Getting Oriented Post-Attack

Not every attack is going to be prevented.  While the ultimate goal of the Journal and our training is for every citizen to become a trained observer, and for everyday people to become aware enough of their surroundings to take preventative action, this will not happen overnight. As the number of people aware of those around them increases, the opportunity still exists for terrorists to conduct attacks.  However, when those attacks do occur, trained observers can use the same principles and behavioral cues that we use to get left of bang to quickly orient on those responsible for a crime after the fact.  Regardless of where we are on the attack timeline (left or right of bang,) using the domains of observable behavior will allow us to quickly identify who stands out.  April’s terrorist attack in Boston shows just how important the concept of assessing behavior post-attack is, as law enforcement officers need to be able to quickly regain the initiative after an attack and focus their investigative attention on those responsible.

Following the attack at the Boston Marathon, officers were able to isolate the bombers from the crowd they hid amongst so quickly by establishing the baseline behavior in the video footage and recognizing that the bombers were anomalies. According to a 60 Minutes report, in the chaos that ensued immediately following the two explosions, an FBI agent noticed that suspect number two’s behavior was in stark contrast to everyone around him.  As you might expect, the explosion surprised, shocked, scared, disoriented, and caused a sense of fear in the people around the explosion.  For the area and the crowd at the finish line, this immediately became the new baseline. The crowd was forced to scramble as each person had to go through the OODA loop cycle and figure out what happened, what areas to avoid, which direction to head, where their family and friends were, and how to get away. This new baseline is what caused suspect number two to stand out, as his behavior did not show any of that surprise, fear, panic or disorientation. He was simply going from one phase of the attack to another.  He was moving along a pre-determined egress route and, because he had known the explosions were coming, he didn’t have the same emotional response as the rest of the crowd.

What makes this observation so impressive is that the FBI agent recognized an anomaly below the baseline – something that should have been there but wasn’t.  Identifying the absence of fear (or any emotion or behavior) is typically a harder observation to make than it is to identify an anomaly above the baseline.  It is easier to confidently recognize behavior that is above the baseline, because the additional presence of something, such as excessive dominance or excessive discomfort, is tangible and quantifiable.  On the other hand, recognizing when something should be there but isn’t, has the potential to cause observers to doubt themselves, question their judgment, and second-guess their assessments.

In the instance of the Boston attack, the post-attack observations and baseline are grounded in what we refer to as the collective assessment of the crowd – the Atmospherics of the area.  Atmospherics reveal how people perceive their own safety.  Following a terrorist attack, the lack of security would convey a negative Atmosphere.  The collective mood following an attack is likely to be fairly standard from situation to situation, as unknowing bystanders in Afghanistan would likely react similarly to an IED detonation as the people at the Boston marathon did to the explosions near the finish line. The intensity of the reaction might vary, as the likelihood and previous exposure to explosions is higher in Afghanistan that it is in Boston, but the sense of fear and the immediate emotional response would be common.

Keeping It In Context

The observation that the bombers did not react the way we would expect innocent bystanders to after an explosion needs to be considered within the context of the situation.  To do this, we need to consider the bomber’s behavior preceding the attack.  The eyewitness testimony and photos of the two bombers indicate that the bombers were likely very calm as they approached their target and dropped their bombs.  There are two potential causes for this level of comfort.  The first is that these two are true psychopaths and were incapable of recognizing that what they doing was wrong. The other potential (and more probable) option is that these two planned and rehearsed the attack so well that nothing caused them to become uncomfortable during the attack.  If they were confident enough in their plan, that the bombs were sufficiently concealed and that there wouldn’t be any police checkpoints to disrupt their plans, they in fact could have been completely comfortable without any external stressors. While this apparent comfort comes from familiarity with their surroundings and their plan, it also caused suspect number two to be identified because he was unaffected by the explosion, causing him to stand out from the baseline.

Other Potential Scenarios

The way that we are identifying the two terrorists in the case of the Boston attack will not be the way that all terrorists will behave as no two attacks are exactly the same.   Because of this, we should consider other observations that could be made right of bang in order to facilitate the speed at which you can orient on the criminals responsible after an attack. One scenario might include terrorists who did not plan out the attack as thoroughly as the terrorists did in Boston.  If they failed to establish and rehearse their escape route, you might expect them to give off the same uncomfortable cues as the other bystanders because they are now at risk of getting caught.  In this situation though, due to the perceived threat of getting captured, they may continuously “check their six” to see if they were being followed.  These terrorists would be in contrast to the innocent civilians who would likely keep their attention to the direct front as they look to get to safety.  If this were the case, though, I would expect that attacker to stand out from the baseline before the attack and to display uncomfortable cues as they would recognize the limitations of their current plan.

Another potential scenario might include a bomber who is unsure of what affect the bomb detonation will have on people.  Whereas the expected reaction would be for people to focus their attention away from the blast so they could escape, an inexperienced bomber might continue to keep his interest focused on the blast and the first responders.  These cues from the Interested vs. Uninterested cluster would help focus first responder attention on the anomaly for this reason.  These are considerations that military and law enforcement officers could discuss to train their responders on what to look for.

Regaining The Initiative

By identifying the anomaly below the baseline and finding the person who was missing the elements of surprise, fear and panic, the FBI was able to release the terrorists’ photos to the public and regain the upper hand by forcing the criminals into a reactive mode.  Whether your battlefield is on the streets of any city here in America or in a combat zone overseas, analyzing the baseline behavior for the crowd following an attack can allow you to orient on the criminal very quickly and take back the initiative.  While the environments that our military deploy to are not likely to produce the same amount of video coverage used in Boston, squads and platoons can be trained to search for anomalous behavior during their response and immediate action drills.  As the first priority is to establish security on the scene of IED strike, training to the Marines and Soldiers to assess the comfort and interest of the bystanders can help to rapidly identify any potential follow on threats.

For investigators here in America, the Boston attack was perhaps the first time that crime scene footage was crowd-sourced so extensively. With the abundance of social media and quick and easy transferring of information and media, it certainly won’t be the last.  As this will likely become more commonplace, becoming efficient at classifying the behavior of those in the footage will allow for a timely response during attacks.  How quickly we can orient on the criminal following an attack could very well be the difference between success or failure in catching him, the difference between that person escaping or getting caught, the difference between a single attack or multiple follow-on attacks, and the difference between few or many people hurt of killed.

This Article Has Become Part Of An E-Book, You Can Download It Here