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Terrorism, safety and situational awareness

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret)

            When the first aircraft struck the World Trade Center what were your thoughts?  Was terrorism your first thought?  Or, was your first thought more like How could that happen?  The first crash caught most people trying to figure out what human or mechanical error could have caused the crash.  However, a little over 15 minutes later and the instant Flight 175 came into view we knew we were under attack.  As the jet slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center our view changed and the response of police and fire personnel to the WTC and the other incidents changed.

            Our response changed because the additional information of the second aircraft changed our perception regarding the first.  Our perceptions moved closer to the reality because additional information gave meaning and enhanced our comprehension of what we were observing.  By gaining additional information we became aware of the true nature of the situation.

Situational Awareness

            Situational awareness was a term originally used to describe the tactical situation during aerial combat[i].  While the term doesnt go back as far, the idea surfaces in World War I, when pilots first took to the sky in combat.  At first, it was the ability of the pilot to know where he was in relation to the enemy and the other pilots of his flight.  In reality that is only positional awareness.  However, when pilots added their knowledge of aircraft capabilities and known battle tactics with positional awareness they were able interpret, comprehend and anticipate.  Comprehension of observations is the essence of situational awareness.

            Police officers use situational awareness daily.  While it has obvious applications for street tactics it is likely most used in the development of reasonable suspicion (RS) and probable cause (PC). Both RS and PC are an officers interpretation of observations based on their education, training and experience.  Whenever you detain someone, conduct a warrantless search or make an arrest you are practicing situational awareness.  Just as you and I were able to make better arrests as we gained knowledge on the job, we were also safer.  Our safety was enhanced because there is a predictive element to total situational awareness. 

            Situational awareness has three levels perceiving critical factors, understanding those factors and finally understanding what those factors will cause to happen in the near future.  Just as we gained an edge over the common criminal element by education, training and experience, we can gain that edge over terrorists by enhancing our comprehension of what we observe as it relates to terrorism.  We can protect our communities and ourselves by an enhanced situational awareness of terrorism.

Know what terrorism is
            In the first article of this series, Terrorism: Crime or Asymmetrical Warfare, we noted that the the definition of a crime dictates our response.  In that article we further explored the Federal Bureau of Investigations definition of terrorism:

Domestic terrorism refers to activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and, occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States[ii] .

You will increase your situational awareness, or he ability to use your comprehension of the facts to predict short-term future events, by understanding the history and nature of terrorism.

Know your beat

            If you received a radio call of a shooting on the southwest corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Central Avenue you would have some positional awareness, but not much situational awareness.  You would know the best route to get to the call, and probably the best way to approach, but little more.  However, what if you knew the location was an apartment building rife with druggies?  Alternatively, what if you knew the location was a Jewish Daycare Center?  Either set of facts would add to your situational awareness, it would change the way in which you handled your approach and the call.

            Most of the literature for first responders on terrorism emphasizes the need to be aware of the critical infrastructure in your community.   However, how you define critical infrastructure may somewhat limit your situational awareness.  As an example, the Critical Infrastructure and Key Assets: Definition and Identification report to Congress ultimately defined critical infrastructure as:

"The framework of interdependent network and systems comprising  identifiable industries,  institutions (including people and procedures), and distribution capabilities that provide a reliable flow of products and  services essential to the defense and economic security of the United  States, the smoothing function of government at all levels, and society as a  whole[iii].

Based on this definition, bridges, chemical factories and government facilities, etc. are part of the critical infrastructure.  However, given the purpose of terrorism, first responders should be aware of their communitys political, social and cultural infrastructure.  The Jewish Daycare Center probably doesnt fall into the category of critical infrastructure, yet it would be part of your communitys social and cultural infrastructure and in todays world a potential terrorist target.

Know the groups, their goals, their tactics

Since 1996 the State Department has issues an annual report on patterns of global terrorism.  Between 1996 and 2004, the varying reports list well over one hundred different foreign terrorist organizations.  Furthermore, this does not include the large number of domestic terrorist or potential domestic terrorist groups and individuals.  Clearly, it is impossible for the first responder to have an in-depth knowledge about the all the potential threats.  Similarly, in Los Angeles it would be difficult to have an in-depth understanding of every gang[iv]; however, it would be possible to understand enough about gang members in order to increase your situational awareness.  Here, in order to increase our situational awareness, we want to understand some overarching principles about terrorists:

  • For the terrorist, the end justifies the means.  The result is that no matter how bad the act, if the terrorist perceives the act as moving toward their goal, they do not consider the impact of the act on the individual or groups. Their only concern is the impact of the act on their end goal. 

