“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” — Sun Tzu

This ancient quote from The Art of War reminds us that if you know the enemy, and are aware of your own abilities, you’ll never be in fear of the dangerous situations you may encounter. However, part of the problem with knowing your enemy is identifying who the enemy might be. Day after day, one could go through life with the proper training, mindset, and tools to protect oneself, but distinguishing a wolf in sheep’s clothing from an innocent bystander can be a challenging task for the untrained eye. That’s why threat identification is an essential skill.

The Principles of Observation

Human nature has always been, and continues to be, exceptionally difficult to decode. Trying to predict a random stranger’s actions is nearly impossible upon first sight. To add to the difficulty, the philosophical debate of whether humans are inherently good or evil is still raging to this day. Regardless of what side of that argument you’re on, one thing is undeniable; bad guys exist in plain sight everywhere.

The Gray Man crowd

There’s no class, piece of gear, or handbook that can teach someone to become an expert at predicting a person’s next move. The best way to improve at threat identification is to expose oneself to different locations and settings, and observe what people do. Identify those who might look unsavory. Why did you pick that person? What were they doing that made them stand out? If you don’t know the answer right away, continued observation of that particular mark will reveal more about what they’re doing, or why a particular action stands out to you.

As one observes longer, that mark may become nothing more than a passerby who was lost or confused. On the flip side, the threat level may also escalate and trigger you to start making decisions to leave the area or take another course of action. All of these factors are important in assessing your vulnerability to danger. As said before, real-world practice is essential to threat identification training, but these five tips can hammer home the fundamentals of what to look for to initiate the threat identification process.

1. Watch for Countersurveillance

Countersurveillance that is, actively attempting to avoid observation — is important to perpetrators because it acts as an investment for the attack they plan on carrying out. Someone who partakes in countersurveillance will often have some sort of skill allowing them to identify and possibly avoid surveillance measures that would otherwise impede their plan. Lucky for you, this is not always the case.

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In order to identify someone running countersurveillance, you have to capitalize on their mistakes. Observe their actions, and catch the individual slipping up and revealing their true intentions. Someone who is constantly looking up towards the corners of buildings or above doorways may be looking for cameras, perimeter lights, or motion detection devices. One who checks doors by leaning casually on handles to see if they’re unlocked, or overtly asks odd questions about security and business processes could be quietly running a countersurveillance operation. The overly-inquisitive person may simply be curious, but repetitive actions should certainly raise both suspicion and your personal threat level.

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2. Identify Clothing and Wearables

As simple as it may seem, clothing can tell you a lot about a person, and how much of a threat they could be. Simple identifiers, such as raggedy, worn out, dirty clothing may easily suggest that the scruffy guy approaching you in a back alleyway is homeless. Statistically, a homeless individual may be more likely to commit crimes of desperation, so this should be an easy threat identification flag for anyone, as long as you can prioritize your safety over your sense of compassion.

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It's the more technical aspects of observation that allow you to quickly ID someone who may be up to no good, rather than trigger other senses like compassion, or plain curiosity. Someone acting suspicious while wearing the stereotypical hat and sunglasses may seem a bit odd, but this tactic actually has a pretty good chance of thwarting any surveillance cameras and facial recognition from identifying them by appearance alone. This sentiment also goes for the lone repairman or maintenance worker. They may seem normal at first glance — they have an excuse to be in a secure area, and they can get around with ease due to their job function. But if it appears they’re toting unused tools, wearing clean shoes, and donning a freshly-pressed uniform, something may be off.

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As many would guess, large, heavy clothing in late spring or summer could signify someone who is trying to conceal something, such as a weapon or goods that they have lifted off of unknowing victims. But what about the tougher observations? Very light clothing, such as only a t-shirt in the winter, should raise just as much suspicion as baggy clothing in the summer. Factor in why a person would approach you while not wearing a jacket in the winter. They may seem in distress, and that will get them within feet of you. Maybe they just told you they were robbed and need your phone to contact police? Just like pulling over to help a motorist on the side of the road, it’s tough to separate the desire to be a good Samaritan from the risk of being taken advantage of. So, make sure to use caution when identifying someone based on clothing, but also use common sense.

