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You can feel the energy and excitement in a crowd of revelers at festivals, parades and other large outdoor public gatherings. Whether it’s a day of sightseeing around popular landmarks or an evening of shared pride and patriotism at a fireworks display, being caught up in a crowd can be part of the fun. But in a flash, that energy and excitement can turn to horror punctuated by the sounds of screams, screeching tires, and the roaring engine of a car or truck used as a powerful weapon by a fanatic in a vehicular terrorist attack.
It is critical to your safety and survival to understand this emerging threat and have an action plan in mind. You can deprive the attacker of the element of surprise by keeping a high level of situational awareness and knowing what you will do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Read on for a roadmap to help you survive a vehicular terrorist attack.
At holiday celebrations in France and Germany, on an ordinary day at Ohio State University, and most recently in London, violent extremists have used cars and trucks to plow into unsuspecting crowds in this low-tech form of terrorism. In some instances, the attackers have followed the ramming attack with knives or firearms to inflict more carnage. These individuals see crowds as target rich environments and an opportunity to conduct a terror attack on the cheap. While this tactic dates back to the early 1970s, vehicular terrorist attacks are now viewed by some as the poor man’s weapon of mass destruction, and they are on the rise.
Propaganda and training materials from violent extremist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda provide inspiration and instructions for violent extremists to target public gatherings for vehicular assaults. One such publication featured a glossy, full-page photograph of a Ford F-350 pickup under a banner headline calling the truck “the ultimate mowing machine.”
Above: An article in a 2010 issue of a prominent terrorist propaganda publication encouraged the use of vehicles to attack crowds.
This sort of attack is very difficult to detect or deter. The skill level necessary to execute a successful vehicle attack is extremely low compared to operations using firearms and/or explosives. Accessing a vehicle does not raise the same red flags as attempting to acquire illegal firearms or bomb-building materials.
People are now more aware of the risks and the basic action steps to survive an active shooter incident, but far fewer know what they would do to protect themselves and their loved ones during a vehicular terrorist attack. Like active shooter incidents, most vehicular attacks are over in minutes. Your survival will depend on how quickly you can move from shock, denial and indecision to effective life-saving actions.
Going to a large gathering alone or with a group, your best defense rests on four pillars of survival:
Attackers start their planning long before the attack; your survival plan must also begin well before the day of the event.
Bad guys do their homework, and you must, too. Prior to the event, try to identify:
Good situational awareness involves identifying both risks and resources. Risks are those things that may hurt us; resources are the people, places and things that might help us if the going gets tough. We don’t do our best thinking during moments of terror, so having a plan and engaging in mental rehearsal of your response can make a big difference if things go wrong.
Before attending large public gatherings, consider:
Communication with your loved ones may be difficult in the immediate wake of an attack. It helps to have critical contact numbers in writing and tucked away in a wallet or pocket. You may not be able to recall these numbers under extreme stress, or if your phone is lost or damaged in the melee. Separation from loved ones is the greatest source of anxiety during a crisis, so develop a backup communications plan.
Pre-determine reunification spots by envisioning the direction you think most people will run to flee an attack, then establish your primary and secondary reunification points slightly outside of those high-volume routes. In the chaos, it may be impossible to hear each other calling out loud or by phone, so consider alternative means of signaling your location. A small, powerful flashlight can be seen in broad daylight. These lights, especially those with a strobe feature, are excellent tools for visually communicating your location if you are unable to do so by other means.
Bystander intervention can make a critical difference, but before providing care for others, make sure that it is safe to do so. In the initial post-attack environment, it is likely that:
While the action steps recommended during the event are intended to stop the killing, the steps recommended in the immediate aftermath of a vehicular attack are meant to stop the dying.
No matter how quickly professional emergency responders arrive, bystanders will always be first on the scene. The uninjured can initiate critical bleeding control and save lives by acting quickly and decisively. Check out the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “Stop the Bleed” campaign to learn more about this topic.
The same dynamics that make large public events fun and exciting also make them attractive targets for terrorists. Being aware of the risks, engaging in pre-event planning and preparedness, and knowing how to respond during and immediately following a vehicular terrorist attack can make participating in large public gatherings safer for you and your loved ones. Stay sharp, have fun, and let's not let the bad guys drive a wedge of fear any further into our lives than necessary.
Steve Crimando, MA, BCETS, CHS-V, is the founder and principal of Behavioral Science Applications, and an internationally-known expert in human factors in homeland security, violence prevention, and urban survival. He specializes in unconventional threats such as crowd violence, biological and radiological terrorism. With nearly 30 years of front-line experience, he was a responder to both the 1993 and 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. He coordinated on-site psychological operations at New Jersey’s Anthrax Screening Center, and has worked alongside authorities during many international kidnapping cases and other acts of terrorism.