Terrorist Planning Indicators

 1. Possession of extremist or radical literature;
 2. Interest in law enforcement tactics, yet not in law enforcement;
 3. Surveillance of critical infrastructure, or community political, cultural or social infrastructure;
 4. Possession or attempts to obtain surveillance or planning materials, i.e., maps, photographs, blueprints, cameras, surveillance equipment;
5. Possession or attempts to obtain materials for improvised explosive devices i.e., chemicals, timers, wires or other components;
6. Possession (or the attempt to obtain fraudulently) identification documents;
 7. The rental, or attempt to rent, storage units or a living space for a large group of people;
8. Economical and non-descript lifestyle;
9. The abandonment of typical cultural identifiers such as facial hair or clothing;
10. No interest in learning English; and,
11. Relationships with suspicious groups.

Note:  This checklist is by no-means all-inclusive.  It should be viewed as a place from which to start your discussion about terrorist planning.

  • The planning and execution of most terrorist acts seems to indicate that first responders are dealing with criminals that have an above average intelligence and are tactically astute. Research indicates that many terrorist leaders come from middle class families and are relatively well-educated. 
  • The point of terrorism is always publicity for the cause, through terror.  Think of it this way in war, the point of a mine field is to slow or stop enemy progression; with terrorism, the point of an improvised explosive device along a highway is to gain publicity for the cause.
  • The target and the victim need not be the same.  On September 11th, the victims who were killed or injured were not the targets.  The United States government was the target.   This concept reinforces the idea that for every terrorist the end justifies the means. 

Know current intelligence

            The current national system for a terrorist alert is almost to general to be of much use to the average first responder.  There have been, however, instances when the Department of Homeland Security has issued alerts that were specific enough to be useful.  An alert that says that financial institutions in a specific region should be in a higher state of preparedness is specific enough for the first responder to take action.  Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security not only issues alerts, but general recommendations for action based on those alerts.  Every first responder should have a good grasp of how a heightened alert impacts their assignment.

One of the most common  deliver methods of explosives is through the use of a vehicle.  Some  of the indicators may be:

         Vehicles that have a strong chemical smell, or the scent of something burning coming from them;

         Signs of recent body work, especially of poor quality, or with patches welded to the cab or body of the truck;

         Extra fuel tanks or extra antennas, or recent signs of a reinforced suspension;

         Inappropriate license plates or misspelled artwork or badly executed stencil painting;

         Heavily tinted windows, particularly if used in an unusual manner (for example, if the front screen of a delivery truck is tinted); and,

         Signs that the vehicle is heavily over-loaded on its suspension.

            One of the problems with American law enforcement is that we tend to stove-pipe critical communications.  That is, we send information up and down a specific chain of command, often failing a timely dissemination of the information to where it is most needed.  You can work to short-circuit this by developing your own sources of information.  Whether you subscribe to the Department of Defense email briefings, the State Department email advisories or any one of the great public sources of Open Source Intelligence, you should find a source of information that you continually and regularly consult for intelligence on the latest trends in terrorism.

            Total situational awareness is gained through increased comprehension of what we observe. It results in a greater ability to make short-term predictions about what is going to happen and therefore make decisions regarding our response.  Comprehension is gained through education, training and experience.  If you attain total situational awareness you will be better able to prevent, respond and apprehend.

About the Author

More information about Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.) can be found here: Police Consultant




[i] Endsley, M.R. and Garland, D.J. (2000). Situational Awareness Analysis and Measurement. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates retrieved on July 1, 2006 from http://www.satechnologies.com/Papers/pdf/SATheorychapter.pdf

[ii] Terrorism in the Unites States (1999) Counterterrorism Threat Assessment and Warning Unit

Counterterrorism Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation.

[iii] Moteff, J. and Parfomak, P. (2004). Critical Infrastructure and Key Assets: Definition and identification. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved on July 7, 2006 from http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/RL32631.pdf

[iv] The Los Angeles Police Department website states, There are more than 250 active gangs in the City of Los Angeles. Many of these gangs have been in existence for over 50 years. Sadly, these gangs have a combined membership of over 26,000 individuals (retrieved on July 10, 2006 from http://www.lapdonline.org/get_informed/content_basic_view/1396).  Quite frankly, if the different sets, subsets and newly emerging gangs are including, this is probably a low number of the total number of distinct sub-units of gangs.

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