3. Spot Visual Cues of Anxiety

Most people would argue that nervousness is the tell-tale sign of suspicious activity. Contrary to the popular belief, anxiety itself isn’t the warning sign — it produces the warning signs. A nervous individual will often display some visual “tells” that something may be up, but anxiety is the root cause of the sweating, shaking, and skin tone change associated with an individual that is about commit an act of aggression. Rubbing fingers together rapidly, clenching a fist, tightening of the jaw, and pacing will also give that individual away almost instantly, just in time for you to formulate a plan of action.

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Aside from acts of aggression, thieves and petty criminals will appear extremely anxious if they aren’t experienced in the act of stealing. Look for that person to furtively glance around with spurts of paranoia, sit and put their head in between their legs, and tap their feet vigorously before they decide to either flee or go for the steal. A seasoned thief won’t think twice when shoplifting or snatching a purse, but they may very well display one of our other 4 threat identification behaviors, so pay close attention to your surroundings.

4. Look for Atypical Activity

Another key starting point that can escalate depending on location is the observation of atypical activity. These behaviors will appear unusual, regardless of your location. Avoiding eye contact at all costs in a crowd of people can be classified as atypical activity, due to the effort involved in milling around without as much as a look, nod, or smile to passersby. An abnormally chatty or outgoing individual can also be a red flag, depending on the setting.

Surveillance security observation grey man backpack 3

Another atypical activity that we have had the unfortunate chance to observe was the method that the Tsarnaev brothers used to bomb the Boston Marathon in April of 2013. Even though there were plenty of people at the marathon wearing backpacks, the brothers set their concealed bombs down and nonchalantly walked away. No one noticed this as strange, even though it would be highly unlikely for someone to abandon their bag in a large crowd at the marathon. They assumed correctly that everyone was watching the marathon, thus distracting them from the atypical activity of dumping large backpacks on the sidewalk.

Lastly, observe the individual who seems to try hard to stay unseen. Ducking behind visual obstacles can seem easy, but someone who has perfected staying out of the way should escalate your threat level immediately. Standing near a blind corner of a building or hallway, behind a pillar in a low-traffic area, or even actively avoiding areas with windows inside of an office building can be initial signs of someone being up to no good.

5. Notice the “Frequent Flyer”

One of the easiest possible threats to observe is someone who seems to be making rounds in a particular area. Not to be confused with countersurveillance, someone who classifies as a frequent flyer doesn’t typically care who is watching, but rather who they are going to harm, and when they plan to strike. This individual will leave an area after a period of observation and return on a schedule to check up on their target.

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This method of threat identification is more ambiguous than the others in that the schedule of the individual can vary from minutes to hours. The frequent flyer is usually a thief, pickpocket, or petty criminal who is out for a quick score, not thinking of the repercussions that could be avoided by using countersurveillance. Quickly taking stock of the area of mischief, the individual will identify the target or item they desire, make sure they are able to succeed, and go all-in. This person may also follow a target after observation, depending on the level of success they believe they may have. This is why it’s important to be able to spot the threat quickly.

The best way to avoid being the target of a frequent flyer is to identify their repetitive behavior and get out of the way before things get dangerous.


Practicing these tips can be as easy as going to the local shopping mall and engaging in people-watching. There are potential threats everywhere, even if we’d prefer to remain blissfully ignorant. An unsavory individual who commits small thefts is still a threat, although you may not be the intended target.

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Applying these principles can be a bit harder. Hopefully, you won’t find yourself in a situation where you’ll need to escalate the threat level enough to take any sort of action, but the reason to practice threat identification is to be able to bail out before the strike. By keeping these five tips in mind, you can keep yourself and your family safe, and also protect those around you from falling victim to the dangers you observe.

About the Author

Jim Henry is a physical security and surveillance expert who has spent all of his adult life working to keep people out of places they shouldn’t be, and locating individuals who need to be found. Prior to his current employment in the private sector, where he works as a government contractor, Henry was a Surveillance Investigator for The Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, PA. He also worked in Erie, PA in a similar role. Before that, Henry was busy building a diverse portfolio of education, studying countersurveillance, critical infrastructure protection, and threat detection. Even though most of his current work remains secret, Henry is very vocal about his love for firearms, writing, EDC gear, hiking with his dog, and spending time with his family.

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