officer on site that you can take to the location of the suspicious person, but it is most important that the authorities are aware of what you are observing as soon as possible. Do not approach the suspect and do not alarm anyone else in the crowd unless you believe a detonation or attack is imminent. Any panic in the crowd may cause a bomber to detonate prematurely.

Every country has an emergency services number and a national security number. I highly recommend knowing and saving these numbers in your phone in the event that you feel the need to report something.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and hopefully it goes without saying that no one of these indicators makes someone a terrorist. However, if a number of them start to appear at once, it never hurts to raise the question with a more qualified authority.

Remember, your vigilance may save hundreds of lives including your own or your children. Take the responsibility seriously.