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Practical Steps for Preventing Planned Attacks

As I watched news coverage of the murders of Kaufman County, Texas District Attorney Mike McLelland, his wife, and assistant district attorney Mark Hasse, I noted the increased security in place at the courthouse and elsewhere. That got me thinking about what it takes to prevent attacks like this, given that nearly any member of the law enforcement community (particularly in Texas and the surrounding regions) could be targeted.

The key to stopping an attack like these killings (or for that matter your typical terrorist attack) is interrupting the attack cycle. There are certain things that have to take place for even a relatively simple attack like gunning down an ADA in front of the courthouse to succeed. Some of the potentially more dramatic attacks in recent years have been halted when the perpetrators attempted to buy weapons and explosives from someone who turned out to be an undercover officer. However, this typically happens with inexperienced individuals (or a small group of two or three) who are dumb enough to start asking people they don’t really know well about where to buy illegal weapons. Members of an organized criminal enterprise or terrorist-esque organization are not inexperienced in such matters, and for that matter probably already have access to the weapons they need.

The best point at which to interrupt the attack cycle is in the surveillance phase. Surveillance is a necessity for any attack, and even though I’m not a betting man, I would be willing to put some money on the likelihood that the attackers watched Hasse at least a couple of times, if not more. After all, the man was shot while walking from the parking lot to the courthouse. That means they more than likely knew what his vehicle looked like, knew where he habitually parked, and had some idea of what time he would arrive. The shooters were reportedly dressed in black tactical gear, so even sitting in a vehicle they ran the risk of drawing attention if they lingered near the courthouse too long (especially with law enforcement personnel no doubt coming and going).

Even in the case of DA McLelland, the killers would have needed to roll through the neighborhood a couple of times to see his house, check out the exterior layout, and determine the best egress routes from the area.

My point is that an effective attack requires surveillance. (The Army loves rehearsals, and as a soldier I cringe at the thought of running a mission involving a specific location without as much information about it as I can get.) Maps, pictures, and even Google Earth won’t cut it. The good news is that the average terrorist—or for that matter the average gang member—isn’t very good at surveillance tradecraft. It’s a skill that requires training and more than anything else extensive practice.

An individual who is not skilled at surveillance is likely to stand out to a reasonably attentive observer (and if you get posted to pull security outside a courthouse or DA’s office, you damned well better be attentive). In fact, the actions of an untrained operative will make them stand out to you subconsciously, giving you that gut feeling that “something just isn’t right.”

Watching a person or a location for long periods of time is not a natural action. For that reason, people feel awkward doing it and react with psychological discomfort. One result is so-called “burn syndrome,” the strong feeling that they have been spotted by their target. Operatives tend to react to this feeling with sudden and attention-grabbing actions like abruptly turning away, covering their face, ducking behind something, and so forth if they meet or make eye contact with their target or someone securing the location (like you).

The trick to good surveillance is having a credible demeanor—that is, looking like you belong where you are, doing what you’re doing. There should be nothing that makes the operative stand out. This is a two-pronged issue: having cover for action and cover for status. Cover for status means the operative’s overall appearance is believable and appropriate for the setting. (Someone in shorts and a T-shirt will look normal at the park or the beach. Sitting in the lobby of a high-rise office tower downtown, they will look a little odd.) Cover for action means that what they’re doing is believable and, more importantly, explains why they are remaining in one place for an extended period of time.

This can be a real challenge for the operative. A guy who sits at a bus stop and lets six or seven buses pass by without ever getting on one will start to make you wonder (if you’re paying attention). Pretty much anyone who just hangs out across the street without ever meeting anyone or doing much of anything will also start to look out of place.

Most of this supposes surveillance of a fixed site. However, the Texas (and Colorado) attacks have targeted individuals, not locations. Individuals are harder to protect, even setting aside the fact that few jurisdictions have the resources to provide the number of protective details that would be needed. As various attacks overseas have demonstrated, the best place to get an individual is at some point along their daily route. Most of us tend to go the same way to and from work and other habitual destinations, but even if you vary your route, there are going to be certain places you always have to pass. Those become chokepoints and great locations for an attack.

My point in discussing all of this is that if you’re assigned to protect a location or a person, you might tend to look for someone about to drive up and start shooting. While you should certainly do so, your chances of detecting an attack during the surveillance phase are good if your situational awareness is up to par. Think like a terrorist or a criminal; consider what they know and what they need to know. Then consider how they might acquire information that is critical to their plans. Knowing those things will put you a step ahead of the bad guys.

About Daniel S.

Daniel is a 15-year veteran of infantry units of the Louisiana Army National Guard. He has deployed to Iraq twice (2004-05 and 2010) and currently serves as first sergeant of Troop C, 2nd Squadron, 108th Cavalry, 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Daniel currently competes in combat shooting matches for both rifle and pistol with the National Guard.

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